Is the KIO’s recent reshuffle a power grab?

13 February 2016
Is the KIO’s recent reshuffle a power grab?
N'Ban La, Chairman of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), signs a common agreement for a nationwide ceasefire during the Ethnic Armed Organizations Conference in Laiza, Kachin State, Myanmar, 2 November 2013. Photo: Nyein Chan Naing/EPA

As Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD government prepares to take over the peace process the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), one of the armed ethnic organizations that refused to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), has recently reshuffled its senior ranks to create a new political landscape in what appears to be a silent coup by the hard-line leader Nban La. While true motivations remain unclear, it would appear that Nban La is attempting to marginalise Gun Maw who many had tipped as the one KIO leader who could reach an agreement with the Government.
The KIO reshuffled five senior positions, Vice Chairman of the KIO and Deputy Commander-in-Chief of Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Deputy Chairs 1 and 2 of the Kachin Independence Council (KIC), Vice Chiefs of Staff– 1 and 2, General Staff Officer, and Foreign Affairs.
The reshuffle of the Vice Chairman of the KIO and Deputy Commander in Chief of the KIA is somewhat disconcerting.  General Nban La serves in these two positions. He, formally, served as a Deputy Chair – 1 of the KIC. The position of Vice Chairman of the KIO has been vacant since Lt. General Gauri Zau Seng who served in that position was ousted due ostensibly to age in 2015.
A variety of questions has come out of General Nban La’s reshuffle. Particularly why did he take the position of Vice Chairman of KIO? Is he going to take the position of KIO chairman soon? Why is this position vital for him instead of a more formal position? Why has the charismatic Major General Gun Maw been reshuffled into the Deputy Chairman position of the KIC instead of that of KIO Vice Chairman? Most Kachin people and junior ranks in the KIA seem to have come to the conclusion that Nban La is vying to take the KIO chairmanship.
Historically, General Nban La has been famous for cracking down on military coups within the Kachin ranks. The first crackdown occurred in 2001. He ousted Lt. General Mali Zup Zau Mai, the then KIO chairman, who had attempted to disarm the KIA under a secret agreement with then Myanmar Intelligent supremo, General Khin Nyut. After deposing Mali Zup Zau Mai, General Lamung Tu Jai was appointed to the chairman position. Since that time, General Nban La was hailed by the junior ranks as a saviour and protector of the KIO/A. In contrast, however, a number of those in the senior ranks saw him more as a threat.
A second crackdown occurred on 7 January 2004 at Pajau, the old KIA/O headquarters by the Chinese border. General Nban La, then Chief of Staff of the KIA, cracked down on a handful of senior ranking officers who had attempted a military coup to replace him. The plan was to replace him with the KIO intelligence chief, Colonel Lasang Aung Wah. However, the coup failed, resulting in a major split and Lasang Aung Wah fleeing to National Democratic Army – Kachin (NDA-K) held territory at Pangwah, taking about 100 KIA soldiers with him. Later he would form his own militia group the Lasang Aung Wa militia stationed in Gwi Htu, Waimaw Township. Since then, General Nban La deposed several senior ranking officers and has taken many important roles in the KIO/A for himself.
General Nban La recently ousted Major General S. Gun Maw from the Vice Chief of Staff position and substituted him with two Brigadier Generals who are loyal to him. The two Brigadier Generals: Hkawng Lum and Aung Seng La were promoted as VCS – 1 and 2. Brig. Gen. Hkawg Lum was Vice Chiefs of Staff of the Federal Union Army (Created by the ethnic alliance United Nationalities Federal Council) while Brigadier General Aung Seng La was at one point discharged with other four seniors including Major General Dr.Tu Ja who is now leader of KSDP (Kachin State Democracy Party) from KIO due to running in the election in 2010. Brigadier General Aung Seng La, however, was reinstated again as Assistant Chief of Staff when the Myanmar military broke the ceasefire with the KIO in 2011.
Lt. General Gam Shawng, Chief of Staff of KIA, and formal Deputy Chair –II of KIC was promoted to KIC’s Deputy Chair – I. Likewise, Major General Gun Maw, formal Vice Chief of Staff (VCS), was promoted to KIC’s Deputy Chair – II.
There is a major concern in relation to Gun Maw’s reshuffle. He is the one who led negotiating team of the KIO and is popular experience in local and international diplomacy. The other two positions are General Staff and Foreign Affairs. Colonel Zau Tawng, who has led Conflict Resolution Coordination and is Chief of Military Strategic Studies, was promoted to Brigadier General and takes the position for General Staff while Colonel Gawlu La Aung was assigned Chief of Foreign Affairs.
General Nban La, newly appointed as Vice Chairman of KIO, is now taking responsibility of the KIO Central Committee. Mr. Lanyaw Zawng Hra who currently serves as the Chairman of the KIO and the KIC and is also Commander in Chief of the KIA is aging. If General Nban La takes over as KIO chairman, the political landscape will be much more military-oriented. If negotiations are not productive with the newly elected NLD-led government, the KIO/A is likely to change its strategy to being more offensive and he has already suggested to his other military officers that the KIA was too defensive. There is little doubt that the Chinese government will support armed ethnic groups especially the NLD-led Myanmar government moves towards the West.
Joe Kumbun is a pseudonym of a Kachin State based analyst