CHIANG MAI - In northern Myanmar, government troops continue to push into the heartland of the ethnic Kachin armed opposition. Next month, the renewed conflict will mark its first birthday, and while protracted fighting has eased in other areas of the ethnically diverse country, the battle for Kachin State rages on.
The limited gains made by government negotiators with at least six ethnic rebel groups over the past year make the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) something of an anomaly. Lower House member of parliament Aung Thaung, whose hawkish persona was seen as ripe for the recalcitrant group, was recently retired from his post as peace broker. More than five high-level meetings with Kachin officials failed to net a result, and as additional battalions are deployed to the frontline, the prospect of a ceasefire anytime soon seems unlikely.
The narrative runs that the Kachin distrust the government, which they fear could renege on an agreement and rekindle the conflict at any time. But their reluctance to sign a ceasefire runs deeper; indeed it is their experience with the recent era of "peace" that makes the three-point roadmap demanded by Aung Thaung - entailing a ceasefire and then economic development before cementing a political solution - so objectionable.
Among Kachin civilians, the 1994 ceasefire deal was seen to facilitate the rapacious development of the state, which 33 years of insurgency had somewhat stifled. The inflow of investment came with alarming levels of environmental degradation, particularly around areas rich in minerals, timber and hydropower potential. While the abuses associated with fighting lessened, including forced portering and rape, the number of people displaced by the development drive may well have taken a heavier toll than the years of conflict.
"While vast amounts of natural resources are being exploited from Kachin State and 'development' projects [are] implemented, the lives of the local people have not improved but have worsened," says a new report by the Kachin Development Networking Group (KDNG), a non-governmental organization that monitors the situation in Kachin State.
Neighboring China was a driving force behind the earlier ceasefire and today continues to press Naypyidaw to ensure "stability" in the region. Beijing had begun a pointed courtship of the then ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council junta in 1988, the same year the two governments signed comprehensive trade agreements that would allow China near unfettered access to Kachin State's valuable teak and jade.
It had also exerted pressure on the KIA to lay down its arms, marking a departure from previous years in which Beijing had offered support to the group as an erstwhile buffer against the Myanmar army. The move followed a shift in China in the late 1980s that saw its foreign policy come to be dominated by pragmatism over ideology, thus tempering China's support for revolutionary movements in favor of building stronger relations with governments that would allow it access to markets, particularly those rich in energy and natural resources.
Degradation as development
The Kachin experience came to symbolize how conversely destructive the so-called "development" paradigm in Myanmar would become. China had already given interest-free loans to Myanmar, starting with a US$1.4 billion offer in 1990. Much of this was to be used to improve infrastructure in Kachin state to facilitate the better flow of goods, particularly lumber and jade, across the border. (By fiscal year 2010/11, according to some estimates, a quarter of China's total investment in Myanmar was focused on Kachin state).
But social and environmental regulations surrounding logging and extraction were non-existent in the early 1990s, when investment began flowing into the region. Tight controls on access to resources would have run counter to the military government's economic objectives at the time. The realization of the value of its bounty in the border regions neatly coincided with efforts to boost military expenditure in the wake of the 1988 pro-democracy uprising.
Moreover, it had never placed a limit on the amount of logging allowed in Kachin state. Its only stipulation on the timber trade was that the timber pass through Yangon ports so it could be monitored and taxed by the central government. Yet according to a 2003 investigation by environmental watchdog Global Witness, 98% of the timber that entered China from Myanmar, much of it over the border, was illegal. The benefits were likely reaped by corrupt frontier officials and both government and KIA-allied smuggling rackets, according to the report.
The KIA were by no means innocent bystanders, and with the 1994 agreement began their own infrastructural projects that drew controversy. In 1997, the group recruited the Chinese company Jinxin to build two hydroelectric dams on Mali Creek and Dabak River. To generate funds for the projects, Jinxin, at the time the largest logging company operating in Kachin state, was given logging rights to areas under KIA control worth millions of dollars in revenue.
Senior ranking officials within the KIA are known to have lined their own pockets, despite the fact the organization (which became the de facto local government of a large section of western Kachin state) often struggled to generate adequate finance for basic development and social welfare.
The scourge of over-logging in the region has been quietly devastating. The industry expanded rapidly after 1994 as companies cashed in on the newfound stability, but genuine peace dividends were sorely absent. In the Hukawng Valley in northern Kachin State, one of the world's last surviving tiger habitats and supposedly the largest protected forest area in Southeast Asia, more than 200,000 acres of forest and farmland were cleared in 2007 for mono-cropping for biofuels. The drive to produce biofuels has seen the forced relocation of around 100 villages and brought with it militarization of an area that had been largely unaffected by the previous conflict.
