After withdrawal from the UNFC, the KIO seeks to re-position itself

The KIO has constantly attempted to take a major role in the ethnic peace process, but where will an alliance with the UWSA lead?


Armed rebels belonging to the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) ethnic group take a cigarette break as they move towards the frontline near Laiza in Kachin State. Photo: Hkun Lat/AFP

The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the second largest armed ethnic organization in Myanmar, has recently withdrawn from the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) an alliance of ethnic armed groups. Many people were shocked by the withdrawal as they had put their hopes in the UNFC, believing that the organization could collectively deal with the government and military to end the perennial civil wars and achieve peace. Surprisingly, the KIO, which led the UNFC, allied with a United Wa State Army (UWSA) led alliance.

The phenomenon of inclusiveness

Inclusiveness in Myanmar’s peace process is a hitherto puzzling phenomenon. After the culmination of more than two years of negotiations, eight armed ethnic groups signed the Thein Sein Government initiated NCA on 15 October 2015. However, the majority of armed ethnic organizations, particularly KIO, refused to sign the NCA. The reason given wasthat the government had set preconditions for three smaller ethnic armed organizations - Arakan Army (AA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) –  to disarm before entering the talks.

The process was taken over by the new government led by Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi after the 2015 election. At the end of August 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi organised a Union Peace Conference also dubbed the“21st Century Panglong Peace Conference”. She also failed to include the previously mentioned three armed organizations. The second session of the 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference was held from the 24th to 29th of May 2017, in which the three groups attended the opening of the conference but were excluded from participating in the conference’s discussion and ended up having separate meetings with her.

The KIO is unlikely to sign any agreement as long as the government and its military exclude these three groups – particularly TNLA since they are aligned with KIO. KIO also is a major supporter of the AA and TNLA. Geographically and geopolitically, KIO's two brigades – 4 and 6 - are connected to the territories of TNLA and MMDAA. They both share and use their territories for military purposes; they even conduct joint operations against Myanmar forces. Also, there are many Kachin villages under the control of TNLA.

In November 2016, the KIO took part in the ‘Mongkoe Operation’ as part of the Northern Alliance which includes the AA, MMDAA, and TNLA in Northern Shan State. According to a leaked document, the MMDAA initially requested KIO not to get involved,but the KIO calculated that the MMDAA could not manage and firmly believed that if MMDAA alone could take control of these areas, the KIO would suffer losses to their credibility and geopolitical standing and allowed two of its brigades to join the offensive.

The KIO is also aware that if they sign the NCA without the inclusion of the three groups, particularly TNLA, no one will be able to deny the rightful grievances the TNLA will have towards KIO. Although all-inclusiveness in negotiation is a sine qua non, the government and military continuously reject the three groups.

Thus, the KIO left the UNFC as they have no a plausible hope of gaining peace through it.

Rejection of the nine-point proposal

The UNFC presented a nine-point proposal to the government while meeting at the National Reconciliation and Peace Centre in Yangon on March 3, 2017. On March 6, 2017, the President Office’s Acting Director General Zaw Htay said at a press conference that all points were agreed to in principle.

However, the military had agreed on only one out of nine points of the proposal in principle. They only agreed to point no. Eight which states that, if mega projects come to invest in ceasefire areas the projects must be in line with the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative – the EITI. Nevertheless, Zaw Htay released the false news that there was full agreement, in principle, on the proposal.

The military does not agree with the most important parts of the proposal. These include the declaration of a nationwide ceasefire by the government and its Defense Services within 24 hours after signing the ceasefire agreement and within 48 hours by organisations under UNFC; and amending laws including the constitution based on the resolutions passed at the 21st Century Panglong Conference.

The UNFC continuously attempted to reach an agreement but were unable to sway the military which firmly rejected the rest of the points. Again, KIO believes that staying in the UNFC is wasting time and thus they sought a new trajectory for the peace process by allying with the UWSA and others.

Co-ordination Problem

All members of the UNFC share the same political goal – harmony and peaceful country but have different interests in the peace process. History provides some insight into this scenario.

Whereas the same political goal in the peace process is essential, it requires cooperative action by all members. The difficulty, however, is that members have differing goals.  The UNFC is comprised of a mix of small and strong ethnic armed groups. Particularly, smaller groups will not be able to resist any attacks from the Myanmar Army and thus have to consider their security concerns. That is the reason why some of its members signed the NCA in 2015. Besides, these smaller groups recently showed an inclination to sign the NCA which in turn frustrated the KIO since it firmly refused to sign because of non-inclusiveness.

Inhibiting fear

KIO has two 'inhibiting fears’ which led to them pulling away from the UNFC and allying with the UWSA-led alliance. The first fear of KIO is in not gaining any tangible results via the UNFC. The second was that the KIO was aware that if the UWSA and its alliance could make a peace deal, the KIO’s role would be less important in future political talks. These two inhibiting fears forced the KIO to leave the UNFC and join the UWSA-led alliance.

What is next?

After leaving the UNFC, many raise the question of ‘what is the KIO’s next move?’ It is obvious that KIO’s next step is to follow the path of the UWSA-led alliance. The alliance resulted from the three-day Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) summit in Pangkham (Panghsang), the Headquarter of the UWSA. The alliance includes the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA), Shan State Progress Party/Shan State Army-North (SSPP/SSA-N), Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the Kokang Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the Arakan Army (AA). Their common agreement is to stick to a policy of standing firmly together and helping each other when any member is under attack. 

KIO’s delegates led by General N’ban La, Vice Chairman of KIO and former Chairman of the UNFC, along with its new alliance recently showed up at the second session of the 21st Century Panglong peace conference in Naypyidaw. Although all delegates from alliance were excluded from participation in the event, the State Counsellor Daw Awng San Suu Kyi appeased them by separate meetings at her house. Surprisingly, General N’ban La and his wife were invited to dinner by her. Furthermore, General N’banLa’s response to journalists gives some hope on a potential peace deal. He firmly said 'We (KIO) never do an unsuccessful thing.’

That said how the situation will play out for the KIO with the UWSA at the helm of a northern based alliance remains to be seen.

Joe Kumbun is the pseudonym of a Kachin State-based analyst.

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