Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Fighting in Myanmar's Kachin state-Lengthening shadow

ONE of the most laudable achievements of Myanmar’s ongoing process of democratic reform has been the ceasefire agreements the new government has signed with all of the major ethnic insurgent groups—all but one, that is: the Kachin, under the banner of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), fight on. Unfortunately, that single conflict has become big and ugly enough to cast a lengthening shadow over the rest of Myanmar’s progress.

In the past few weeks fighting has escalated further. There is now plenty of evidence that, contrary to earlier promises made by the government, Myanmar’s army is throwing almost its whole weight against the KIA. At the beginning of the year footage shot by Free Burma Rangers, a quasi-military, humanitarian-support group, clearly showed helicopter gunships attacking rebel positions. Witnesses saw jet fighters being used as well, providing close air support to thousands of ground troops. According to some analysts, even in the darkest days of the old military regime, air power was never used in this way against the ethnic militias. So this would mark a significant ramping-up of the army’s aggressive efforts. They are gearing up a civil war that restarted only in 2011, after a truce that had lasted 17 years.

Confronted by the video footage, the government at first denied everything. After all, the president, Thein Sein, had promised that the army would now act only in self-defence. After a bit, however, they were forced to change tack. Apparently air strikes are now allowed, but only to clear a way to remote Burmese army posts that are threatened with the prospect of being cut off by the KIA. The truth seems to be that the army is now determined to capture the main KIA headquarters at Laiza, almost on the border with China, in order to strike a decisive blow. It seems to be employing every weapon in its armoury to do so. The latest reports are that in the past 12 days or so the KIA has been forced to give up several outposts in the vicinity of Laiza, after fierce fighting. This would leave the Myanmar army only about 7km or so from Laiza.

It is unclear whether the army is receiving orders for this offensive from the top—that is, from Thein Sein himself—or whether local army commanders are acting on their own initiative. The lines of control, command and accountability in the new Myanmar are exceedingly opaque. Indeed, till the beginning of November 2012 the government was still formally carrying on peace negotiations with the KIA, even as the army was going on the attack.

What is certain is that the current fighting is tarnishing the new Myanmar government’s gleaming credentials. As yet there has been no concerted international pressure to stop the skirmishes. The fighting is producing thousands of new refugees, many of whom are now living in squalid conditions in camps on the outskirts of big towns like Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin state. For the time being there seems to be no relief in sight. By Banyan for The Economist

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