When it comes to guerrilla warfare, the Kachin tribesmen of northern Burma (Myanmar) are past masters, and there are growing signs that Burma's Nov. 7 election could result with them reaching for their guns again.
During World War II, US-backed Kachin Rangers terrorized Japanese occupiers and rescued downed Allied pilots. When Burmese independence soured for ethnic minorities, Kachin fighters turned their guns on government troops in these rugged mountains between China and India.
In recent years the Kachin have tried their hand at politics. They signed a ceasefire in 1994 with Burma’s military rulers and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) has been gearing up for Burma's election, the first in 20 years. But now some Kachin are beginning to regret their foray into politics.
Their hopes were dashed when the ruling junta removed pro-KIO politicians from the election ballot after the group refused to merge its armed wing, known as the KIA, with the national army. Now the KIA, which has an estimated 5,000-10,000 men, is busy recruiting and training, and residents are braced for renewed fighting.
“After the election process, we ethnic minorities can be crushed,” warns a Kachin church official. Most Kachin are devout Christians, a legacy of the American missionaries who came during British colonial rule.
Burma’s regime has been accused of committing war crimes against ethnic minorities opposed to its rule. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Thursday in Honolulu that the US supported an international probe into human rights violations in Burma. Britain and Australia, among others, have said they would support a UN commission of inquiry that could pave the way for a trial.
Trouble north, and east
The political tensions in Kachin state are echoed along Burma’s northern and eastern borders, where the military has tried to convert armed ethnic groups into border guards under central government control. Last year, Burmese troops overran an ethnic enclave and sent more than 30,000 refugees across the border with China, causing diplomatic tensions with Beijing, which fears instability on its flank. It has urged all parties to enter peace talks.
Analysts say China’s wrath may be a restraining factor against another all-out Burmese offensive. But Kachin leaders say they don’t see China as an honest broker in their conflict, given its growing appetite for Burma’s natural resources, including hydropower, timber, and gems from Kachin state. A giant dam is being built upriver from Myitkyina to supply power to southern China, displacing thousands of residents.
“The Chinese are opportunists, they play all sides,” says a clan elder and WWII veteran. He declined to be named, as did other community leaders. Most cited the fear of being singled out by military authorities as rebel supporters.
Tensions rose Oct. 18 when soldiers raided a KIA liaison office in a government-run town after a fatal landmine incident blamed by state media on KIA “insurgents.” A senior KIA general told the BBC Burmese service that the army was trying to provoke his forces. “We don't think the situation will escalate too much. But if fighting erupts, we are all prepared,” said General Sumlut Gun Maw.
Strong center, rebellious regions
For decades, Burma has been wracked by communist and ethnic-based rebellions. A series of ceasefires in the 1990s paved the way for political negotiations under a promised new constitution, though most minorities felt short-changed by the result. The 2008 constitution contains virtually none of the guarantees of minority rights that ethnic leaders had sought.
Despite their misgivings, KIO officials were keen to participate in the upcoming election for national and local parliaments. A new party was set up earlier this year and headed by a senior KIO leader. But Burma’s election commission refused to register this and two other smaller Kachin parties, and also quashed the nomination of 15 pro-KIO politicians as independent candidates. Some villages under KIO control will not be allowed to vote due to security concerns.
Instead, local voters must chose between the junta’s own party and an unpopular Kachin party that is widely derided as a regime proxy. Echoing widespread skepticism, the church official says he wouldn’t vote for either one. “They’re afraid of our (pro-KIO) party. It had begun its campaign and it was quite clear how people were going to vote,” he says.
Analysts say the junta made the conversion of KIA forces into border guards a condition of electoral participation. But KIO leaders argued that they needed these troops as leverage in future negotiations, putting the two sides on a collision course. A similar standoff has occurred in a border enclave run by Wa rebels that have sophisticated weaponry and involved in the heroin and methamphetamine trade.
Nawdin Lahpai, a Kachin exile who runs a news service in northern Thailand (www.kachinnews.com), says renewed fighting between the military and the KIA could erupt at any time, despite the disapproval of China. He said the handover of power to civilians wouldn’t end the deadlock. “The next government will not be interested in dialog with the Kachin or other ethnic groups,” he says.
[Editor's note: Correspondent's name withheld for security reasons]