Ethnic Group Negotiates Merger

Will an ethnic insurgency join forces with Burma’s junta?

Guam-Maw-305.jpg Guam Maw addresses a public forum at KIO headquarters in Kachin State, April 16, 2010.

BANGKOK—The armed wing of Burma’s ethnic Kachin independence movement is in talks on joining part of the country’s defense forces and political system, according to the group’s lead officer.

Kachin Independence Army (KIA) chief of staff Major General Guam Maw said his group, which serves as the military branch of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), has been instructed by Burma's ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), who call the country Myanmar, to join the Burmese military as part of its Border Guard Forces (BGF).

But Guam Maw said the KIA would agree to merge with Burma’s army only if the arrangement includes greater political involvement for the KIO as well.

“The BGF are only a small part of the transformation process. We want the SPDC to look at the bigger picture of the KIO transformation, not just the KIA … We are ready to transform the KIO, and the KIA will follow in time,” Guam Maw said in an interview.

“This doesn’t mean that we are accepting the BGF agreement. What we told them is that it doesn’t affect the overall transformation of the KIO.”

Established in 1961, the KIO effectively controlled northern Burma’s Kachin state for nearly 30 years until reaching a ceasefire agreement with Burma's military rulers in 1994.

The junta has given the KIA until April 22 to agree to hand control of its forces over to the regular Burmese military command. The regime has already pushed back the deadline several times.

Guam Maw said the KIA had already delivered its response to the SPDC, without elaborating.

But he suggested his group objected to the junta’s terms, which would likely reduce the status of the Kachin soldiers to below that of Burmese army regulars.

“By accepting only the BGF, we aren’t doing anything to better the situation of the Kachin [people]. Being part of the BGF is different than being soldiers, because the responsibilities are different from those of the government army troops. The Kachin want to be part of the country’s defenses,” he said.

Public forum

A detail of Kachin State in northern Burma. Credit: RFA
The KIO hosted more than 1,000 attendees from around Kachin state, including Kachin based in China’s southwestern Yunnan province, at an April 16 public forum at its headquarters in the Kachin capital of Laiza.

At the meeting, KIO leaders displayed photos and information from previous meetings with SPDC officials and took questions from attendees on progress made during negotiations.

Burma’s military government has been pressuring ethnic armies to fold into its armed forces in an attempt to show a united front to the rest of the world ahead of planned elections this year.

While the KIO stands to gain little from merging its armed wing with the BGF, if it refuses to do so it will likely lose many of the concessions granted to the Kachin by the SPDC since agreeing to a ceasefire.

Guam Maw said negotiations with the junta have been progressing and predicted differences will be solved diplomatically.

“I don’t think this problem [of joining the BGF] should be solved with force. And we believe the other side won’t use force to do so,” he said.

Guam Maw acknowledged that the junta could crack down on business concessions within Kachin state, where Kachin are afforded the right to conduct trade in gems and other products within a special economic zone.

“If they want to do that, they can,” he said.

Guam Maw said he remains hopeful the KIO can agree with the Burmese regime on allowing the Kachin to live peacefully alongside other ethnic groups.

The KIA leader called on other Burmese ethnicities to work together to bring stability to Burma.

“All ethnic groups should unite, but not simply through military might. Stability in Burma doesn’t only depend on the KIA joining the BGF. All ethnic groups must work together to bring peace to the country.”

Ethnic groups

A 1994 ceasefire left the conflict between ethnic Kachin and the Burmese government in place without addressing its root causes.

The KIO continues to exert influence over much of Kachin state, and the political relationship with the SPDC remains tense.

The KIO maintains an extralegal bureaucracy in Kachin state and holds exclusive control over pockets of territory along the Chinese border.

Within this territory, the KIO maintains a police department, fire brigade, educational system, immigration department, and other institutions of self-government.

Some 40 percent of Burma’s 56 million people belong to an ethnic minority, with most concentrated in the highlands that abut the country’s borders.

Original reporting by Ye Htet for RFA’s Burmese service. Burmese service director: Nyein Shwe. Translated from the Burmese by Nyein Shwe. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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