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Jan 18, 2013 | 20:38 GMT

A Possible Cease-Fire in Northern Myanmar

A Possible Cease-Fire in Northern Myanmar
Soe Than WIN/AFP/GettyImages

With the Myanmar military surrounding the rebel Kachin Independence Army headquarters in the Kachin state town of Laiza, and with external pressure to end fighting mounting from both China and the United States, Naypyidaw will look to leverage its stronger tactical position in its conflict against the Kachin forces to either secure a speedy and conclusive peace agreement or to justify continued military action. On Jan. 18, Myanmar's parliament unanimously passed a motion calling for a temporary cease-fire by Myanmar military forces, or Tatmadaw, in northwest Myanmar's Kachin state. The agreement is scheduled to take effect on the morning of Jan. 19, but the rebels have yet to confirm that they will comply. For the embattled Kachin, few options other than at least short-term cooperation remain.

Map - Myanmar's Ethnic Groups

A series of small-scale skirmishes between the Tatmadaw and Kachin forces in the mountains south of Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin state, has been ongoing since June 2011, when a 17-year armistice between the two sides collapsed. But fighting has escalated since Dec. 24, 2012, when the Tatmadaw demanded that Kachin forces withdraw from critical transportation routes between the towns of Bhamo and Myitkyina. The Kachin refused, prompting the military to launch an offensive in which government forces advanced to within a few kilometers of the rebel headquarters by the first week in January.

Since fighting began in 2011, the strategic aim of the Tatmadaw has been to cut off lines of supply and communication between the Kachin forces in Laiza and the rest of the region, while gradually encircling Laiza to force rebel capitulation. Thanks in part to its air dominance, the military has succeeded in surrounding the town and cutting off Kachin supply lines. But rather than allowing the Tatmadaw to occupy Laiza and try to crush Kachin forces (thus risking additional international criticism or sparking a protracted guerilla conflict), Naypyidaw is instead offering the rebels an olive branch — albeit one the Kachin cannot easily refuse.

The Kachin Independence Army also has repeatedly called for a cease-fire in recent weeks, but its delay in responding to Naypyidaw's offer highlights the risks inherent in each of its options: The Kachin could refuse the government's offer — a move that would indirectly allow the Tatmadaw to justify additional military action. Or the rebels could agree to the armistice, which would provide temporary respite at the risk of undermining the Kachin's political leverage against Naypyidaw. The Kachin may be forced to choose the latter, especially given the Myanmar government's standing offer to try to resolve tensions through negotiations in 2013.

Even if both sides agree to the cease-fire, it will not deliver a definitive end to tensions and conflict in the region. Myanmar President Thein Sein has made stabilizing Myanmar's ethnically diverse and historically restive borders a major priority, in no small part because these conflicts remain major obstacles to Naypyidaw's goal of attracting more foreign investment and diversifying away from dependence on Chinese support. But the Kachin Independence Army is unlikely to fully end its 40-year-long struggle for political independence. While Naypyidaw wants a peace agreement that would neutralize ethnic forces in northern Myanmar, the Kachin want political negotiations that would give them greater fiscal autonomy and control over Kachin state's natural resources, such as water, gold and jade. These divergent interests are unlikely to be reconciled in the near future.

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