This paper aims at examining humanitarian access in Myanmar’s northernmost state: Kachin state. We will first provide a brief overview of the Kachin conflict, using the “3 Ps” conflict analysis model, whereby one should focus on “parties”, “problems” and “processes” (Valenzuela, 2021). Then, we will focus on the past and current state of humanitarian access in Kachin. Lastly, we will describe the humanitarian consequences of conflict in Kachin state, stressing the role restricted humanitarian access has played.
- Conflict analysis
Myanmar is a highly ethnically diverse country located in Mainland Southeast Asia. More precisely, the state recognizes 135 distinct “national races” (International Crisis Group, 2020, p. 7). Ethnic grievances and power-sharing between different groups have been central – while not being the only causes of violence – to the plethora of armed conflicts that have plagued the country since it gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1948 (Pepper, 2018, p. 3). An example of such highly complex and protracted hostilities, Myanmar’s Kachin state has been affected by more than six decades of war between Myanmar central government’s armed forces –the Tatmadaw – as well as the Kachin Independence Organization ( KIO).
Chronology of hostilities
The Kachin conflict finds its roots in the 1947 Panglong Conference, where the representatives of different Burmese ethnic groups came together to discuss the formation a Union of Burma, independent from the British Crown. The Kachin agreed to the formation of such a unitary state “in return for promises of full autonomy in internal administration and an equal share in the country’s wealth” (Jaquet, 2015, p. 9). The assassination of general Aung San, the negotiations ‘chief instigator, brought disillusionment over the Panglong promises as well as a climate of mutual suspicion (Jaquet, 2015, p. 11). The 1947 Agreement was never fully implemented. Kachin people, feeling betrayed by a Rangoon-based government oblivious to their “ethnic interests and realities” formed the KIO in 1961 and started rebelling. A year later, General Ge Ne Win, commander in chief of the Burmese armed forces took power in a coup d’Etat. He put in place an authoritarian regime that would last almost half a century. Ne Win abolished the federal system (BBC News, 2021), “curtailing ethnic minorities’ rights” (Council on Foreign Relations, 2021) as he was seeing frontier ethnic peoples’ desire for autonomy as a threat for national unity (Haque, 2017, p. 3). The KIO “quickly gained control over large areas of Kachin and Northern Shan States” over the subsequent years (Jaquet, 2015, p. 12). In the early 1980s, several rounds of negotiation were held between the KIO as well as with the military-based government (Jaquet, 2015, p. 13). Yet it was not until 1994, however, that both parties signed a ceasefire that would last for seventeen years. KIO’s involvement in political dialogue can also be seen with their participation in the National Convention process that led to the drafting of a new Constitution in 2008 (Jaquet, 2015, p. 13).
The 1994 ceasefire period enabled both parties to benefit economically from the exploitation of natural resources. This time also saw an increased militarization of the region, with the Tatmadaw “building a large number of bases across Kachin State” (Humanitarian Policy Group, 2018, p. 4). The truce focused on military arrangements and did not address grievances (Jaquet, 2015, p. 14). Thus, it is no surprise if violence relapsed in 2011.At that time, the Tatmadaw “launched an offensive against the KIO”, putting an end to almost two decades of relative calm between the two actors and displacing “more than 100 000 civilians” (Humanitarian Policy Group, 2018, p. 11). As Yun Sun (2014, p. 4) explains: “the most immediate trigger of the fighting was the dispute over the control of an area where the Chinese Dapein Dam was built earlier that year”. Other explanations lie in the disagreement over the status of the KIO. The latter refused to transform the KIA into a Border Guard Force, militias under the supervision of the Tatmadaw. The central Myanmar government subsequently “rejected KIO attempts to form a political party to contest the 2010 elections” (Humanitarian Policy Group, 2018, p. 11). Further causes of the relapse of violence include “decades of built-up tensions” as well “unresolved ethnic grievances” (Yun Sun, 2014, p. 4). The resumption of open conflict has eroded Kachin’s already fragile trust in the government as well as the nationwide peace process. It can even be argued that the mere idea of a “Union” of Myanmar has been undermined. At the same time, Kachin nationalism has seen a revival, leading to demands for “complete autonomy or even independence” (Humanitarian Policy Group, 2018, p. 5).
