February 09, 2013

General Gunhtang Gam Shawng by Jane's Intelligence Review

 General Gunhtang Gam Shawng, Chief of staff of the KIA, and VP 2 of the Kachin Independence Council

Jane’s Intelligence Review, 05-Feb-2013, Curtis Lambrecht

General Gunhtang Gam Shawng has played a key role in reforming the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) since he assumed the chief of staff position in 2004. A stalwart nationalist and devout Baptist, Gen Gam Shawng is well known among the Kachin population for his outspoken views and heavy-handed opium eradication schemes. He particularly earned notoriety as a hardliner when serving as a battalion commander in Hpakant. Following the collapse of the formal 1994 ceasefire in June 2011, the Myanmar armed forces (Tatmadaw) have been undertaking a concerted military offensive against the KIA. The operation, which has included several combat divisions, sustained bombardment with heavy artillery, and the first concerted use of MI-24P Hind attack helicopters and K-8 attack aircraft by the Tatmadaw, marks the heaviest bout of fighting since the resumption of conflict between the KIA and government forces.

In January 2013, amid an intensified assault by Myanmar’s armed forces
(Tatmadaw) against the KIA’s military headquarters in Laiza, General Gunhtang Gam Shawng told IHS Jane’s : “The Burmese want to solve political problems with the Kachin through force of arms; this has been the military’s solution to political conflict for the past 50 years.”

Gen Gam Shawng said the Myanmar government was trying to occupy the KIA’s key bases along its defensive perimeter “to weaken the [KIA’s political wing] Kachin Independence Organisation’s (KIO) resolve, forcing them to negotiate from a position of weakness”. He believed the Tatmadaw would not capture Laiza, “as doing [so] would run counter to its public relations efforts to cast itself as peaceful and democratic”.

Since coming to power in March 2011, Myanmar’s new nominally democratic government has concluded ceasefire accords with nearly all of the country’s armed ethnic forces, with the promise of future political negotiations. The KIO is the last major holdout in this process. As Gen Gam Shawng explained, negotiations with the KIO have faltered on two procedural points: the government’s insistence on a ceasefire before any political discussions, and the government’s stance that political solutions occur within the framework of the 2008 constitution. From the perspective of the KIO, a ceasefire in the absence of substantive political guarantees is a trap into which it has fallen previously. Gen Gam Shawng said: “Whenever the Burmese say peace, it really means ceasefire, it does not include a solution to the political problems that have driven the conflict. Our ceasefire in 1994 provided us with 17 years of experience with that kind of peace.” He noted that the Tatmadaw used the intervening period to strengthen itself and put the KIO into a political trap. On the second point, he said: “If we have a political dialogue under the framework of the 2008 constitution, then it will be nonsense.”

In a 2007 meeting with IHS Jane’s , Gen Gam Shawng said the KIO’s involvement in the constitutional drafting process had “compromise without any benefit,” adding that the constitution provides “no promise, no hope, no benefit, and no positive outcomes” for Kachin. Gen Gam Shawng is not hopeful for a political solution in the short term. “We assume that the Myanmar government does not have any enthusiasm or interest in adhering to the spirit of the Panglong Agreement,” he said, referring to the 1947 agreement that secured the inclusion of ethnic states in the Union of Burma. In the agreement, Kachin and other ethnic groups were promised “full autonomy in internal administration” and “rights and privileges which are regarded as fundamental in democratic countries”. Gen Gam Shawng said the arrangement “gives too many advantages to the ethnic peoples in their areas, and so the Burmese don’t want to actualise that historical promise.” He explained: “...we know that if we stop the armed struggle, there will be insufficient pressure on the government to discuss politics. If we cease fighting it will mark the end of our political struggle.” However, he predicted “the Burmese cannot sustain the war, given the heavy casualties they are suffering,” noting that in capturing KIA bases, Myanmar had incurred heavy losses.

Gen Gam Shawng regards the new government’s version of “disciplined democracy as a sham”, but he acknowledged that it had loosened the political environment in parts of Myanmar, adding that “civilians have already begun to raise objections to the war and if they do so more loudly this may also destabilise the military’s control and raise the possibility of a coup”. He said continued fighting was also untenable in light of the government’s plans to assume the ASEAN chairmanship in 2014, and with nationwide elections scheduled for 2015.

Although resolute, Gen Gam Shawng did not rule out a change in tactics.

“Morally we will never surrender or disarm until we secure our rights, but we can change in appearance,” he said. “If necessary we will take off our uniforms and fight in the cities like the Irish Republican Army (IRA). We realise we will be in trouble and will suffer hardship but we are more worried about being stuck politically. We will hold the gun and talk.

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