Representatives of the government of Myanmar and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) – the political arm of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) – held talks in the Chinese border town of Ruili on February 4th after the fighting between the military and the KIA intensified in recent months. A ceasefire announcement by the Burmese government on January 19th never went into effect. Talks were reportedly attended by several high-ranked officials, including Aung Min, a minister in the office of Burma’s president and the KIA’s second-in-command, General Gun Maw; as well as representatives of other ethnic rebel groups in Burma, among them Karen and Shan leaders, and the Myanmar Peace Centre, an EU-funded platform that coordinates peace talks between the Burmese government and the country’s ethnic groups. The talks produced a statement that highlighted both sides’ willingness to increase co-operation to reduce military tensions, seek new lines of communication and invite external observers to attend the next meeting, which has been scheduled for late February. The most noteworthy aspect of the talks, however, was China’s prominent role in bringing both sides to the negotiating table and hosting the talks, despite a strong emphasis on non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs and respect for sovereignty in the conduct of its foreign policy.
Since the resumption of the conflict in Kachin in mid-2011 following a 17 year cease-fire, the two sides have held several rounds of talks trying to end the conflict and agree on terms for a permanent ceasefire, all to no avail, while at the same time all other major ethnic rebel groups in Myanmar have successfully reached agreements with the government of Myanmar, leaving the Kachin, that have long sought greater autonomy from the central government, as the only major ethnic group that has not reached an accord with President Thein Sein’s administration. It is hoped that the talks will reduce tensions in a conflict that, according to the Human Rights Watch World Report 2013, has displaced approximately 90,000 civilians. In addition to that, between 7,000 and 10,000 Burmese refugees fled to Yunnan province in 2012.
The international community is becoming increasingly vocal about the conflict’s escalation. The ongoing fighting in Kachin State is one of the key reasons why the EU decided to suspend temporarily the sanctions on Myanmar instead of lifting them altogether. On January 16th, Catherine Ashton released a statement expressing her deep concern ‘‘about the continuous fighting in the Kachin State, putting at risk the nation-wide peace process and the gains already made.”
The talks come after the position of the KIA has been considerably weakened in recent weeks, with the Burmese army having taken control over several KIA-held hilltops around the town Laiza, where the headquarters of the KIA rebel movement are located. According to the latest International Crisis Group Crisis Watch Report, Burmese government forces used attack helicopters, fighter jets and intense artillery barrages against KIA during the last weeks to seize the rebel outposts. This represents a serious escalation of the conflict as air power has rarely been used in Myanmar’s internal conflicts. The fighting has also gotten closer to the Myanmar-China border with several shells landing in China, prompting official complaint from the Chinese Foreign Ministry. The ongoing violence is, then, not only a major challenge for Thein Sein’s administration; the prospect of an intensification of the conflict has created a series of problems for China, given its vested interest in the stability of the strategically important, resource-rich Kachin region. China’s investments include $2 billion spent on oil and gas pipelines crossing Myanmar into Yunnan that are due to be completed shortly, and are crucial to China’s energy security. Any instability in the region could compromise Beijing’s attempts to secure further access to natural resources. In fact, unrest in Kachin has already led Thein Sein to order the suspension of the construction of a China-funded hydropower project – the Myitsone Dam - on the Irrawady River.