The struggle between the Myanmar government and the Kachin minority group is about much more than ethnicity, argue COSTAS LAOUTIDES and ANTHONY WARE.
Myanmar is undergoing two significant, albeit interconnected, processes—political and economic liberalisation, and a broadly defined peace process that could end 70 years of civil war. Being the more fragile, the peace process is, arguably, more likely to either derail change or finalise the political status of over 100 ethnic identities in Myanmar into a federal state, as envisaged in the current draft of the National Ceasefire Agreement.
The Kachin are one of the most significant ethnic minorities in Myanmar. As one of the best organised and more formidable of 40 armed ethnic groups in the country, the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) has controlled large areas of territory for more than half a century and enjoys relatively strong popular support by its constituency.
Of particular concern is that the KIO broke a 17-year-old ceasefire in 2011, after the new quasi-democratic government was sworn in. While the KIO is now a key negotiator for a national ceasefire agreement and political dialogue, understanding and addressing the Kachin conflict are essential to achieving lasting peace and political transformation in Myanmar.
The Kachin conflict continues to be framed in terms of ethnic identity and national race, mainly because all Burmese constitutions since Independence, including the 2008 constitution, have given special recognition and potential forms of self-rule to minority ethnic national races, embedding and politicising the concepts.
Most studies of ethnic conflict in Myanmar accept that ethnic identities exist as such and, as in the case of conflict in Kachin, difference of ethnic identities constitutes the primary source of conflict. Our research, however, has not assumed ethnicity as the basis of the conflict. Fieldwork we conducted in 2014 indicates that ethnicity is just one of the identity issues driving conflict in Kachin—and Myanmar at large—and that oversimplifying internal conflict as ethnic not only fails to appreciate the complexity of the situation but also misses key factors.
When asked about the deeper grievances, civil society and non-state leaders from Kachin communities, as well as most international observers and some Burman elite, refer to deep-seated paternalistic and chauvinistic attitudes—particularly by the Burman military and ex-military ruling elite—by the majority Burmans towards the Kachin and other ethnic minorities. Several Kachin leaders went further, pointing to a clash of deep-seated ideological differences about sociopolitical organisation.
Burmese as victims
Concerns over Burman paternalism and chauvinism are perceived as widespread. As one Kachin civil society leader expressed it, all Burmans are somewhat chauvinistic, but only since the crackdown on dissent after 1988 have they begun to see themselves as victims too—which has led to some increase in empathy and feeling of a shared struggle against authoritarianism, and an increased recognition of the way minorities have long been treated.
Another Kachin civil society leader noted that ordinary Burmese suffered under military rule too, but argued strongly that they never had to endure the chauvinistic discrimination faced by the Kachin. The Burman majority don’t see themselves as an ethnic group; they are Burman, the rest are the ethnic minority races, implying a subordinate and dependent status. So in some ways the conflict is not only about ethnicity or identity, but about a ruling elite employing ideas about identity to control political power, over both Burmans and, particularly, minorities.
Some Kachin representatives argued that there are fundamental differences between some ethnic groups and the Burmans about the proper order of sociopolitical power structures and the basis of the social contract. They offered the idea that Burmans are still largely bound by a traditional social hierarchy model derived
from Buddhist concepts and employed by the more successful Burman kings of empires past.
Many minority leaders believe the military see themselves as guardians of this legacy, and therefore that their nationalistic duty is to perpetuate this historic vision. This historical model, they argue, has been compounded by the motivation of all post-Independence Burman rulers—civilian and military—to restore Burmese
prestige and international reputation.
By contrast, social ideals are far more egalitarian among Kachin communities. These ideals date to a pre-colonial Kachin rebellion reminiscent of the most egalitarian Anabaptist sects in the Reformation and English Civil War, and have been perpetuated as a mechanism to prevent the formation of a kind of state, or incorporation into other states.
‘The military are fighting for what they believe is nation-building, but in so doing they become a predatory force.’
While these ideals do not preclude hierarchies and power abuse in practice, they suggest the clash is at a deeper, ideological level, with ethnic identity being the manifestation of the conflict and not a root cause. Certainly, since their founding during the Second World War, the Burmese military have defined their mission as being to guard the sovereignty and integrity of the state—perhaps better expressed as gaining and maintaining Independence, ending internal conflict and consolidating the state. As one civil society leader expressed it, the military are fighting for what they believe is nation-building, but in so doing they become a predatory force.
Kachin representatives spoke passionately to us about the land of their forefathers. Territory exercises a hegemonic influence in global political organisation, because of the strength and priority of the notion of the nation–state.
Precondition for survival
At the symbolic level, effective control of territory is the precondition for survival in international politics. The structure of world politics requires communities to exercise effective control over territory, both as proof of their ability to rule themselves and as a means of visibly claiming a place in the world of sovereign communities. Inherent to this idea is the strong presence of territory as the spatial manifestation of the presence and survival of political communities.
During our interviews, the ideas of territory and identity were continually strongly connected, not as a mystical attachment to the land but as a means for cultural survival. As one diaspora academic expressed it, ‘the idea of land and territory expresses life, the life of the people’. In that sense, the continuity of identity is linked to control of territory. The value of the land is in the ability to self-govern and to control the resources required to sustain and develop their society.
It is unsurprising that ethnicity and national identity are employed in this conflict. They are often used as the main narratives for survival in global politics, and ethnicity invests claims to territory with legitimising moral value, and makes the cause imperative and non-negotiable.
In a global context, ethnic and national conceptions of identity seem to be the only qualifiers for citizenship and participation in a territorially demarcated and organised political society. In recent years, some of the Kachin conflict has clearly morphed around the control of resources and resource trade corridors. However, rather than becoming a classic resource conflict, Kachin leaders fear loss of both territory and potential revenue streams for their own development, and hence loss of control and identity as a people. There is a strong feeling that the main reason why the state is less motivated to discuss power-sharing and resolve the conflict is that it is so interested in Kachin natural resources.
Motivation for conflict
The history of the conflict shows that the motivation for the conflict is separate and beyond the natural resources now identified. Kachins collect tax and provide support in health, education and policing, as well as pay their army through resource revenues. While there is concern that some high-ranking Kachin leaders are becoming rich in the process, locals suggest they can tolerate that if it secures benefits for the community. The scramble for the control of resources therefore appears to be more a symptom than the cause of the conflict. Resources and rent seeking have certainly shifted conflict dynamics greatly, but that is not what drives recruitment and tribute to the rebels.
The Kachin conflict would therefore seem to be primarily driven by fears that chauvinistic control by the Burman-controlled state will result in loss of identity through cultural assimilation, and revolves in large part around deep-seated ideological differences about sociopolitical organisation and the basis of the social contract. This being the case, discussions about freedom to practise cultural identity without discrimination, and a renegotiation of the power relations between the Kachin and the state are essential ingredients for lasting peace and the continuation of Myanmar’s political and economic transformation.
Flag of the Kachin Independence Army.