As China learned in the mid-1990s, the impact of mass logging is often devastating. In 1998, China's Yanghtze River experienced heavy flooding, killing around 4,000 people and causing more than $25 billion in damage. Soil erosion from deforestation was seen as a major contributing factor, and while it sparked successful anti-logging campaigns from Chinese civil society, it also triggered a major push by Beijing to export its megaprojects abroad, mainly south into Myanmar.
The jade-rich Hpakant, where once forested mountains have over time become dusty heaps, was hit with heavy flooding in both 2009 and 2010, the former killing up to 70. In 2000, reports emerged that as many as 1,000 miners died when the nearby Uru River burst its banks and the water flowed underground. Experts said that the large deposits of debris may have blocked natural drainage systems.
The ceasefire also triggered a massive upsurge in the Myanmar troop presence in Kachin State, particularly in areas close to KIA territory and where the government was eyeing new extractive business ventures. Despite an end to fighting, peacetime paradoxically allowed both sides to beef up their manpower, manufacture vast quantities of weapons and station troops in strategically important locations. In that sense, the earlier ceasefire deal froze rather than terminated the war.
In Bhamo, for instance, which lies just 32 kilometers from KIA territory, government battalion numbers trebled from four to 12 between 1994 and 2003, with soldiers often sent to protect mining operations around Hpakant and close to hydropower dam construction sites.
No peace dividend
Militarization of these areas weighed heavily on the civilian population, while the local economy in Kachin State changed profoundly and vastly over a short period of time. When the KIA relinquished control of the jade mines around Hpakant as part of the 1994 deal, government-backed private businesses took over and extraction was dramatically ramped up.
The mining sector transformed from supplying hundreds of small-scale independent enterprises to being dominated by around 30 big companies, whose labor pool is comprised largely of a migrant workforce made up of Chinese and mainland Burmese with local Kachin either forced to the lower rungs or squeezed out of jobs.
Companies like Northern Star Trading, now a key player in Myanmar's mining industry, won concessions through close ties to the military and Chinese mining companies and now reportedly has overarching powers to determine who is allowed to mine in the region. Rules were passed that criminalized the setting up of independent projects, and those that attempted to strike out on their own were generally arrested and evicted by Myanmar troops on security detail.
The investment drive in Kachin State - entailing increased levels of militarization, widespread land theft and dwindling employment - tore at the ethnic minority group's social fabric. In the Hpakant region, for instance, widespread drug abuse took hold among disenfranchised and unemployed workers.
"Opium dens, where clients come to smoke opium or methamphetamines are scattered throughout the mining communities, but heroin sales are usually carried out in 'camps' a short walk away from the settlements," says a Kachin News Group report. "There are an estimated 50 such camps in the entire Hpakant area."
A thriving commercial sex industry also emerged, led largely by the wives and daughters of men who often had to spend weeks away from home to work in the mines and still could not earn enough to support their families. With that came an HIV/AIDS epidemic, and Kachin state now has some of the highest infection rates in Myanmar. (One non-governmental organization found HIV/AIDS rates in the KIA's ceasefire territory to be 16 times higher than the national average, partly on account of a 2008 government blockade on aid workers entering the region).
The focus of Kachin State's development potential has more recently shifted to hydropower. It has become a tussle between the KIA and government over ownership of water resources, and the extent to which future development carries a human cost. To those familiar with the pillage of the state's resources over the past 17 years, it came as little surprise that the epicenter of the fighting that erupted in June 2011 was the China-backed Dapein Dam. A year earlier a series of explosions hit the Myitsone Dam site, killing at least one Chinese worker.
Resentment among Kachins towards large-scale energy projects has been on the rise since 1994, when much of the state's most valuable real estate was transformed into objects of political barter. The boons of the projects have largely failed to trickle down to the local population. Had the now suspended Myitsone Dam gone ahead, 90% of the power produced would have been exported to China.
The transfer of ownership of the mines from the KIA to the government also hit the local population. Workers not contracted by the likes of Northern Star are banned from entering mine areas, while KDNG claims that those who can work are taxed up to 50% by the Mining Ministry.
The Kachin experience provides a cautionary tale for other armed ethnic groups, including the Karen National Union and Shan State Army, now edging towards ceasefires with the government. Outside mediators, including a "peace fund" recently launched by the government of Norway, are cajoling them to lay down their arms on the promise that peace will pave the way for development.
Those calls are expected to amplify with the European Union's recent decent to suspend sanctions, paving the way for Western investment in resource-rich border areas. The Kachin have already gone down that path and decided fighting was preferable to the exploitation and degradation of the government's model of development.
Francis Wade is a freelance journalist and analyst covering Myanmar and Southeast Asia.