IPCS Discussion:

The Kachin and Rohingya Conflicts in Myanmar

25 Jun, 2013    ·   4011

Nayantara Shaunik reports on the review of the two reports on the Kachin and Rohingya conflicts in Myanmar

Nayantara Shaunik
Nayantara Shaunik
Research Officer

The Kachin Conflict: Review of 'Pushed to the Brink'
by CS Kuppuswamy
Two years since the conflict between the Myanmar Army and the Kachin Independence Army started on 9 June 2011, it does not seem to have reached a cohesive conclusion. The KIA is the only major group that has not entered into a ceasefire agreement with the government in the second round of ceasefire talks. It may be said that it suits the Myanmarese Army to keep this conflict simmering, since it is a golden goose as far as they are concerned.

There has been an escalation in the conflict over a period of time. Doubts on whether President Thein Sein has been able to reign in the army or it is beyond him have festered, since there has been army action on the ground regardless of the ceasefire in 2011. The conflict escalated to the highest degree in December 2012 where, for the first time in this civil war of over 60 years, the government used air power vis-à-vis jet fighters and helicopters. The KIA headquarters at Laiza was almost overrun, until it was stopped in the last moment, thanks to an intervention from the Chinese side as well.

The government officially announced a unilateral ceasefire after this incident on 19 January 2013. However, despite this, there have been several skirmishes that have persisted. China, off late, has taken the initiative of hosting most of the peace talks that have been held between the Myanmar government and the Kachin. These meetings have always been outside the territory of Myanmar, mostly in China and Thailand. For the first time, however, in a positive turn on affairs, the most recent round of talks was held in Myitkyina on 30 May 2013.

Pushed to the Brink is a Report by the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand, which mostly focuses on human trafficking whilst dwelling upon the conditions of the Kachin Internally Displaced People (IDPs). The Myanmarese military’s gross mismanagement of resource revenues from Kachin State over the past few decades, and on-going land confiscations, forced relocations, and human rights abuses have pushed countless Kachin civilians across the Chinese border in search of peace and stability. This Report states that there are about 100,000 villagers who have been displaced from their homes; of this total, around 60,000 remain in Kachin controlled areas and the remaining are in government-controlled areas.

The Refugee Relief Committee, which is a branch of the KIO is looking after the IDPs. Most of the villagers illegally cross over to China to find work. Lack of legal status makes them vulnerable to exploitation by traffickers. The Report gives details of 24 such cases involving young women and girls in June 2011, though the actual number involved is much more. The sale of women and children is a lucrative source of income for traffickers who can make as much as 40,000 Yuan or USD 6,500 per person. The Report has also made some recommendations to the Myanmar government, the Chinese government, as well as international agencies to solve this problem.

The war in Kachin is not just about politics alone. The State is rich in minerals, jade, timber, and gold. Besides, a number of hydro projects are underway in the State which will primarily benefit the Chinese, especially the Myitsone, which the Chinese hope to revive given that the Myanmar government termed it a suspended project and not a scrapped one. The major grouse of the Kachins during this conflict has been that they do not have a fair share in the revenue that the government is getting from the extraction of these natural resources. Ironically, while this is the cost of the on-going conflict, it is also an impediment for an amicable settlement, since the cronies as well as the government are involved in amassing a lot of wealth from these resources.

The Rohingya Conflict: Review of 'All You Can Do Is Pray'
by Rita Manchanda

In April 2013, the International Crisis Group (ICG) awarded President Thein Sein the ‘In Pursuit of Peace’ award. There was a huge backlash in Myanmar over the presenting of this award to the President at a time when Human Rights Watch (HRW) had just released a passionate and well-researched report on the situation of the Rohingya, wherein they had actually indicted state complicity. The ICG, in explaining their rationale behind awarding the prize stated, “this is a cost of democracy in transition”.

There is a need, therefore, to reflect on whether this is really a cost of democracy or if it is really just an insufficient democracy, and what kind of distortions does this, in fact, suggest. It also leads us to analyse other electoral complications involved. Aung San Suu Kyi has consistently remained ambiguous and vague on the Rohingya question, having stated earlier this year that she wants to adopt an ‘even handed approach’, which implies not taking sides with either the Rohingya or the Arakanese.

The Report focuses upon the events witnessed from June-October 2012. The Report is very interestingly compiled, drawing upon the conventional way of conducting interview-based field investigations, whilst also using IT-based research techniques such as satellite information to demonstrate that 4,862 structures, including mosques, homes, and shops around a wide area of about 300-400 acres were destroyed. The HRW Report has a powerful, hard-hitting title. It deliberately uses phrases with intent such as ‘crimes against humanity’, which implies organised systemic and systematic widespread complicity of local and organised authorities. It directly implicates not only the mobs or the Arakanese population for the violence, but also suggests that it was pre-planned by the Buddhist Sangha.

