Monday 23 May 2022 | 12:54 | SYDNEY
Monday 23 May 2022 | 12:54 | SYDNEY

Kachin state: The war between China and India

20 July 2011 14:45

Dr Nicholas Farrelly is a Southeast Asia specialist at ANU. In 2006 he co-founded New Mandala, which deals with Southeast Asian regional affairs.This post is part of the New Voices series.

In June 2011 a 17-year ceasefire between the ethnic minority Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Burmese government collapsed. A new war in northern Burma means 8,000 KIA troops square off against some of the most fearsome infantry divisions of the 400,000 man Burmese army.

On multiple fronts, across the mountains and right down into the lowland towns, the fighting is tough and the stakes are high.

From 1994-2011, while the KIA ceasefire was in place, the Chinese government became increasingly enthusiastic about the mineral exploration, infrastructure development and trading opportunities presented by northernmost Burma. Huge investments followed. Jade and gold mining, logging and dam building all became big business. India watched cautiously, invoking its 'look east' framework so as to not miss out entirely.

The KIA ceasefire led to unprecedented economic development and relative political calm; it also reinforced age-old Kachin resentments about ethnic Burmese chauvinism. Today, any optimism about the region's immediate prospects has disappeared. This war, on territory right between China and India, has seen the KIA trading heavy blows with Burmese government military forces.

And with the old ceasefire agreement now soaked in new blood and tears, a long campaign of ambush and attrition is on the cards. Over the past five weeks, bases have been bombed, government buildings attacked and dozens of troops killed. Over 20,000 ethnic Kachin refugees have fled to the Sino-Burmese border to escape the fighting.

Burmese government military commanders seeking to manoeuvre men and materiel close to KIA held areas have found key bridges demolished and other infrastructure sabotaged. Roaming KIA squads have also penetrated deep into government-controlled territories to attack sensitive targets, including Burma's north-south railway. The Burmese government naturally accuses the KIA of starting this new war.

The proximate cause is a dispute over security for a Chinese hydro-electricity project. But what really infuriates the Burmese military leadership is their years-long inability to persuade the KIA to become a 'Border Guard Force'. Such an arrangement would mean surrendering overall command to Burmese officers and would ensure the slow death of the KIA as a force for defending ethnic minority pride.

The KIA has announced that it will only accept a new ceasefire brokered and guaranteed by international third parties. The obvious choices for mediation can be found among the neighbours: China and India. Any intensification of hostilities promises to push more refugees into China and damage northern Burma's substantial Chinese commercial interests. Further destabilisation of northern Burma will have implications for the Indian government too.

In northeast India, the Indian authorities deal with unrest on a daily basis. Dozens of resistance movements, usually predicated on strong ethnic loyalties, seek to challenge the legitimacy of Indian government rule. During the hot years of KIA activity, before the ceasefire in northern Burma, it was consistently alleged that these resistance groups on Indian soil enjoyed potent cross-border cooperation. Those cross-border links went stale during the more peaceful years that followed the KIA ceasefire.

The Indian authorities will not want a return to the bad old days, but their capacity to broker a new truce is weak.

At the same time, this new war reinforces the impotence of timid Association of Southeast Asian Nations officials. Over the years they have proven unwilling to seriously deal with Burma's festering ethnic conflicts. Non-interventionism, a sacred tenet of Southeast Asian regionalism, guarantees that long wars often go unresolved.

So, instead of pinning their survival on international mediation, KIA leaders voice outrage about the lack of Burmese government goodwill. They are fed up with absorbing abuse. And the violent response from the Kachin is proving contagious, with other ethnic armies across Burma, disappointed at the outcomes of their own ceasefire experiments, now also on a war-footing.

Across Burma's fractured ethnic terrain we are faced with newly unsettled conditions. The KIA ceasefire agreement that brought much security and prosperity to northern Burma, and its wider neighbourhood, is history.

This new Kachin war — right between China and India — will need a regional answer for there to be any chance of bringing a quick and meaningful end to hostilities. Sadly, that prospect is still remote. Instead, a forgotten conflict wedged between Asia's two rising superpowers is back on the boil.

Photo by Flickr user Ennor.