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The Kachin Insurgency Could Deal a Heavy Blow to Junta

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Fans of John Burdett's  Bangkok novels will recall that the jade trade was the major theme of Bangkok 8.

From The Diplomat

The KIA threat to Hpakant and Myitkyina could cut off the military from the lucrative jade trade

With the February 1 coup, the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, sought to turn back the clock on the country’s nascent democratization. They opened Pandora’s box instead. Between the nationwide protest movement paralyzing the economy and the entrenched insurgencies, challenges mount against the military.

Analyses so far have considered the likelihood of Tatmadaw defeat in the context of a united front of ethnic armed organizations (EAOs). However, an underexamined element of the Myanmar crisis is how individual EAOs can exploit the chaos to inflict asymmetrical damage on the Tatmadaw. Nowhere is this more apparent than the military successes that the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has achieved under the coup, and the KIA’s potential to threaten local military targets of national significance. The KIA is uniquely positioned to hurt the Tatmadaw both economically and politically by capturing the jade mining hub of Hpakant and Kachin State’s capital of Myitkyina, dealing potentially major blows to the military.

Initially, the KIA offered little more than condemnations of violence inflicted on protesters, regarding the coup as a struggle over the 2008 Constitution, which it rejects. Before the coup, the KIA had engaged in ceasefire negotiations with the military, but recent Tatmadaw attacks on the KIA have reignited the conflict. Now, the KIA is committed to opposing the new military regime. Since March, the KIA has confronted the military throughout Kachin State. The group has reportedly captured about 10 military bases and defended these gains against a prolonged Tatmadaw siege. The KIA has also frequently clashed with the Tatmadaw at Hpakant and adjacent to Myitkyina.

As the capital of Kachin state, Myitkyina’s capture would crack one of the military’s ideological pillars: non-disintegration of the union. The Tatmadaw upholds this tenet as one of its Three National Causes. As a symbolic step toward independence for the KIA, the loss of Myitkyina would at least sap morale within Tatmadaw ranks and, at most, increase factional enmity toward the coup leader, General Min Aung Hlaing.

Complete control of Hpakant, meanwhile, would give the KIA the linchpin of the conflict economy in northern Myanmar. The jade trade is estimated to be worth $31 billion annually. The Tatmadaw and major EAOs rely on jade to bolster their war chests and to line their leaders’ pockets.

The web of cronies, EAOs, and Chinese businesses woven by the military to mine jade at Hpakant illustrates how battlefield enemies become business bedfellows. The KIA and Tatmadaw uneasily coexisted at the center of the web in taxing all aspects of jade mining in Hpakant before the coup. Through business intermediaries, the Arakan Army (AA) and United Wa State Army (UWSA) participated in the Tatmadaw-KIA jade condominium. As the destination of the jade, China had business interests in every step of the journey, on every side of the conflict, from mine to market. The development of this shared extractive arrangement between the Tatmadaw and KIA, a period that coincides with the breaking of their ceasefire in 2011, shows the limits of conflict in Myanmar. Now, the question is if the coup has changed the rules.

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