They have been preparing for this crisis since 1994. They have built a disciplined, equipped, determined force not of hundreds, not of thousands, but of tens of thousands. They are the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), and they are not alone. They stand with the United Wa State Army and the Shan State Army, each able to field tens of thousands of fighters in their own right, and with whom the KIA has held extensive joint military training exercises in the past years.
On the car radio are freedom songs, and at one of the training camps a course in traditional dance is being run - cultural nationalism and propaganda is strong.The Kachin stand against the Junta in charge of Burma, and, as you read this, they are digging trenches, fortifying their artillery positions, and mobilizing their reservists.
The Burmese Junta has ordered these autonomous ethnic armies undertake a Sophie's choice of sorts: disarm, or merge with the Burmese Army before the upcoming 2010 'elections'. The ethnic armies of Burma seem unwilling to comply. the KIA's Chief of Staff, Maj Gen Gam Shawng today told the BBC that:
"I can't say if there will be war for sure, but the government wants us to become a border guard force for them by the end of the month. We will not do that, or disarm, until they have given us a place in a federal union and ethnic rights as was agreed in 1947."
This past Friday, Kachin News reported that all Burmese forces stationed in the north had been told to prepare for combat.
Crisis has come to Kachin, a corner of South East Asia rarely in the news. The outcome of this crisis, however, may have far reaching consequences. The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) may be mobilizing the KIA in the hopes of entering into a very dangerous game of coercive diplomacy with the Burmese Junta. While they have little hope of military victory against the incredibly strong Burmese Army, they can threaten constant instability through protracted guerrilla combat in the jungles of northern Burma -- something that China (the Junta's biggest supporter) cannot tolerate, and the Chinese have already begun to attempt a de-escalation in the region. China has approximately $600 Billion dollars of investments and interests tied up in Burma, and they could stand to lose much of it should the looming threat of conflict blossom into civil war.
Don't count on China to be the champion of de-escalation.
The Kachin should not look to China as a possible stabilizer of this situation. Should armed revolt break out in the region, expect a rapid deployment of PLA troops to the region. China has already begun plans for the massive Myitsone Dam of the Irrawaddi River in the Kachin region -- which would flood approximately 300 square miles, and displace thousands of locals -- while providing massive amounts of power to Yunnan Province. The dam is to be constructed by Junta forces, and ground is scheduled to be broken this year. I would not expect any delays in construction to be welcome news to Beijing or Yangon.
There are also transnational issues at play here. While the KIA/KIO has banned the production of opium in their region -- and have embarked on radical eradication campaigns to enforce their ban, the neighboring Shan state has seen a 300% increase in opium production in their region. Should combat break out in the region, criminal groups, narcotic funded insurgents, and those seeking to profit from a decline in the rule of law will profit -- and those profits may radically protract any conflict.
War may be inevitable in Kachin.
The bottom line? Civil War is likely in Burma, and soon. Any war will involve tens of thousands of soldiers. It will be protracted, messy, and will involve high civilian casualties. Chinese involvement is ensured. Furthermore, the Kachin dyaspora is spread from China to India, and comprises approximately 1.5 million people. With the outbreak of violence, Indian, Burmese, and Thai involvement is possible. Western power involvement is possible. Regional destabilization is ensured. Keep your eyes on northern Burma -- and hold your breath. This will be the first time we at Demagogues and Dictators have predicted an outbreak of armed conflict, and we hope it will be our last.