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Jan-21-2013 04:21printcommentsVideo

Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Why Are They Fighting Again in Burma?

An old story about human nature and a cycle that must be broken if this part of Asia is to ever exist in peace.

Kachin rebel
From the Pulitzer Center report: The Kachin: Inside Burma's Hidden War

(SACRAMENTO, CA) - KIA... it is an ironic reference for a resistance front fighting the sophisticated, deadly army of the Myanmar government. As fighting renews, it seems important to review the details about the struggle in Burma between government forces, and the Kachin Independence Army. Violence erupted again in 2011 after a long standing cease fire, and now the Kachin rebels are under siege by aerial attack.

Kachin Independence Army flag

The final attack against the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka happened when that government violated a cease fire that was keeping people alive. That ended in a Genocide of 160,000 Tamil Sri Lankans, killed by their own country. Governments place segments of populations in political situations they can not tolerate and it leads to violent resistance and disaster.

It is an old story about human nature and a cycle that must be broken if this part of Asia is to ever exist in peace. The Kachin Independence Army battled Burma's military junta that dominated the country with an iron fist for decades. We know the junta was horrific; the government was considered a pariah state. The desires of the Kachin resistance seem reasonable, and they are multifold.

Since the U.S. condemned the government the KIA was born to fight, it seems reasonable to examine their perspective with fairness. The key component in the reemergence of violence is resistance to a dam project that will leave six villages underwater[1].

As we have discussed in past articles, Burma has remained closed for the modern age of business and resource development. It is a virgin to the calculating corporations that want to sink their teeth into a place that political leaders, with Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi at the front of the line, are ready to exploit for profit, rather than protect.

In August 2011, National Geographic published a haunting and revealing article, 'Land of Shadows' - that explains the significance of the project with regard to the history of Burma itself:

    Deep in the hills of northeastern Myanmar a young woman in a bamboo hat walks along a riverbank toward a sacred place: the convergence of two rivers that gives birth to the Ayeyarwady (known to the outside world as the Irrawaddy), the lifeblood of the nation. This spot is revered by Burmese of all faiths. But it is woven into the very identity of the ethnic Kachin minority, whose ancestors settled in this area centuries ago. At her wedding the Kachin woman and her husband (who asked not to be named) promised to emulate the union of the Mali and Nmai Rivers. Her family still comes to the confluence to make offerings on the first morning of each new year. "It's in our blood," she says.

Burmese Police Patrol by Chien-Chi Chang - National Geographic

    All this will soon be gone. Around the Ayeyarwady's next bend Chinese workers are laying the groundwork for a 500-foot-tall hydroelectric dam, the first—and biggest—of seven dams slated to be built. Part of a joint venture between China Power Investment (CPI) and Myanmar's regime-friendly Asia World, the Myitsone Dam is expected to have a generating capacity of 6,000 megawatts of electricity, more than the country as a whole now produces. By the time the dam is finished in 2019, it will flood an area larger than New York City, wiping out dozens of villages, including Tang Hpre, where the Kachin woman lives. From the riverbank she points to a white sign on a nearby hill. "The water will rise that high. Can you imagine living under that threat?"

    Anger about the dam reverberates far beyond Tang Hpre. "The dam has become a rallying cry for the Kachin people," says Brig. Gen. Gun Maw of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), a rebel group whose 17-year-old cease-fire with the Burmese government began unraveling late last year. Along with soldiers from other ethnic groups, the KIA has resisted the regime's demand that it re-form itself into a border-defense force under Burmese military command. The dam controversy only fuels the rising tension[2].

Kachin Resistance

2012 photo of KIA Courtesy:

The struggle began in 1961 when tribal regions were to be consolidated in the wake of a military coup d'état in Burma led by General Ne Win. The goal was Burmese control over regions on the periphery of the state which were home to various ethnic groups.

A bloody war raged for the next 33 years, until 1994. It was not a conclusive war. The goal changed over time, from being a war for independence, to one seeking the fulfillment of the official Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) policy goal for autonomy within a federal union of Burma.

The KIA is the military element of a political group known as the Kachin Independence Organization. They are composed of ethnic Kachins who live in northern Burma (Myanmar).

Like the Pashtuns of Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Kachin people historically live in an area not recognized by modern political boundaries or lines. They are a coalition of 6 different tribes whose homeland encompasses territory in Yunnan, China and Northeast India, in addition to Kachin State in Burma.


Their problems are rooted in Burma, whereas the Chinese are more interested in border security than political control. That said, the Chinese may be the beneficiaries of the Myitsone Dam's potential power supply and Chinese workers are hired to build it.

Perhaps the Chinese don't bother militarily with the Kachin because they have been a formidable fighting group that has matured over the years and now has elevated training. Prior to the ceasefire in 1994, the KIA was predominantly a low-tech guerilla force, but peace has provided the breathing room to establish a military academy and design rigorous officer training programs, wrote Time's Joe Jackson on 19 April 2012[3].

One writer who has long studied the issue, Tony Cliff, wrote in Asian Times, "The Kachin are feared by many people for their fighting capabilities. During WWII [World War II], when they fought alongside the British, they were given strong credit for helping to kick the Japanese out. They have this 'we can do, we can stand on our own' mentality." [4]

Seeking Truth

Gen Sumlut Gun Maw of the KIA

On 8 March 2012, Patrick Boehler of The Irrawaddy, talked in depth with Gen Sumlut Gun Maw, the vice-chief of staff of the Kachin Independence Army, about ongoing negotiations with the Burmese government. The General and spokesman for the KIA, said their main intention is to get equal rights and self-determination as agreed upon in the Panglong Agreement signed in 1947.

