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.
The KIA taking complete control of Hpakant could transform the conflict dynamics in Kachin State and Myanmar in three ways. First, given their capabilities and resolve, the KIA could deny the Tatmadaw access to a vital source of funding. If they sever the Tatmadaw from its jade mines, the KIA would depart from its nine-year history of sharing access to the mines during conflict, signaling their intent to degrade Tatmadaw capabilities on every front. Second, should the KIA use access to Hpakant as a bargaining chip, it may seek an autonomous zone encompassing former and new territory gained, much like the UWSA’s Special Administrative Region; AA’s pursuit of a similar arrangement indicates that the UWSA set a powerful example. Third, the KIA could leverage the mines to involve relatively neutral EAOs, like the UWSA and AA, in the current conflict. More weapons could be secured from the UWSA, including more advanced weapons platforms. A recent Global Witness report detailed rumors that China has discouraged the UWSA from selling more advanced weaponry to the KIA because of historic mistrust; however, if the KIA gains additional leverage over Chinese business interests it could alter that dynamic. Finally, the AA could be induced to abandon its apparent eight-month rapprochement with the Tatmadaw.
Ultimately, major KIA offensives may be constrained by conventional factors such as greater Tatmadaw capabilities in both areas and the unclear effects of environmental factors such as the rainy season and the latest wave of COVID-19. However, the national significance of these sites surely makes them tempting targets for the KIA. Compared to the other EAOs scattered around Myanmar’s periphery, the KIA can impose asymmetric localized economic and political pressure on the Tatmadaw at a national level. The eventual peak and decline of COVID-19’s spread in Myanmar along with the end of the rainy season in October may provide the favorable conditions necessary for major offensives against Myitkyina and Hpakant. Both locations illustrate that the key question of this crisis is not how can the opposition win, but rather, how does the Tatmadaw avoid losing?