During the last round of peace talks between the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and the Burmese government on March 11 in the town of Ruili, there was a surprising addition to the party. The Tatmadaw (Burmese government’s military) finally deigned to show up to the peace talks addressing the conflict that Burmese military troops instigated when they attacked the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the armed wing of the Kachin Independence Organization, in June 2011. The Tatmadaw has consistently undermined the peace negotiations between Aung Min, a special representative acting on behalf of President Thein Sein, and ethnic armed groups by failing to attend the peace talks and adhering to the promises that the government made during the talks. Last year, Tatmadaw attacks on the Shan-State Army South continued despite the ceasefire deal that Aung Min had managed earlier that year. In late February when Aung Min met with the United National Federal Council (UNFC), a coalition of armed ethnic groups, the Tatmadaw failed to show up to the talks despite Aung Min’s statement a week earlier claiming that high level military officials would be present.
Peace negotiations between the government and the KIO have not been fruitful due to the Tatmadaw’s unwillingness to end attacks and participate in the peace process. So although the March 11 talks ended with only a decision to meet again, more progress will be made now that the military is actually showing up, right?
Not so fast. On March 13, less than 36 hours after the peace talks in Ruili, Tatmadaw troops clashed with the KIA. This clash demonstrates one of the central problems with the talks: the Tatmadaw continuing its military campaign consistently undermines the legitimacy of Aung Min’s negotiations.
Why is the military allowed to ignore the directives that the government sends it? Because the 2008 Constitution gives the military the ability to do whatever they want. The Constitution grants the military legal autonomy over its own affairs and immunity for its actions. The government can promote whatever rhetoric it wants about peace in the country, but this doesn’t mean that the military has to listen to it. On January 19, 2013, President Thein Sein ordered the army not to attack the Kachin. Just a few hours later, Tatmadaw troops attacked KIA forces, completely ignoring the President’s statement and Aung Min’s earlier peace negotiations with the KIO.
The Kachin Independence Army and other armed ethnic groups are willing to engage with the Burmese government based on the 1947 Panglong Agreement, which was signed by General Aung San (the leader of Burma’s independence movement) and several ethnic minority groups. This agreement promised to form a federalist system for the Kachin, Chin and Shan peoples, but 66 years later, the Burmese government still has not lived up to its promise. After the 1994 ceasefire agreement between the Kachin and the government broke down in June 2011, Saboi Jum of the Shalom Foundation (which calls for peace between the Burmese government and ethnic minorities) stated, “Now Panglong Agreement is abolished. The ’47 constitution destroyed. And all the agreements we made and the ceasefire we made were neglected, and the fighting erupted.” The Kachin people still want their own semi-autonomous state, but it doesn’t seem that Thein Sein is willing to carry the government’s political reforms that far.
In a recent visit to Kachin state, USCB staff found that 80% of Kachin society desires complete secession from Burma. They have been driven to this point because of the increase in human rights abuses, impunity for the perpetrators, and nothing to be said for it. After 22 months of conflict with no end in sight, the Kachin people don’t see any reason to be part of the same country as those responsible for perpetrating violence against them under a system of impunity. Who can blame them? However, the KIO still comes to the negotiating table with a desire for federalism within Burma. If the international community wants to promote democracy in Burma, which can only be achieved through national reconciliation, we must maintain pressure on the Burmese government and military, and tie our sanctions to progress on political dialogue towards national reconciliation. International governments and organizations must provide humanitarian aid to all IDPs in Kachin State, because in order to achieve national reconciliation and democracy in Burma, the international community must show the Kachin people that we have not abandoned them.
Until the government respects the Panglong Agreement, amends the constitution, and comes to the discussion table with genuine interest in national reconciliation, there will continue to be unrest in ethnic minority regions of Burma. As great as the rhetoric has been about Burma’s new “democratic” government, the country will not be truly democratic until the military is held accountable for its actions and the demands from the ethnic minority groups are heard and actually incorporated into the government’s agenda. As a Kachin woman told us on our recent trip: “There is no peace without justice.” This is why it is essential that the international community reverse its charm offensive and start putting pressure on the Burmese government. Without this pressure, the Burmese government will maintain the status quo of an independent military with immunity for its human rights abuses and suppressed ethnic minorities.