Myanmar’s resource-rich Kachin state’s booming timber-led trade with China’s bordering Yunnan province is hindering the northern state’s peace process, already hampered by serious distrust between ethnic rebels and the military who have been fighting for decades, experts studying the conflict said Friday.
Securing an end to fighting with Kachin rebels is a crucial part of Myanmar President Thein Sein’s goal of ending ethnic conflicts—a key test of political reforms the country has been implementing after 50 years of military rule.
But progress on ending the Kachin conflict is slowed by major political disagreement between the rebel Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and the government, as well as by local groups with a vested interested in fueling the illicit timber trade, researchers said at a forum at the Stimson Center, a think tank in Washington.
More than two years since conflict reignited between Kachin rebels and the military in 2011, timber trade continues to roar, Stimson Center fellow Yun Sun said.
“The local vested interest groups in Kachin state that profit from the conflict are severely undermining the momentum for peace,” she said.
Illegal loggers, many of them from China, sneak into the conflict zone and smuggle the timber across the border to Ruili in Yunnan, with the tacit agreement of local Kachin leaders and Myanmar military officers.
Exact figures are hard to come by, but local traders estimate some 2 million cubic meters of logs were shipped from Kachin through Ruili in the first ten months of 2013, said Sun, who visited the area last year.
In October, a traveler from the Kachin border to Ruili could count as many 300 to 400 large logs being shipped from Kachin state to China within an hour, she said.
While those with business ties are keen to continue benefiting from the conflict, the Thein Sein administration is anxious to see the KIO join a nationwide ceasefire accord it is pushing to have all the country’s armed ethnic rebel groups sign together.
The participation of the KIO, the only major rebel group that remains technically at war with Myanmar’s government, is crucial to any efforts to force a lasting peace.
Government negotiators and representatives from the KIO and 13 other armed rebel groups are set to meet on Feb. 20 in southeastern Myanmar’s Hpa-an in Karen (Kayin) state to discuss the next step in the peace process.
Government negotiators are hoping to convince the KIO to support the joint ceasefire, but Kachins have insisted the peace process must include a political dialogue that includes discussion about greater autonomy for the ethnic groups.
KIO leaders are under pressure from members of their community distrustful of Myanmar’s government not to sign a ceasefire until they are assured there will be a political settlement, said Tom Kramer, a Myanmar-based researcher from the Transnational Institute.
Many Kachins have no more trust in Myanmar’s current government than they had in the previous military regime, he said.
“For them, this government is the same as the old one,” Kramer said.
The previous military junta has been accused of blatant human rights abuses in its war with powerless ethnic minority groups.
Sun said many Kachins had a “sense of hopelessness” that Myanmar’s current government “has not made anything better for them.”
Fighting between the two sides has simmered since a 17-year peace agreement was shattered in June 2011, months after Thein Sein’s reformist government came to power.
Many Kachins consider the period between when the previous ceasefire was signed in 1994 and when it was shattered in 2011 as 17 “lost years” during which Kachins were waiting for the opportunity to have a political dialogue with Myanmar’s government and saw none, Kramer said.
“There is a lot of pressure from communities who are very unhappy about the peace process.”
“They will put pressure on the KIO not to give in too quickly."