By Robert D. Kaplan

The most recent peace talks between representatives of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and the Myanmar central government broke down March 12. The talks, which were held in Ruili, a small border town in China's Yunnan province, were part of a plan announced by Myanmar President Thein Sein in August 2011 to enter formal peace talks with the leaders of Myanmar's 16 ethnic rebel groups. Peace negotiations are the first step toward the new civilian government's larger goal to forge ethnic unity and, in turn, attract the attention (and possibly investment) of the West.

With April 1 parliamentary elections approaching, touted by many international observers as a test for Myanmar's nascent democracy, Naypyidaw has already secured peace agreements from 12 ethnic groups. Given these apparent successes, the continued failure to reach an accord with the KIO is all the more disconcerting for the Myanmar government. Peace in Kachin state is especially important for the government not only because the KIO is the second-largest ethnic rebel force in Myanmar, but also because their position -- cultural, historical and geographic -- between Myanmar and China shapes those countries' relations.

Myanmar's ethnic conflicts are partly shaped by its geography. The long, flat Irrawaddy River Valley houses most of the country's largest ethnic group, the Bamar. Sparsely populated mountainous regions, the traditional homeland of Myanmar's primary ethnic minorities, surround the valley. Along the India-Myanmar border are the Rakhine, Chin and Kachin ethnic groups, the latter of which live in the country's northernmost corner by the border with Yunnan. Along Myanmar's eastern border are the Shan, Karenni (Kayah) and Karen peoples. Each group inhabits its own distinct geographic subregion, and over time this relative isolation encouraged the formation of independent spheres of cultural influence.

Of these groups, the Kachin are both the most geographically isolated from the heart of Myanmar and possibly the most culturally distinct. They belong to the Sino-Tibetan ethnic umbrella and speak Jingpo, a Tibetan dialect. But due to British influence during the 18th and 19th centuries, most Kachin today practice Christianity.

Historically, their location in the Himalayan foothills prevented the Kachin from being subsumed within the Burmese kingdom and cultural sphere. But neither did they belong naturally to China, seated as they are on the southern side of the Himalayas.

The primary lines of ethnic conflict in Myanmar stretch back to British occupation beginning in 1886. The British excluded ethnic Burmese from the colonial military, instead employing soldiers from the Chin, Kachin, Shan and Karen minorities. This allowed the British to prevent anti-colonial and Burmese nationalist sentiments from infiltrating the army. It also laid the foundations for modern ethnic conflict in Myanmar by engendering distrust between the Burmese and ethnic minority groups and providing those ethnic groups training and organizational structures that would later aid opposition insurgencies.

A turning point in modern Kachin and Myanmar history came in 1947 with the Panglong Conference. Representatives from four ethnic groups, including the Kachin, met with Burmese Independence Army leader Gen. Aung San (father of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi) to outline a plan for political cooperation and unity. An agreement was reached outlining provisions for self-determination and administrative autonomy in the frontier areas populated by ethnic minorities. In exchange, the agreement required cooperation and peace while the interim government formalized Myanmar's independence.

But after the assassination of Aung San later in 1947, the promise of Panglong did not materialize. The decades since have been dominated by low-intensity conflict between the Myanmar government and the major ethnic groups. In Kachin state, conflict was mostly informal until the formation of the KIO and its militant wing, the Kachin Independence Army, in 1961. The KIO has controlled the majority of Kachin state since its founding.

Armed conflict in Kachin state continued throughout the 1980s and 1990s until 1994, when the KIO signed a cease-fire agreement with the Myanmar government. The cease-fire did not result in disarmament, but it did give the KIO enough room to consolidate its regional hold and develop a working bureaucracy as well as relative economic autonomy. This allowed the KIO to establish a toll system on the roads linking Myanmar to China, providing the Kachin with a secure source of income and making them the de facto intermediaries of cross-border trade.

Myanmar Ethnic Conflict and China

The fundamental fact of Kachin state is that Naypyidaw has very little real control over it. Historically, geographically, culturally and now politically, the state is different, and that difference makes it restive and resistant to Myanmar's influence.

China has taken advantage of that difference, positioning itself as moderator and in effect translator between the ethnic opposition and the Myanmar government. Since Myanmar's isolation from the West after 1962, China has been Naypyidaw's only major ally, investor and trading partner. China's approach to Myanmar is grounded in its need for energy and alternate international trade routes to the South China Sea. As Myanmar's value grows, Beijing eyes warily any domestic political shift that could affect those interests. This entails a two-fold tactic: build strong relations with the central government while maintaining a balance of power between the government and ethnic opposition groups.

However, after the 2009 Kokang Incident, in which ethnic conflict in Myanmar's Shan state drove as many as 30,000 refugees into Yunnan province, Beijing has been forced to acknowledge Naypyidaw's need for peace and unity between its 135 ethnic groups. That need will continue to influence Myanmar's policies in relation to China and, in turn, will shape the balancing act Beijing maintains between the Myanmar government and the armed ethnic forces that have developed economic and political connections with China. As China's interests and investments in Myanmar evolve, so do the risks posed by unfavorable political dynamics inside the country.

For now, Myanmar seems poised for greater openness. But Naypyidaw is approaching reconciliation with ethnic groups cautiously. It hopes that engaging in bilateral talks with each rebel group will secure cooperation without risking a unified but hostile ethnic minority front. That the talks simultaneously serve to boost Myanmar's new democratic image, even as reports emerge that the ethnic groups continue to distrust Naypyidaw, enhances the government's efforts to attract greater international attention.

Though Beijing encourages peace negotiations in Myanmar, genuine reconciliation between Myanmar's ethnic opposition groups and the central government is not necessarily in China's immediate interest. China will likely suffer from Naypyidaw's attempts to improve its reputation on the international stage, as Thein Sein's move to halt construction on the Chinese-financed Myitsone dam projects near Myitkyina in Kachin state suggests. Part of a seven-dam hydropower complex planned for the upper reaches of the Irrawaddy River in Kachin state, the Myitsone dam sparked public controversy in 2011 when it was learned that completion of the project would require an area the size of Singapore to be flooded, which would displace several thousand Kachin civilians.

Conflict at Myitsone thus threatens both China's material interests and its reputation within and beyond Myanmar's borders. A similar concern for China is that its oil and natural gas pipelines begin at the Myanmar coastal port of Kyaukphyu but run through both Shan- and Kachin-dominated territories on their way to Kunming in Yunnan province, leaving them open to sabotage from a variety of potential antagonists.

Therefore, China will continue to openly support political stability in Myanmar, while simultaneously working to maintain a balance of power within the country. This way China reaffirms its importance for Naypyidaw's efforts to maintain stability without relinquishing its role as arbiter between Myanmar's center and periphery. As the only remaining major ethnic opposition group to have refused a peace agreement with Naypyidaw and China's closest cultural and historical link to the region, the Kachin may shape Myanmar's ability to secure international attention or investment and, in turn, its relationship with the Chinese.


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The Kachin's Role in Myanmar - Chinese Relations is republished with permission of STRATFOR.

The Kachin's Role in Myanmar - Chinese Relations | Global Viewpoint