In the late 2000s, Myanmar started a gradual transition ending with the landslide victory of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in the 2015 elections. A semi-civilian government led by President Sein Thein won popular vote in 2010. The president sought to “negotiate a series of peace agreements with a series of ethnic armed groups” (Jaquet, 2015, p. 15), thereby launching a national peace process aimed at a reaching a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) (UN Women, 2017, p. 7). Larger armed groups, however, refused to the text (USIP, 2018, p. 4). That was the case of the KIO, weary of the government and dubious about its ability to control the Tatmadaw. More recently, conflict has seen an upsurge in 2018, when the Tatmadaw “stepped up its attacks on KIA positions” (USIP, 2018, p. 23). Myanmar’s transition to democracy has just been a façade, as the military seized back power in a coup in early February, ferociously cracking down on any opposition and blatantly violating human rights. That did not come as a surprise for a certain number of scholars. As some of them explain, the nationwide peace process in Myanmar has been an example of “illiberal peacebuilding, which aims to contain rather than to resolve conflicts” (Moo Kham, 2021). Initially peaceful, the pro-democracy civil disobedience movement that emerged as a result of the February events has gotten gradually organized and citizens have started to take up the arms. Opponents to the junta have indeed formed a shadow National Unity Government, seeking international legitimacy. In parallel, Peoples’ Defence Forces (PDFs), grassroots militias opposed to the junta have emerged across the country. Last September 7th, the NUG declared a “people’s defensive war » against the Tatmadaw, “urging citizens across the country to revolt” (CNN, 2021).In the aftermath of the February coup, violence has increased (OCHA, 2021) “fighting has intensified between the Myanmar Security Forces, EAOs and PDFs in several parts of Burma, “including Kachin state” (UNICEF, 2021). OCHA reports “nearly 50 clashes” in Kachin state since mid-March as of the end of September 2021.
The KIO is the main non-state actor in Kachin state (Humanitarian Policy Group, 2018, p. 7). Its headquarters are located in Laiza, at the border with China (Haque, 2017, p. 6). For most Kachin people, the KIO protects “Kachin national and cultural identity”, and safeguards “the rights and liberties of civilian communities” (Humanitarian Policy Group, 2018, p.7). The entity is “committed to federalism as the ultimate political solution to Myanmar’s protracted conflicts” (Humanitarian Policy Group, 2018, p. 4). Its armed wing, the Kachin Independence Army has been described as “one of the largest and most influential ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) in Myanmar” (Humanitarian Policy Group, 2018, p. 4). While the KIA represents a source of protection for civilians, it can also be a threat, as it has been killing and forcibly recruiting civilians in the past (Humanitarian Policy Group, 2018, p. 7).
The KIO/KIA has sometimes referred to as an “ethnic guerilla army” (AP News, 2021). However, as National Geographic (2019) explains: “the sophistication of the KIO’s administration” suggests that this is “far more than a ragtag band of militiamen running around the jungle.” Rather, the organization “operates a small but well-organized proto-state.” The KIO “provides various social services in Kachin state” (Haque, 2017, p. 6). The KIA is producing its own weapons. On top of that, it has created alliances with other ethnic armed organizations, the most important ones being the Taang National Liberation Army (TNLA), as well as the Arakan Army (AA) (Haque, 2017, p. 6). Together with the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the three groups have formed the Northern Alliance, a coalition of non-signatories of the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement aimed at “strengthening their military and political power” (USIP, 2018, p. 4). While it is one of the biggest ethnic groups supporting the current protest movement against the military junta, until now, the KIA has declined to form an alliance with the National Unity Government (NUG) (AP News, 2021).