Many of the incidents of violence witnessed in October took place simultaneously across the 13 zones of conflict. Given that this is a very wide area, it seems to suggest that some organised planning went into the process. The Report effectively demonstrates that from June onwards, it is possible to see the sectarian violence as ‘communal riots’. Arguably, the levels of complicity of state and local authorities were already visible; nonetheless, the communal angle could have been argued as the dominant framework at that point in time. The involvement of the Army is maintained as being both direct and indirect. By October, however, the situation was not at all one of riots, but of ethnic cleansing: one community targeting another with the intent to seek forcible displacement.

Soon after the June debacle, President Thein Sein declared in July that the Rohingya were illegal and should be settled in a third country or relocated separately under the UNHCR since they are not Myanmarese citizens at all. During those four months, several associations got together over meetings and demonised the Rohingya. Pejorative statements, rumours, and pamphlets were distributed right under the nose of the State authorities with in fact, even local authorities’ abetment. This was also a period of extreme social and economic boycott. The lack of freedom of movement, restrictive discriminatory practices regarding marriage and livelihoods, and a long history of violence perpetrated against the Rohingya continues to plague any reconciliation process initiated by stakeholders.

At issue remains the fact that the Rohingya are yet to be recognised and accepted as Myanmarese citizens. In November 2012, with US President Obama’s impending visit to Myanmar and growing international pressure, President Thein Sein stated that the Rohingya crisis would be addressed, and serious thought would be given into issuing some sort of identity certification, as well as granting citizenship to Rohingya children. However these were at the behest of the impending visit at the conclusion of which, predictably, these promises were forgotten.

Special Intervention: Perspectives from China
by Jayadeva Ranade
Over the years, China has treated Myanmar as well within its sphere of influence. But since the late 1990s, there were indications that the military junta had started thinking for itself and was becoming independent. At the time, perhaps the Chinese did not take too serious a note of this change. However, the Myitsone Dam incident became a trigger for these concerns to take root.

As far as China is considered, it views the current developments in Myanmar from three perspectives. Firstly, it dents the strategic space that China has carefully built up over time in Myanmar. Second, it threatens China’s source for natural resources, precious stones, and timber. Third, it brings right up to China’s south-western front, a power whom China is very apprehensive about given the much debated dynamic of its ‘containment’: the US.

Even as the US began improving relations with Myanmar in around 2010, the Chinese began viewing Myanmar as a cockpit of competition and possible potential for contention. Steps began to be taken to counter this development. In fact, after and even during the 18th Party Congress, the Chinese leadership began reassessing its so-called ‘neighbourhood policy’ by taking a firmer position with regard to countries in the neighbourhood, including Myanmar. Their position on introducing a policy that would be firmer on issues of sovereignty and territorial integrity became clear.

In this sense, as far as Myanmar is concerned, it comes under the former category. The Chinese moved their ambassador in Nepal, who was doing a good job on all accounts, to Myanmar. Additionally, for the first time in many years, they appointed a retired diplomat who was a former Assistant Minister for Asian Affairs as a Special Envoy to Myanmar, which is usually not the norm. A more hands-on approach has been perceived since February this year when the Chinese actually came out in public over mediating and negotiating the Kachin peace talks between the ethnic rebel group and the Myanmar government. In fact, for the first time, a Director General of the Chinese Foreign Ministry was present at the February talks where the Chinese also guaranteed the security of the various participants. The fact that they guaranteed the security also shows, in a way, the kind of influence that the Chinese State has thus far continued to yield over the Kachin and the Myanmar government. One factor that has not been discussed openly, but figures in their calculations, is that the Myanmarese Army seems to have an upper hand as far as the Kachin are concerned. If they are able to disintegrate the KIA command in particular, the prospects of the KIA undertaking random or rogue commanders for attacks to threaten or destroy Chinese investments run high. This is, in fact, the first time that China has come out so openly in resolving the internal disputes of another country.

The other interesting aspect to the dynamic is the US. Again, since February, there have been voices in the US urging the administration to get more involved in Myanmar, with the Christian evangelist groups in the country also pushing for going into Myanmar in a more aggressive way. China sensed this as potentially quite dangerous to the politics of the region. However, it was the new US Ambassador to Myanmar whose visit to Kachin State became the tipping point as far as the Chinese were concerned for coming in. This was, of course, also to ensure the securitisation of their routes for energy supplies and natural resources. The Chinese, therefore, are quite clearly looking at things from a strategic perspective. This kind of involvement will be increasingly witnessed in the region, as has been in the case of Myanmar.