He stressed there were eight conditions that the KIA wanted in order for real negotiations to take place, "Both parties have to show willingness for political dialogue. Both parties must agree to report news only according to the facts. Neither party should make slanderous accusations of the other"[5].

Presidential Office spokesman, Ye Htut

Interestingly, this week, Myanmar's Presidential Office spokesman, Ye Htut, who represented the Burma junta in peace talks in Kachin State for 13 months in 1993-94, said of that time,

"... the government didn’t put out any press releases because we wanted to avoid saying anything that could be an obstacle when it came time to return to the negotiating table. Later on, the other side started releasing statements, so we had to do the same to present our stance—the Tatmadaw’s stance—whether the Tatmadaw does this itself or not. My own comments [to the media] are in accordance with these statements." [6]

The Tatmadaw are the Myanmar Armed Forces. It remains unclear whether the real story will emerge from a government that was closed to the world for so long and is still largely irresponsible toward its duties as a world nation as it takes on the role of fledgling democracy.

Bloody Track Record

Arakan state, summer 2012

Those who follow or other agencies that cover Burma, know that a series of terrible events beginning last summer destroyed relations between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in Arakan state.

In many cases the government has either turned a blind eye on the genocidal war the Buddhists have carried out, or participated, directly or through an even deadlier weapon, silence.

Aung San Suu Kyi herself failed to represent this battered minority burned out of their villages and raped and murdered; forced to flee in boats that are in turn rejected on the neighboring shoreline of Bangladesh. Burma's new leap toward "democracy" and friendlier U.S. relations have been beneficial for that government, but not for the minority populations.

The Kachin struggle was launched against a brutal military junta that only recently changed, or allegedly changed. It is ridiculous to assume that free spirited people would ever want to partake in a ruthless government that fails to observe even the most minimal level of human rights.

Knowing what I do about this government's reluctance or sometimes refusal, to aid its own citizens in a time of bitter need, leaves no reason to believe that their latest attacks against the Kachin are justified, particularly when it comes to international law.

The Guardian, which released the video to the left, wrote:

"NGO video footage purports to show Burmese fighter jets targeting rebels in the northern state of Kachin, after reports of shelling and the use of chemical weapons in the last week. The Kachin Independence Army says the attacks are intended to clear the way for an assault on its headquarters in Laisa, but while the government acknowledges attacking the rebels from the air, is says it did so in self-defence"[7].

Both the United States and United Nations have issued statements in recent days calling for an end to aerial attacks on Kachin people that the government claims it is defending itself against.

    The United States said it was “deeply troubled” and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon took “serious note” of the government army’s use of air power against Kachin rebels—attacks that have now been confirmed by government officials.

    "We are troubled by the use of air power," US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters on Wednesday, adding that the United States would formally express its concern with the Burmese government[8].

Ye Htut said in regard to the air attacks, "It’s not the first time we used airstrikes. It was based on military necessity. It is something we do depending on the fighting situation".

Some people in Laiza are believed to be suffering from trauma as a result of the artillery attacks and airstrikes. The Irrawaddy asked the Presidential spokesman if that creates more ethnic hatred.

Flags of Kachin Independence Army

He replied, "If you want to talk about trauma, we can tell you that the air attacks are not aimed at civilians. When we shoot, we are not shooting towards Laiza, but behind Laiza. The planes just fly over Laiza, so there is less impact on the people there".

The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, contradicts that claim with his statement, "The ongoing hostilities have already caused large-scale displacement of civilians who continue to be in need of humanitarian assistance. It is vital that timely access be provided for the delivery of aid to vulnerable communities." Moon is urging all concerned parties to work toward political reconciliation to build the basis for a fair and durable outcome for all.

Ye Htut cause the last possible faith I have to flow into thin air as he issued this statement about how the families of KIA will not be distinguished as civilian. He claims this is consistent with international law, which is a false assertion at best, as his suggestion amounts to something called "Total War" where civilians are murdered along with soldiers. It is why the Geneva Accord was created in the first place.

    "When we talk about refugees, we have to distinguish them from the KIA/KIO members and their families. In whatever kind of conflict, those directly or indirectly taking part in the conflict are prevented from receiving outside support in accordance with international standards."

World leaders need to pay particularly close attention to the aforementioned paragraph to understand who they are dealing with. The KIO aren't even in the military, they are civilian politicians, let alone the children and wives, etc. Demand that the government of President Thein Sein call off all attacks on the Kachin resistance and consider the impact this level of industry poses in an unspoiled place. Withhold funding if this government does not cooperate with international law.

Laiza, Burma


[1] Kachin Independence Army - Wikipedia

[2] Myanmar: Land of Shadows By Brook Larmer Photograph by Chien-Chi Chang - National Geographic

[3] On the Front Lines with the Kachin Independence Army Joe Jackson - Time Magazine

[4] New-generation war in Myanmar Tony Cliff - Asia Times

[5] Exclusive Interview with KIA Vice-Chief of Staff - Patrick Boehler - The Irrawaddy

[6] ‘We’re Not Targeting Civilians’ - irrawaddy

[7] Burma air strike targets Kachin rebels (video) - The Guardian

[8] US, UN Urge Burma to Stop Air Strikes on Kachin Rebels - Lalit K Jha - The Irrawaddy


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