Kachin Independence Army flag

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker, “In a remote expanse of emerald hills and jagged ridges in Burma’s northern reaches” the conflict pits “government forces against the Kachin Independence Army, a rebel insurgency that has demanded greater political autonomy and control over the country’s natural resources. The Kachin war had proved especially difficult to resolve, because the land is rich with gold and gems and other things worth fighting about. Each side blamed the other for the resumption of hostilities. In December, the President ordered the commander-in-chief to halt attacks and fire only in self-defense, but the war raged on—suggesting that the President lacked the power or the resolve to make his commanders carry out his orders. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, August 6, 2012 -]

The Kachin face persistent discrimination because of their Christian faith in a Buddhist-majority land. They have also struggled to obtain more autonomy from the Myanmar regime, which wants to maintain a firm hand in Kachin State in part because it is rich in natural resources. According to the U.S. State Department, Human Rights in Burma Report for 2013: “Many of Myanmar’s vast natural resources are located in its ethnic nationality regions, particularly in Kachin State, where war is being waged for both reasons of political autonomy generally and control over these resources specifically. This ongoing fighting has contributed to human rights abuses and social instability. In the past when the military and business join forces, often we have observed patterns of land confiscation, forced labor, environmental destruction, and severe human rights abuses on local populations around these projects. [Source: U.S. State Department, Human Rights in Burma, February 18, 2013]

The government has signed ten ceasefire agreements with armed ethnic groups in the past year, including with the Karen National Union with which it had previously been at war for over 60 years. Still, the government’s previously longest running and most stable ceasefire with the Kachin broke down 18 months ago and fighting has intensified in recent months. In December, the military used helicopters and jets to attack Kachin Independence Army positions, marking the first use of air power against an armed ethnic group in decades. The Army continued using heavy artillery to shell KIA positions. Estimates are that tens of thousands of Kachin IDPs remain cut off from international humanitarian aid since July 2012. In our talks with the government, I stressed the urgent need to grant immediate access for humanitarian organizations to all those in need. Since the December escalation both sides have tentatively returned to the negotiating table, though a ceasefire will not be reached easily. In the immediate term we have pressed for, and the government has committed to, restoring international humanitarian access to IDPs both in government and in KIA-held territory.

There have been recent signs of improvement: major international humanitarian groups such as ICRC and UNOCHA have recently regained limited access to deliver aid to Laiza and Hpakant in Kachin State; we are hopeful that these initial visits will produce the long-term sustained access these organizations need. Smaller community based Kachin organizations we spoke with have emphasized the need for these larger organizations to continue to fund smaller service delivery groups who do not need government permission to deliver assistance to IDPs in difficult to reach places. We have continued to press the government to allow ongoing humanitarian access for all groups which is crucial not only for delivering assistance but also laying the groundwork for the kind of trust that a ceasefire requires.

Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and Kachin Independence Organization (KIO)

The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) is a political group that has fought for secession from the state since Myanmar was granted independence from Britain in 1948. Its military wing is the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).

The Kachin Independence Army (KIA) is a military group that has fought for secession from the state since Myanmar was granted independence from Britain in 1948. Its political wing is the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO).

Kachin rebels have a reputation for fearsome hit-and-run guerrilla tactics that date to World II, when Kachin rangers fought with legendary bravery for the Allied side, even as other parts of present-day Burma fell under Japanese occupation. The largest and most active group today is the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). KIA does not give out information on its troop strength, but is thought to have several thousand soldiers under its command. Until fairly recently it had observed a ceasefire with the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) since 1994. [Source: Human Rights Watch, Sold to Be Soldiers, October 31, 2007]

Hannah Beech, Time wrote in Time: “A ragtag militia outfitted with rifles sometimes held together by duct tape, the KIA makes up what it lacks in technological sophistication with grit born of a long martial tradition. In the decades before their 1994 cease-fire with the Burmese army, the Kachin excelled in the kind of morale-sapping insurgency that can stymie a larger national army. Hundreds of Burmese soldiers have died on the Kachin front since the June 2011 cease-fire broke. [Source: Hannah Beech, Time, January 28, 2013]

