Confidence-building is key to a genuine ceasefire in Myanmar’s northern Kachin State, where more than 100,000 people are still displaced, experts and analysts say.
“There is a total lack of trust within the Kachin community,” says Nyo Ohn Myint, a member of the Myanmar Peace Committee (MPC), attributing much of this to the history of a previous ceasefire, signed in 1994 by the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the political arm of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which has been fighting for greater autonomy from the central government since Burma, now Myanmar, gained independence from Great Britain in 1948.
After the 1994 agreement, the previous Burmese government body, the State Peace and Development Council, had promised political dialogue with the KIO, who hoped to establish a federal state in Myanmar, but this pledge never materialized, resulting in the collapse of the 17-year ceasefire between the two sides in June 2011.
Despite the 2010 election of Myanmar’s first nominally civilian government in decades and a number of government peace initiatives, distrust of the government by the country’s various ethnic groups continues.
The central government and the military have yet to propose any concrete alternatives to retaining the highly centralized power that is largely dominated by Myanmar’s main ethnic group, the Burman, who account for 69 percent of the country’s 55 million inhabitants, experts say.
How a unitary state accustomed to decades of top-down military rule will devolve power to the various ethnic groups in a new and more democratic Myanmar remains unclear to ethnic leaders. Under the 2008 constitution, the military is guaranteed 25 percent of seats in parliament, but many believe their role and influence is much bigger.
More than two years on, reports of military skirmishes and human rights abuses have continued in Kachin State and neighbouring Shan State, most recently over Christmas, when government troops reportedly attacked the KIA with heavy weapons and artillery.
The government and the KIO began meeting for peace talks in February 2013 and in October signed an agreement to de-escalate hostilities, but a genuine ceasefire remains elusive.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), since June 2011 over 100,000 people have fled the fighting between the Burmese army and the KIA and now live in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) or with host communities on both sides of the frontline. Despite some encouraging signs in the peace process, OCHA reported 81,000 people registered in camps in Kachin state in December 2013.
Throughout October and November there were sporadic clashes in Kachin State between the Burmese army and the KIA in the Mansi area. Residents of the village of Nai Pi La were particularly hard hit, adding another 2,000 IDPs to the more than 100,000 already displaced.
“When local populations face severe abuses by the Myanmar army, as they are now, word travels fast, generating widespread and reasonable levels of fear at the grassroots level,” said Matt Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, a human rights organization that provides independent monitoring and technical support for local responses to human rights violations.
Human rights abuses and instances of exploitation of the civilian population “belie the Burmese government’s claims to be establishing peace in the ethnic states”, explained a recent report entitled Undermining the Peace Process, by the Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand (KWAT). “The ongoing attacks on Kachin areas are effectively destroying any trust built up between the Kachin Independence Organization and the Burmese government,” the group noted.
Tomás Ojea Quintana, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, said after his visits to Myanmar, including Kachin and Shan states in August 2013, that he “was struck by the general lack of confidence in the sustainability of the ceasefire agreements and the prospect that subsequent political agreements would address their [residents] concerns and meet their aspirations”.
Quintana recommended that ceasefire and peace agreements with ethnic armed groups should include clauses to protect and promote the land rights of existing, displaced and returning ethnic populations, the title deeds to land, and the tenure rights of villagers.
The Ash Centre of Harvard university, which advises the government peace committee, also investigated governance in Myanmar. “A group of Harvard experts came to Burma in April  and recommended to all stakeholders that federalism is the only way to settle the ethnic conflicts so that equality and power-sharing and resource-sharing can occur,” said MPC’s Nyo Ohn Myint.
In a report released in July, the Harvard group also recommended policies that include a “new federalism”, in which states are allowed to elect their own governors and local parliaments and run their own local affairs, supported by a share of the natural resource revenues.
Local resources now often go to well-connected private investors and the powerful, with low or no effective taxation. A prime example of this resource abuse is the estimated US$8 billion worth of jade from Kachin state in 2011, largely exported to China with little benefit to the local economy.
Nyo Ohn Myint says Myanmar’s reform-minded President Thein Sein is currently considering a form of federalism for the ethnic groups, however could not say when such a plan would be discussed with the Kachin negotiating team.
“Theoretically, there is only one way forward and that is to find some way to form a federal system,” Burma analyst Bertil Lintner told IRIN. But the Swedish author and analyst, who has written extensively about the country, is uncertain of this happening any time soon, as reports of conflicts within the ethnic groups persist.
“It’s becoming clear that what the government or military wants… is to just drag it [the reform process] on and on and make the groups fight and to bribe them and win some of them over with car licenses or mining concessions and hope that quite gradually the whole problem will fade away.”
“I can imagine that all the armed ethnic groups and all the others would be willing to do a step-by-step approach. Maybe some amendments to the constitution, maybe some small changes here and there, but so far I don’t see any sign of the military being willing to change and doing anything like that,” Lintner added.
On 20 December, in a move underscoring concern of ongoing human rights abuses in the country, the US Senate introduced The Burma Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2013, a measure that would prohibit most US military assistance to the Burmese military unless concrete steps were taken to address human rights abuses and constitutional reform.
“Military-to-military relations should not proceed until the Burmese military demonstrates a genuine interest in reform by stopping all attacks throughout the country in both ceasefire and non-ceasefire areas,” said Jennifer Quigley, the executive director of the US Campaign for Burma (USCB).
The USCB noted that “both before and after the first national ceasefire dialogue between the Burmese government and ethnic armed groups in November 2013, the military attacked Kachin villagers, casting doubt on the viability of a nationwide ceasefire.”
Although the fighting hasn’t stopped entirely, it has diminished, MPC’s Nyo Ohn Myint insisted. “One month before the October signing of a de-escalation of fighting between government forces and the Kachin Independence Army there were at least 100 military skirmishes,” he said. “In the month after the signing they had just seven encounters, so the number of conflicts has dropped considerably.”