Kachin leaders are intensifying calls for U.S. involvement in talks between the Myanmar government and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO).
At a meeting with State Department officials in Washington last month, Gen. Gun Maw, the KIO’s chief negotiator and deputy commander-in-chief of its military wing, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), raised the possibility of the U.S. playing a more active role in resolving the decades-old Kachin conflict.
Since the collapse of a 17-year cease-fire
between the Myanmar government and the KIO in June 2011, hostilities have escalated dangerously. Several rounds of talks have taken place
, but a breakthrough remains elusive. The KIO appears to be wagering that U.S. involvement might change that.
While the roots of Myanmar’s multiple ethno-political conflicts can be traced to colonial policies, the post-colonial state, which achieved independence in 1948, privileged the language and religion of the majority Burmese ethnic group, alienating ethnic minorities like the Kachin. Initially, the Kachin tried political means to press their demands, turning to armed struggle only in 1961.
Decades of hostilities have left the military and the Kachin deeply suspicious of each other. Besides differences over power-sharing and resource sharing, Myanmar’s government and the Kachin disagree about what should come first: a cease-fire or a substantive dialogue. The government wants a cease-fire in place first, but the KIO fears that if it agrees to one, the government will have little incentive to tackle the root causes of the conflict. The fear is that under a cease-fire, the government would put Kachin grievances in cold storage as it did during the 1994-2011 cease-fire period.
Apprehensive that it could get short-changed this time too, the KIO is keen to get external guarantors to oversee the talks. This is what’s behind the KIO’s recent plea to the U.S. to be “present at the peace process as a witness.”
As for what prompted the KIO to seek help from the U.S. in particular, besides America’s global stature and growing influence over the Thein Sein government, the Kachin share historical ties with the U.S. going back to the mid- to late-19th century. It was American Baptist missionaries who brought Christianity and English to the Kachin Hills. During World War II, Kachin fighters fought alongside British and American soldiers to repulse the Japanese. And over the past several decades, American Christian groups have highlighted the plight of the Kachin and shaped the world’s perception of this conflict. Now the Kachin hope the U.S. will facilitate a “strong” agreement that will culminate in real peace on the ground.
But the Myanmar government and China are unlikely to share the KIO’s enthusiasm for involving the U.S. in the talks, though President Thein Sein himself may not be opposed to the idea. He has signed separate cease-fire agreements with 14 of 16 relevant ethnic armed groups and is hoping to reach a nationwide peace agreement by the end of the year. The KIO’s reluctance to get on board is thwarting his plans. He could be tempted to draw on U.S. help if it means getting the KIO to ink a cease-fire agreement.
However, such a move could face fierce resistance from the military. Despite Myanmar’s recent opening to the West, there are generals who remain suspicious of U.S. intentions or are opposed to any international third party playing peacemaker. Besides, there are beneficiaries of the conflict economy on both sides who want the hostilities to continue. They, too, will seek to pre-empt a U.S. role in the Kachin conflict.
And then there is China, perhaps the strongest opponent of a U.S. role in the talks. China shares a long border with Kachin state, and an increase in American influence there will be perceived as a threat to its national security and a strategic offensive aimed at undermining Chinese influence in its neighborhood.
So wary is Beijing of a U.S. role in the Kachin conflict that it shifted away from its traditional policy of noninterference in the domestic affairs of another country to actively engage with the parties in the Kachin conflict. Following the U.S. ambassador’s visit to Kachin state in December 2012, as well as the KIO’s February 2013 invitation to the U.S., U.N., China and Britain to join the talks as observers, an alarmed Beijing raised its peacemaking profile. It participated as an observer in the talks and facilitated them by hosting several rounds in the Chinese border town of Ruili. Simultaneously, Beijing acted swiftly to pre-empt U.S. participation even as an observer, objecting to the inclusion of an article on inviting international third parties in the final statement of the Ruili talks in March 2013.
Some will argue that Washington shouldn’t allow China to determine or dictate its role in the Kachin conflict. However, a U.S. role in the talks is unlikely to meet with success if it doesn’t get the support of all the parties to the conflict. The U.S. could get the KIO to ink a cease-fire agreement, and even get the government to commit to political dialogue after that, but a cease-fire cannot survive on the ground if China and the Myanmar military are opposed to it.
Still, the U.S. can play a useful role, but perhaps only as a quiet facilitator, and only so long as it is not seen as “meddling.” Should Washington choose to get involved, it must resist the temptation to upstage, undermine or undercut Beijing’s role in the Kachin peace process. The U.S. will find a complementary, consultative and cooperative approach, rather than one guided by zero-sum logic, to be more productive in dealing with the Kachin conflict.
At present the peace process in Myanmar is an elite dialogue that draws on the expertise of officials and rebel leaders only. The U.S. has an opportunity to make a valuable contribution if it lowers its profile in the elite process and focuses instead on building a bottom-up peace. But first, Washington needs to embrace a broader definition of peace. Silencing guns isn’t enough.
Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist and researcher based in Bangalore, India. She writes on South Asian political and security issues and can be contacted at email@example.com.