The Myanmar armed forces, for their part, have been “the most powerful institution in Myanmar since 1948” (Al Jazeera, 2021). The number of soldiers composing the Tatmadaw was estimated around 500 000 as of September 2021 (The Irrawaddy, 2021). China’s role in the Kachin conflict is ambiguous. Myanmar’s powerful eastern neighbour has facilitated talks between EAOs and the military government (USIP, 2018, p. 5). While it has supported the Tatmadaw is several ways (by exercising its veto power at the United Nations or by providing weapons, for instance), China has also granted discrete help to some of the EAOs. One of the latest examples of China’s support to ethnic armed groups can be its provision of covid19 vaccines to the KIA (South China Morning Post, 2021). Private actors are also having an impact on the country’s dynamics. For instance, illicit entities, largely Chinese, involved in the traffic of Myanmar’s natural resources contribute to fuelling conflict in Kachin state (USIP, 2018, p. 8).
Main drivers of the conflict
Conflict in Myanmar is driven primarily by “the grievances of minority communities” demanding greater autonomy (Humanitarian Policy Group, 2018, p. 7). The Kachin case is no exception to the rule, the ethnic Kachin minority’s calls for more sovereignty are clashing with central government’s ambitions to “create a unitary state” (Haque, 2017, p. 4). In the same vein, it can be argued that conflict stems from disagreement over the institutional future of Myanmar as well as power sharing (Haque, 2017, p. 2). Natural resources are also playing a crucial role in the opposition between the KIO and the Tatmadaw. Parties are competing for their control in a region rich in timber, rare earths and with a great hydropower potential, amongst others. As Humanitarian Policy Group puts it: (2018, p. 5), “one of the main drivers behind armed conflict in Kachin State is a political economy worth possibly billions of US dollars per year”. The exploitation of jade mines is of particular importance to analyze the Kachin conflict (Lynn Ee-Ho, 2021). The central government has been exploiting jade mines for decade and a sense of exclusion from the mineral sector fuels Kachin nationalism as well as resentment and distrust towards Naypyidaw (Global Witness, 2015, p. 14). Jade is also of greater importance for the KIO as it remains its “largest source of income” (Global Witness, 2021, p. 33). Military commanders from both sides see control over those lucrative enterprises as a good way to expand their personal wealth. Natural resources not only fuel tensions, but they may even hamper any conflict resolution attempts. As Global Witness (2015, p. 14) illustrates: “the army families and companies that own many of the jade mines have the financial incentive and possibly the political reach to keep the conflict going”.
As Woods (2011, p. 3) explains, the Kachin conflict exemplifies what the author calls “ceasefire capitalism”. Woods coined the term to describe how the Burmese government was using ceasefires as a postwar strategy to increase its control over territories, resources and populations. Lynn Ee-Ho, for her part, (2021, p. 4) argues that “Kachin separatism” can be read as a “response to an un-caring state represented by the Myanmar military and its government”. Haque (2017, p. 4) joins her and affirms that he government is accused of having neglected the development of Kachin state, while profiting from the extraction of its resources (Haque, 2017, p. 4). On top of that, religious differences have also driven the conflict between a “double minority” (Christian-dominated Kachin population) and the Bamar majority, composed mainly of Theravada Buddhists. Furthermore, Kachin people are also seeking to defend their cultures and languages against Burman assimilation (IWGIA, 2020).Tensions in Kachin state can thus be understood through the prism of majority-minority dynamics. However, Haque (2017, p. 2) stresses the importance not to grant a disproportional importance to the ethnic factors at play in the Kachin conflict. “By no means”, she argues, “is the conflict in Myanmar just another ethnic civil war between majority and minority identities as it also has military, political and economic dimensions” (Haque, 2017, p. 2).
2. Humanitarian access and consequences
Humanitarian access “encompasses access by humanitarian organizations to those in need of humanitarian assistance and protection, and access by those in need to the goods and services essential for their survival” (Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland, p. 4, 2011). In Kachin state, access to people in need has been denied to international aid agencies in areas beyond government control since 2016 (OCHA, 2019). Even within government-controlled areas, access has continued to decline (OCHA, 2019). Reaching disaster-affected populations is also becoming increasingly delicate for local responders. In 2018, Kachin state’s “largest humanitarian responder”, the Kachin Baptist Organization, was forced to abandon its relief activities in KIO-controlled territories as the government accused the aid provider of “supporting the KIO by delivering food supplies to displaced people” (The New Humanitarian, 2021). Due to lack of authorizations: “people in remote areas cannot effectively be accessed” (OCHA, 2019). China has also allegedly been “complicit in blocking aid to Kachin refugees (the Irrawaddy, 2018).
