Shaky Future for the KIO
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Shaky Future for the KIO

By Naw Seng APRIL, 2004 - VOLUME 12 NO.4

First an attempted coup then an assassination—the details are sketchy and conspiracy theories abound. It’s clear that all is not well within the Kachin Independence Organization. On a freezing winter evening in early January, some 300 Kachin soldiers and their commander stormed a mountain compound near the China border. Its occupants were away, at the home of Kachin Independence Organization leader Lamung Dr Tu Jai, attending a meeting of about 30 Kachin elders, youth leaders and KIO central committee members. The attackers knew the terrain well: the compound they were attacking was their own Pajau headquarters. And KIO vice president Gauri Zau Seng had no doubt as to why they had attacked: “It was a coup attempt.” The KIO was formed in 1961 by ethnic Kachin, who are mainly Christian, to fight for independence from Rangoon, partly in response to the government’s decision to make Buddhism the national religion. From 1968 it was also squeezed by the Chinese-backed Communist Party of Burma, or CPB. The CPB imploded in 1989, so left the KIO with only one foe, but in January 1990 its 4th Brigade defected to Rangoon. In 1992 unscrupulous Chinese arms dealers cheated the organization of its entire US $10 million war chest by taking payment then failing to deliver any weapons. The financial loss crippled the KIO and destroyed its chairman Brang Seng, who started drinking very heavily after the fiasco. The KIO signed a ceasefire with Rangoon in February 1994. Brang Seng died six months later aged 64. The ceasefire delivered neither security nor prosperity to the Kachin. With the end of hostilities the Burma Army presence has—instead of falling—increased considerably. Burmese military commanders treat the local population as if the state were a war zone. Consequently civilians suffer wartime brutality including forced labor and rape. In Putao there is widespread malnutrition. Within the KIO’s modestly sized free zone that borders China, cliques within the leadership have profited hugely from commercial ventures—mining, logging, hotels and tourism and other businesses—but little has filtered down to the population. Younger officers have grown disenchanted; some want to replace their aging superiors. Mutiny at Laiza “The problem is the personal interests of the KIO leaders,” said Gauri Zau Seng, “and it hurts the KIO and the Kachin people.” As the mutineers launched their January attack, KIA chief of staff General N’ban La was receiving medical treatment for kidney stones at a hospital in Kunming, China. When he learned of the revolt, he returned to headquarters immediately with his deputy Col Lazing Bawk and loyal troops. By the time they arrived, however, the suspected masterminds of the coup—KIO intelligence chief Col Lasang Awng Wa and Bawmwang La Raw, a Kachin businessman—had fled to China. The returning soldiers arrested Lt-Col Padip Gam Awng, an aide to the intelligence chief, and then KIO Vice President Brig-Gen Hpauyam Tsam Yan, who some believe was behind the insurrection. They and Lasang Awng Wa were also expelled from the party. Three years earlier there had been a much more successful coup. The First Coup On February 20, 2001, young, apparently reform-minded Kachin Army officers—led by N’ban La and intelligence chief Col Lasang Awng Wa—staged a bloodless takeover of the KIO headquarters in Pajau Bum. They ousted KIO chief General Zau Mai, who remains under house arrest, and chose deputy general-secretary Lamung Dr Tu Jai, aged 73, to front as president. But business might have been a greater motivating factor behind the coup than politics. N’ban La’s insurrection was backed by Bawmwang La Raw, a Kachin businessman who holds a British passport and keeps houses in Chiang Mai and London. He founded the Kachin National Organization, which he established from his home in Chiang Mai with overseas Kachin and a group of senior leaders from the Kachin “homeland”. The group’s brief is to work for an independent democratic Kachin nation-state. Bawmwang La Raw, who made his fortune trading Kachin jade during the 1980s, claims to have bankrolled the KIO to the tune of US $3.6 million. But from the early 1990s the organization lost much of its prime jade-mining territory to the Burma Army. It gave up the remainder in 1994, under the terms of the ceasefire treaty with Rangoon. Bawmwang La Raw feels that Zau Mai was responsible. The jade trader admitted to backing the 2001 coup effort, but pointed out that N’ban La and Lasang Awng Wa instituted no policy changes from their predecessor. They also failed to purge the ranks of Zau Mai’s flunkies, some of whom retained their positions in the party hierarchy. Bawmwang La Raw is miffed by the ceasefire arrangement and feels the overthrow was a good idea. “What has the KIO done for its own people in ten years of ceasefire?” he asked rhetorically.

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