The conflict and bloodshed in Kachin State have brought renewed international attention to Burma at a time when it continues to press ahead with its political opening.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the US government have both expressed concern at the worsening situation in Burma’s far north, and have asked the government and Kachin rebels to end the conflict and resolve their differences through dialogue.
The US is “deeply troubled” that the Burmese military is using aerial weapons in Kachin State, said US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. Meanwhile, the UN chief said that the government should “desist from any action that could endanger the lives of civilians” or intensify the conflict.
The Burmese armed forces have employed jet fighters and helicopters gunships in the latest clashes, which are taking place in the Lajayang region, about 11 km from Laiza, where the Kachin Independence Army makes its headquarters on the Sino-Burmese border.
The conflict between the Burmese and Kachin armies is reaching a fever pitch less than two months after US President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Burma, during which he highlighted the Kachin’s plight in a speech at Rangoon University on Nov. 19.
“You now have a moment of remarkable opportunity to transform ceasefires into lasting settlements, and to pursue peace where conflicts still linger, including in Kachin State,” said Obama.
But no one is listening.
In Rangoon, civil society groups and activists gathered peacefully to urge the government to end the year-and-a-half-old offensive. Former student leaders from the 88 Generation Students group have traveled to Kachin State to mediate. But the war machine in Kachin State continues accelerate.
The signs are not good. Leaders of Burma’s other ethnic groups are quiet. The silence from opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is also troubling. Thein Sein, Burma’s reformist president and soon-to-be recipient of a peace award from the International Crisis Group, has also failed to intervene. Despite being a former general and the country’s ostensible civilian leader, he clearly has limited control over the powerful armed forces.
Political analysts say that the president, who belongs to the 11-member National Defense and Security Council along with his two vice presidents and the commander in chief of the armed forces, Vice Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, is almost powerless against the Defense Ministry and the top generals, who were all handpicked by retired Snr-Gen Than Shwe.
Alleged tensions between Thein Sein and Min Aung Hlaing over the Kachin issue have not, however, prevented the President’s Office from dutifully spreading misinformation about the conflict.
“The aircraft being used are K8 training aircraft not fighter jets—that is the information I got from the military,” said Zaw Htay, a former army officer who is now the director of the President’s Office. “I have no information on the use of helicopters. There is a very difficult situation in Kachin state.”
But video footage of the fighting clearly shows that jet fighters and helicopter gunships took part in the attack. The rebels and reporters on the ground have a better sense of what’s going on in the battlefield and continue to relay the facts.
Realizing that their attempts at propaganda were failing, the military has since acknowledged launching airstrikes against the Kachin rebels, but tried to make it sound as if its actions were merely defensive, aimed at capturing a hilltop post from which the insurgents had attacked government supply convoys.
The attack and the ongoing conflict in Kachin State again raises questions about America’s invitation to Burma to observe annual Cobra Gold exercise in the region next year and the Pentagon’s commitment to provide “non-lethal” training for Burmese officers focusing on humanitarian assistance, military medicine and defense “reform.” The decision to resume military-to-military engagement at this stage is not a wise one.
Some have suggested that the Kachin have been too inflexible in their demands. In fact, the KIA was pragmatic enough to reach a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese government army in 1994, leaving an ethnic umbrella organization based along the Thai-Burmese border in disarray. Nearly two decades later, it is paying a heavy price for that pragmatism.
In June 2011, the 17-year-old truce between the KIA and the Burmese government army collapsed because the former ruling junta had insisted the year before that ethnic ceasefire armies turn themselves into border guard forces under Burmese military command. Almost none acceded, but most managed to avoid the KIA’s fate of a return to open hostilities.
Another issue that has fueled this conflict is Burma’s 2008 Constitution, which was drafted by the military and was never designed to satisfy the aspirations of the country’s ethnic minorities. Like most other ethnic armed groups in Burma, the KIA says it wants a federal system that will give minorities—who together comprise around a third of the total population—greater autonomy over the resources of their respective homelands.
Indeed, the war in Kachin State is not just about politics. The state is rich in jade and other natural resources, and during the truce period, the Burmese army encroached on many areas once controlled by the KIA, bringing in tycoons from mainland Burma and China to remove the jade and other precious stones. Some Kachin leaders and businessmen who collaborated with the Burmese and Chinese didn’t mind, but locals looking at the looting of their natural resources were upset. This is why the Kachin army wanted to regain control over the territory.
As war intensified between the two armed groups, local residents were the ones who suffered most. Tens of thousands of refugees have fled the fighting and many have little access to humanitarian assistance. Before Christmas, US Ambassador Derek Mitchell visited the area and met with local leaders in a bid to improve aid efforts for the displaced refugees, as the fighting continued to escalate. But his visit to meet some refugees not far from the state capital Myitkyina made little impact. The war continued.
Both Kachin soldiers and civilians say they want to see peace but continue to support the KIA. To them, this war was inevitable, and can only end through political dialogue, which must include an open and serious discussion about federalism, ethnic autonomy and the preservation of resources, culture, identity and languages. As much as they they have suffered from this war, they say they hate Naypyidaw’s imperialism even more.