This is the fourth in a series on the Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) of the Civil Conflict in Burma (also known as Myanmar). See links below for the rest of the series.
One of the more powerful of the Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs), the Kachin Independence Army (the KIA) has been greatly reduced by concerted military attacks on its territory by the Burma military since 2011. Despite this the KIA remains a formidable force and the area under its control, a long strip along the Burma-China border, operates as a de facto independent state and is protected by strong defences.
The Kachin people are a confederation of tribes that populate Himalayan foothills that stretch from north-eastern India, across northern Burma and into south western China. Currently it is believed that about one million Kachin live in Burma, with perhaps another 150,000 living in China.
The remote nature of their rugged homeland and their warlike nature meant that the Kachin people were largely ignored by the British, who notionally took over the area when they conquered Burma. The outside world didn’t really pay much attention to the Kachin until American missionaries travelled into their lands at the end of the 19th Century. These bought with them Christianity, which the Kachin adopted wholesale. Now the vast majority of Kachin in Burma are Christian.
The missionaries also created a written language, which is why Kachin is somewhat unique amongst Asian written languages for using the Latin alphabet without accents. They may also have created the term “Kachin”, a name that is certainly not indigenous and the origins of which are uncertain.
Apart from the missionaries, the outside world largely continued to ignore the people of the remote northern hills until World War Two. Then with the Japanese invasion of British Burma in 1942, outsiders had a need for the Kachin and especially their prowess as fierce mountain warriors.
William Donovan, founder of the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA, founded Detachment 101. This unit was set up to create guerrilla units to fight the Japanese behind the lines. And with the Kachin, there was a natural fit.
The Kachin already felt a deep affinity with the USA because of the huge impact American missionaries had had on their culture and society. Indeed, many of them still view America as a “big brother”. As a result large numbers of Kachin volunteered to fight with the American special forces.
As tough jungle fighters, they excelled. The Kachin Rangers, as they were named, proved an extremely effective force.
So great was the esteem that they were held by their American colleagues that now a pair of statues stand in the grounds of the US embassy to commemorate the relationship; one a tall American, cradling his tommy gun, the other a Kachin Ranger, guiding the way.
With the end of the war and the independence of Burma in 1947, the Kachin signed the Panglong Agreement with the leader of the new government, Aung San. This granted: “Full autonomy in internal administration for the Frontier Areas”. However, the murder of Aung San a few months after the agreement was made meant it was reneged on.
The 1950s were chaotic. Much of the country was racked by civil conflict between the central government and other ethnic groups. There was also disruption created by Nationalist Chinese army’s fleeing into the eastern parts of Burma after their defeat by the Communists and establishing their own zones of control there. This in turn bought the attention of Communist China, keen to protect their borders and spread their ideology.
In 1960 some renegade Kachin soldiers of the Burma Army, the Tatmadaw, formed the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO). A year later an armed wing was formalised; the Kachin Independence Army. It contained one hundred men.
Fighting really ramped up when the coup in 1962 saw a military dictatorship established in Burma. The KIA suffered a number of defeats during this period, but the brutal nature of the regime meant that the Kachin always had recruits to replace losses.
Added to this was the rugged nature of their homeland in Kachin State, which meant that the Tatmadaw could essentially control the cities and larger towns but not the remote and difficult to negotiate countryside. This advantage of terrain meant that the Kachin exploited illegal activities to fund their aspirations, smuggling jade, opium and weapons into and out of China and Thailand.
The leadership embraced communism, somewhat logical seeing as that China was the only real backer available to them, and the next thirty years was riven with political machinations as Kachin unity splintered over ideology and access to things like the narcotics trade.
The result was over three decades of shifting warfare and alliances as the KIA not only fought the Tatmadaw but occasionally clashed with communists outside and inside their own ranks. The Communist Party of Burma (CPB) was periodically the KIA’s ally and enemy during different years, and many of the old guard communists leaders were purged or killed in the ‘70s, followed by the communist-backed faction splitting from the KIA in 1989 to form the New Democratic Army – Kachin (NDA-K).
Then in 1994 a peace deal was signed between the KIA and the military government and the Kachin began to flourish. The KIO established a de facto independent state that controlled a substantial section of Kachin State. Infrastructure such as roads, power stations, hospitals and schools were built. An entire government was created, funded by trade with the rest of Burma and China.
The KIA also formalised, with officer and training academies being established and a weapon production and development industry being established. The Kachin began to make various light weapons for their forces. These including copies of the Chinese Type 81 rifle, designated by the Kachin as the M23, and the Type 56, made as the KA 2-5.
The KIA transformed from a guerrilla force to a much more conventional military, well equipped and supplied. Ironically, this development was to prove the military Achilles Heel for the Kachin. Though the KIA became a much more formidable military force in the years of peace, it also become more conventional.
The storm broke in June 2011. The Tatmadaw attacked the KIA in a widespread offensive.
The reason is thought to be that the Chinese government had constructed hydro-electric dams in KIA-controlled areas that were supplying electricity to China and paying lucrative sums to the Kachin as a result. The nature of the Burmese Army means that the officers act in many ways as feudal warlords, drawing revenue from their areas of control and passing a portion up the chain.
So the chance to grab control of interests that the Chinese were willing to pay good money to the owners for was irresistible.
Heavy fighting went on for six months, with the Kachin inflicting heavy casualties on the Tatmadaw. However, the KIA was not just facing the brutal Light Infantry Battalions that have been the mainstay of the Tatmadaw’s anti-guerrilla force throughout the Burmese Civil War, but conventional forces equipped with artillery, armour and MI-35 Helicopter gunships. The Tatmadaw also made heavy use of airstrikes against Kachin positions.
Now bound to defend the areas they had developed, the KIA was ground down and unable to hold. They fell back into the mountains, creating formidable defensive positions to try to protect the towns they controlled on the border, while the in the lost territory their field forces reverted to guerrilla warfare to continue contesting control.
Fighting has ebbed and flowed since then, with offensive and counter offensives and periodic ceasefires that the Tatmadaw is generally accused of being the party to break. Much of this has been over economic assets. The Tatmadaw officer corps, keen to grab more of the wealth possibilities, often targets areas that offer financial incentives. Kachin State offers many of those.
Jade, Gold and, perhaps most valuable of all, Rare Earth Minerals abound, as well huge teak forests. All of these neighbouring China has an insatiable appetite for.
The Tatmadaw also seized an opportunity to move more deeply into the drugs trade when the KIA decided they wanted no further part in it. As a result the Burma Army has seized much of the northern poppy areas and now controls much of this trade.
The war is now a slow pattern of periodic offensives by the Tatmadaw to grab ground either economically or tactically significant, slowly whittling away at the Kachin defences. Against the background of trench warfare along the frontline is the KIA guerrillas who inflict a steady flow of casualties on the Tatmadaw in ambushes and IED attacks throughout Kachin and Shan States.
The human costs of this continuing war will likely never be known, but in January 2020 the U.N. reported over 107,000 Internally Displaced People (IDPs) in camps in both government and KIO areas. Like much of the other conflict zones in Burma, the murder of civilians and human rights abuses are more a standard occurrence than the exception. Unfortunately this state of affairs, like the Burmese Civil War, is liable to continue into the foreseeable future.
Ed Nash has spent years traveling around the world. Between June 2015 and July 2016 he volunteered with the Kurdish YPG in its battle against ISIS in Syria; his book on his experiences, Desert Sniper, was published in the UK by Little, Brown in September 2018.