National agencies’ access is also becoming more and more “unpredictable and complicated by delays and cumbersome procedures” (OCHA, 2019). In Kachin state, aid actors are experiencing bureaucratic hurdles. As UNICEF (2021) reports, “new administrative requirements are being put in place to obtain travel authorization to areas and townships that previously did not require it”. Not only is access rendered difficult by formal regulations, but it is also being jeopardized by a volatile and unstable security context. Local aid workers recount increasing fear to travel “as the military indiscriminately kills civilians and arrests thousands” (The New Humanitarian, 2021). As UNOCHA (2021, p. 3) reports: “there has been an increase in safety and security incidents across Kachin State” over the last two months “that have hampered movement of civilians and humanitarian workers”. Furthermore, relief organizations are also faced with the danger that aid could be used “as a cover for soldiers to enter hard to reach territories” (The New Humanitarian, 2021). Humanitarian access in the region was already “severely limited” under the former civilian government (The New Humanitarian, 2021). If humanitarian access was already under severe constraints, it has shrunk significantly since the coup. Access is expected to drop even further while humanitarian needs should starkly increase in the coming weeks and months (The New Humanitarian, 2021).
Humanitarian consequences of hostilities and lack of access
As ACAPS (2021) sums it up: “several years of conflict in Kachin have resulted in widespread food insecurity, disruption of government services, economic stagnation, and protracted displacement”. Further, fighting between the Tatmadaw and the KIA has also been characterized by “widespread and systematic breaches of human rights and international humanitarian (Humanitarian Policy Group, 2018, p. 7). The consequences of hostilities are felt disproportionally by people in remote areas as they experience a greater lack of quality food, nutrition, shelter, water, health and education. (OCHA, 2019) As of June, there were around 100 000 displaced persons in Kachin state (UNICEF, 2021). The recent intensification of tensions has spurred a new wave of displacement. According to UNOCHA (2021), more than 10 000 people have fled their home since March 2021. While some of them returned, “many remain afraid or unable to do so”. The majority has joined pre-existing Internally Displaced Peoples (IDPs) camps, but others live in makeshift camps.
Many displaced people are “out of reach of international aid” (OCHA, 2021). The lack of sustained humanitarian access is “preventing much needed improvements to living conditions” (OCHA, 2019). Under International Humanitarian Law, “parties to [a] conflict must allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief for civilians in need” (International Committee of the Red Cross, 2005). Humanitarian work in Kachin state is primarily carried out by the KIO as well as community-based organizations (both faith-based and secular) (Lynn Ee-Ho, 2021). Just like in all crisis settings, local actors are playing a key role in addressing the dire humanitarian situation. However, “access restrictions for humanitarian organizations have eroded the coping capacity of communities” (ACAPS, 2021). Besides, the disruption of banking services due to the civil disobedience movement as well as the limited availability of cash is further hindering relief efforts (AP News, 2021, The New Humanitarian, IFCR, 2021). Heavy monsoon rains and floodings are posing additional challenges to humanitarian responses (UNOCHA, 2021). Moreover, the public health sector has also undergone a reduction, as healthcare staffs have joined the civil disobedience movement (IFRC, 2021, p. 3). With a limited public health sector response as well as the new covid19 variants spreading rapidly across the country, the third covid19 wave “has significantly exacerbated the pre-existing humanitarian crisis” (IFRC, 2021, p. 3).
Lasting for six decades, the Kachin conflict is “emblematic of attempts by successive governments to dominate minority ethnic populations, create a unified country and identity, and also take control of the territory vis a-vis natural resources” (Jaquet, 2015, p. 9). Humanitarian access in the region has gradually been shrinking, resulting in a dire humanitarian situation exacerbated by external factors such as floodings or covid19.