Kachin Independence Army and Child Soldiers

former Kachin State flag

Human Rights Watch has accused the KIA of using child soldiers. One KIA representative told Human Rights Watch in 2007: “Frankly speaking, in the past the KIA was not aware of international regulations restricting child soldiers so we recruited children. In Kachin culture there are no special rights for children so they didn't know it was wrong to do so. But now since the world is saying that child soldier recruitment and forced labor are human rights violations we have come to realize that it is not right to mobilize child soldiers. But we still have not decided on how to respond to the issue. [Source: Human Rights Watch, Sold to Be Soldiers, October 31, 2007 ]

He added, "We have child soldiers but not intentionally. We do not purposely mobilize children. In many cases child soldiers come and ask to join the KIA because they are from poor families. There is no minimum age in the KIA." However, the KIA view of what constitutes a "soldier" differs somewhat from that of other groups. Though accepting children into the army, the KIA apparently sees this as a form of caring for vulnerable children, and does not see anything wrong in this: "In the KIA the child soldiers issue is not considered a serious problem. We have never regarded using child soldiers as a human rights violation. We house child soldiers in the army compound and they are allowed to stay with the officers. They stay as if they are the dependents of the officers and the officers become like a parent to them."[258] Some of these children, while already registered as soldiers, continue to attend school, while others work around base camps. The KIA admits that even in their officer training program there are candidates who are under 18; graduates of Tenth Standard (high school) can enter officer training regardless of age.

According to a KIA soldier who enlisted a long time ago at age 15, the KIA previously operated under a 1972 directive forbidding it from conscripting anyone under age 16, but allowing it to accept volunteers younger than that. However, since 2005 he reports that the KIA has "restricted the mobilization of youth" and created a program to support those who volunteer for the army to continue their education. He estimated that there are about 50 soldiers in the entire KIA who are under 16. He was unsure how many 16- and 17-year-old soldiers there are, but estimated that their number is probably around 250. This does not include children in officer training, and may not include children attending school while registered as KIA soldiers.

Kachin, Kachin Rebels and China

Jason Motlagh wrote in the Washington Post: “The KIA is financed largely by taxes and illicit cross-border trade in products ranging from dry goods to teak, highlighting its awkward relationship with China, its lifeline to the world. In Laiza, the Chinese yuan is the currency, and Chinese mobile phone networks keep locals connected. China hosts Kachin university students, and when soldiers are seriously injured, lax border controls allow them to be taken to better hospitals for treatment. Even basic necessities such as medicine and rice are smuggled into Kachin territory. This dependence is tempered by the fact that Chinese-funded infrastructure projects are at the crux of the conflict in Kachin state. “We are neighbors in more ways than one, and we can’t avoid each other,” said Sumlat Gun Maw, the Kachin general, measuring his words carefully. “We welcome investment from China . . . as long as it doesn’t hurt civilians.”[Source: Jason Motlagh, Washington Post, June 29, 2012 ::]

Hannah Beech wrote in Time, “Kachin is a resource-rich region located at a strategic crossroad between Burma and China...Decades ago, Beijing funded communist-linked ethnic rebels in northern Burma who battled the national army. Although the Chinese government later became one of the Burmese junta’s few international patrons, it still maintains informal relations with various ethnic armies. Several rounds of peace talks between the KIA and Burmese government have taken place in China’s neighboring Yunnan province — although to no avail so far. [Source: Hannah Beech, Time, January 28, 2013 ^]

“There are economic interests for China too. Oil and gas pipelines — which originate in Burma’s western Arakan (or Rakhine) state, another ethnically combustive region, and snake through Kachin areas — are likely to begin flowing in June, 2013, channeling badly needed energy resources to interior China. Any instability in these ethnic regions could compromise Beijing’s attempts to secure natural resources for its economic engine. Already, unrest in Kachin, as well as a Burmese civil-society groundswell, led to Thein Sein ordering a suspension of construction of the Myitsone Dam, a massive project in Kachin that would send nearly all its electricity to China. When a top Chinese delegation visited Burma earlier this month, the sanctity of Chinese-backed projects, ranging from Myitsone Dam to a copper mine, was a key topic of discussion. ^

