Using this negative image for media purposes and propaganda, to make the public believe that an insurgency "has lost its political ideals a long time ago' or "has become a corrupt movement looking for business" is one thing; but when the State itself begins to get convinced of this idea and bases its negotiation strategy on this wrong thesis is another. This can bring many disastrous consequences, one being the popular idea that you can co-opt rebels with economic incentives. This topic is discussed in a recently published investigation by David Brenner, called "Ashes of co-optation: armed group from fragmentation to the rebuilding of popular insurgency in Mayanmar".
Burma (or Myanmar), Southeast Asian country of 60 million inhabitants and with an area of ??678 500 square kilometers, has lived in a permanent state of civil war between ethnic groups and the government, since independence from the UK in 1948. Ethnic minorities such as the Shan, Lahu and Karen, constituting about 35% of the population, demand a degree of autonomy and representation in the government and in the economy.
In 2012, one of the most noted conflicts there was waged in the region of Kachin, a state in northern Burma. There operates the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), created in 1961, three years before the founding of the FARC-EP, in order to obtain autonomy for the Kachin ethnic group in the region. In the 90s, the guerrillas negotiated a bilateral ceasefire with the government, which was broken by government forces who launched an attack against the KIA in 2011. The conflict broke out again, and only since 2011 there have been 100,000 internally displaced and thousands of people have been killed.
So far the general information, let's get back now to the investigation of Mr. David Brenner. In the article, he describes how the Burmese government designed its strategy to reach a ceasefire on providing economic incentives to the insurgency. Brenner argues that this strategy of changing insurgent leaders into businessmen and thus co-opt them, disregarding their political and social demands, has failed.
The idea of co-opting the insurgency by buying the insurgents is based on the idea that insurgencies rise because of economic motivations that are defined as "greed"; that is, instead of perceiving the insurgent movement as a collective struggle against an economic system, it is understood rather as a struggle based on individual ambitions and motivations. This approach has been proposed by Paul Collier, but has been refuted by more recent quantitative studies, which show that the economic, political and social demands continue to motivate the existence of the various insurgencies in the world today.
The reality of Kachin is a practical demonstration of how wrong Collier's theory is, and it also shows the importance of learning from this mistaken and limited counterinsurgency approach. What happened?
The Burmese government used as the main tool to achieve a ceasefire with the KIA, economic benefits and opportunities for its leaders, offering productive projects in the region. The economy, once the ceasefire came into effect, began to prosper. Chinese companies started to exploit the gold mines, jade mining revived and timber exploitation.
At first, this had beneficial effects for the area that had been assigned to the KIO (Organization for Kachin Independence, which is part of the KIA) for them to administer. An efficient administrative structure was mounted, with departments of health, education, agriculture and women's issues. The guerrillas built schools, hospitals, infrastructure; they formed nurses, teachers.
But, on the other hand, many leaders of the KIO became corrupt; they began to favor their families, buy houses and land in abundance and they became business partners with their former enemies. Their individual economic interests led to internal conflicts and, ultimately, to the fragmentation of the movement?s leadership.
At the same time, amid the ceasefire that was still in force, the KIO could no longer protect civilians from abuses by government troops, who extorted, expropriated and displace people. The KIO was placed between the civilian population and the government, trying not to break the ceasefire while maintaining relationships of trust with the population at the same time, but the lack of protection and the participation of the KIO in destructive extractive industries made that people were losing their faith in the insurgency.
So far one might think that the government's strategy applied to the leaders of the insurgency had been successful, as the KIO was weakened, fragmented and discredited. However, in 2011, when government troops attacked KIA units, something happened that nobody expected ...
The KIO responded with a military force, an organizational discipline and popular support that stunned the world. While the old guard had taken care of business, initially the defections increased and the morale lowered. "We just didn't know what to fight for anymore", said a KIA soldier who spoke to the author of the essay in April 2014. But then a new leadership rose within their ranks, a new generation of cadres, led by Brig Gun Maw, who began to build strategic alliances with the two largest churches in the region, thus helping to restore legitimacy with the communities. Likewise, they began to recruit young people massively, for which they created the ?Education and Economic Development for Youth" youth movement department, which has incorporated hundreds of university and highschool students. In 2007 they founded a school for cadres and now they have approximately 10,000 well-equipped and well-trained fighters, in the political, military and ideological field.
The conflict revived in Kachin. The main lesson, according to academic David Brenner, is that economic incentives do not meet the political demands. If the legitimate political, economic and social demands of an insurgency are not met, it is likely that violence - sooner or later - will re-emerge with even greater force.