“Because it borders China and because of what’s underground, Kachin is very important geopolitically,” Matthew Smith, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, told Time. “That does not, however, totally explain the way the Burmese army conducts war there. That is related to the complex history of ethnic relations in Burma, and the plight of the Kachin is, ultimately, an ethnic war.” ^

Kachin Independence Army soldiers

Kachin Fighting in 2011 and 2012

A 16-year truce with the Kachin rebels unraveled in 2010 and fighting erupted in June, 2011 near the Myitsone dam, a controversial joint venture between the Burmese government and state-owned China Power Investment Corp. that would have sent 90 percent of the electricity generated to China’s southwestern Yunnan province. Thein Sein later halted construction in response to protests over forced evictions and environmental concerns, a rare bow to public pressure that rankled Chinese officials. [Source: Jason Motlagh, Washington Post, June 29, 2012]

The BBC reported: “Burmese troops have been involved in deadly clashes with Kachin rebels near a northern site where China is building a hydro-electric power plant. At least four rebel fighters and 16 government troops have died. A truce between the government and rebels from the Kachin ethnic minority broke down last year when rebels refused to become state border guards. It is among the worst violence reported in Burma since March, when the military handed power to a civilian government. [Source: BBC, June 14, 2011 ]

“The fighting appears to have started with a government offensive to force rebels belonging to the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) away from an outpost in an area where China is building two dams as part of a hydro-electric power plant. The US Campaign for Burma, a Washington-based lobbying group, said hundreds of Burmese government troops had been deployed. More than 2,000 people had fled the fighting, mostly into China, the group said. A rebel spokesman confirmed the rebel deaths.

The next day the BBC reported: KIA “rebels say they have destroyed several bridges in the north of the country to prevent attacks by the army. The rebels said they had blown up two bridges in neighbouring Shan state. Separately, activists said two Kachin political leaders who are not linked to the current fighting have been put under house arrest. The Thailand-based Kachin News Group reported that the destroyed bridges were on a major trading route into China. Meanwhile, Kachin activists said the government had put under house arrest Zahkung Ting Ying and Waw Lau - who belong to militant groups that have accepted a government ceasefire. The government is reportedly trying to use their militias to attack the KIA[Source: BBC, June 15, 2011]

By spring 2012, , the fighting had uprooted 75,000, according to a report by Human Rights Watch, which accused the Burmese military, since last June, of having “threatened and tortured civilians during interrogations for information about KIA insurgents, and raped women.” The Army also, according to the report, “used antipersonnel landmines and conscripted forced labor.” It accused the K.I.A. of “using child soldiers and antipersonnel landmines.” [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, August 6, 2012 -]

Abuses by the Myanmar Military and KIA in Kachin Areas

In March 2013, Gwen Robinson wrote in the Financial Times: “Both the Myanmar army and Kachin rebel fighters have been accused of “serious abuses” by Human Rights Watch in a conflict that has displaced 75,000 people and threatens to undermine the government’s attempts to open up the economy. Human Rights Watch said Myanmar’s military has tortured civilians and raped women during interrogations, and used anti-personnel mines and forced labour. “Children as young as 14 have been tortured and forced to serve as army porters, including on the front lines,” it said. The KIA has also been involved in “serious abuses”, it added, including using child soldiers and landmines. “Human Rights Watch found no tangible signs that the authorities in the KIA or the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) – the KIA’s political wing – are seriously addressing either practice,” the group said.[Source: Gwen Robinson, Financial Times, March 20, 2013]

Jason Motlagh wrote in the Washington Post, “International rights groups accuse the Burmese army of deliberate attacks against civilians, torture, rape, forced conscription and summary executions. Both sides employ child soldiers and seed the ground with land mines that have claimed the lives of combatants and civilians alike. :: [Source: Jason Motlagh, Washington Post, June 29, 2012 ::]

“Hka Htum Lu, 42, arrived on foot four months ago with her family after their village came under attack. Several weeks ago, her husband went back in search of belongings. He has not returned.“It’s hard to say what’s missing most, because we lost everything,” she said while nursing one of her six children. Like many others, the family subsists on rations of rice and salt provided by the KIA’s political wing, and whatever else it can scrounge from the forest. ::

Across town, a group of Burmese child soldiers passed the day chain-smoking cigarettes between meals at a lightly guarded cinder block compound. Nay Myo Oo, 16, said he was forced to join the Burmese army after a bogus arrest and trained to lay land mines until he ran away. Now his feelings are mixed: He’s relieved that his combat days are over but worried he’ll never see his family again. Citing a shortage of money and manpower, Kachin officers concede there are perhaps 100 underage soldiers in their ranks but insist they are there to be disciplined, not sent out to fight. “ ::

Kachin Refugees

The fighting has displaced an estimated 75,000 civilians amid reports of grave human-rights abuses. Most of the refugees live in ramshackle camps along the Chinese border in rebel-controlled territory. As many as 10,000 have fled to China, and the rest are in camps around the riverside capital of Kachin state, Myitkyina, which is about 25 miles south of the Myitsone project. [Source: Jason Motlagh, Washington Post, July 14, 2012]

Diplomats and aid workers broadly agree with Human Rights Watch estimates that the fighting in 2011-2013 has displaced at least 75,000 civilians in Kachin areas. Most have sought refuge in some 30 camps along the Chinese border in KIA-controlled areas mostly in Dehong Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan Province. Some rights groups say nearly 100,000 people have been displaced by the fighting, with an unknown number of casualties. [Source: Gwen Robinson, Financial Times, March 20, 2013; The Guardian, February 5, 2013]

China Forces Kachin Refugees to Return

In August 2012, the New York Times and China Digital Times reported that despite human rights groups urging China to protect them, thousands of Kachin refugees have been forcibly sent back to Myanmar. Thousands have fled to escape violence between the Myanmar government and the Kachin Independence Army: [Source: China Digital Times, New York Times, August 24, 2012]

“All the refugees in China now are being pushed back,” said one resident of Laiza, the capital of the rebel-held part of Kachin State. “Many of them are back already.”Officials in Yunnan and Beijing had been tolerating the presence of the Kachin refugees for more than a year, although Yunnan officials had been threatening to evict them. It is not clear why the refugees are being expelled now.

According to the Global Times, authorities in Yunnan Province have denied forcing the refugees to leave. Officials from the Yunnan government and the government of Ruili, a town bordering Myanmar, told the Global Times that they hadn’t received any orders to pressure the Myanmar people who had fled to the province to leave. “The Chinese government does not need to ask them to leave because it’s very common for Kachin people to come to Yunnan to visit relatives and friends as they share the same ancestors,” Zhu Zhenming, director of the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies at the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times.According to the expert, Kachin people belong to the same ethnic group as Jingpo, a Chinese ethnic group who mostly live in the Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture of Dehong, which administers Ruili.

Human Rights Watch has stated China should stop forced returns due to the violence and lack of aid in Northern Myanmar: “China is flouting its international legal obligations by forcibly returning Kachin refugees to an active conflict zone rife with Burmese army abuses,” said Bill Frelick, Refugee Program director. “China should urgently change course and provide temporary protection for the refugees in Yunnan Province.” The Kachin refugees repatriated the week of August 19 were not allowed to remain in the more than a dozen makeshift camps in China in which they had lived since June 2011. In July 2012, authorities in Yunnan Province, along Burma’s northern border, visited Kachin refugees and informed them they were no longer welcome in China and had to return to Burma.

Recent Activity in Kachin Fighting

In May 2014, the Burmese government and Kachin Independence Army signed a preliminary ceasefire agreement that would lead to further progress towards reaching a peace deal. The parties however, failed to reach an official ceasefire agreement.

In March 2018, Myanmar Armed Forces (the Tatmadaw) launched airstrikes against the KIA in Tanai Township, which is part of a large mining region. In April 2018, Tatmadaw soldiers allegedly attacked KIA positions in the KIA-controlled Mansi Township, though no reports of fighting emerged from the region. The KIA later raided the Tatmadaw's Battalion 86 military base in Hpakant Township on 6 April 2018, killing eight government soldiers and capturing 13

After the 2021 Myanmar coup, the KIA has refused to recognize the military regime and soon clashes have resumed between the KIA and regime troops. KIA claimed it had seized 10 Myanmar military bases

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2022

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