Friday, February 1, 2013

INTERNATIONAL CRISIS GROUP REPORT Burma’s Kachin War: Renewed Ethnic Strife Threatens Regional Stability

It’s a curious cease-fire that has supposedly settled over the Himalayan foothills of northern Burma. Since June 2011, when a 17-year truce dissolved, ethnic Kachin rebels have been locked in battle with the Burmese army, a conflict that has claimed hundreds of lives and displaced some 100,000 Kachin. On Jan. 19, the office of Burma’s President Thein Sein announced a unilateral cessation of violence in Kachin areas of the country. Yet the peace pledge has gone unheeded. Gunfire still crackles in this borderland with China, where the hills boast jade, timber and hydropower. In fact, over the past few days, the Burmese army has inched steadily toward Laiza, the rebel headquarters of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). Only a few kilometers now separate the Burmese army from this last KIA stronghold.

This may seem like a distant war in a remote corner of a remote country. But Kachin is a resource-rich region located at a strategic crossroad between Burma and China. “Because it borders China and because of what’s underground, Kachin is very important geopolitically,” says Matthew Smith, a researcher for Human Rights Watch. “That does not, however, totally explain the way the Burmese army conducts war there. That is related to the complex history of ethnic relations in Burma, and the plight of the Kachin is, ultimately, an ethnic war.”
The international community is becoming increasingly vocal about the conflict’s escalation. “Despite the Burmese government’s announcement [of] a ceasefire … media and NGO reports indicate that the Burmese Army continues a military offensive,” said a statement by the U.S. embassy in Burma on Jan. 24. “The United States strongly opposes the ongoing fighting, which has resulted in civilian casualties and undermined the efforts to advance national reconciliation.”

The Burmese military claims it has only engaged in defensive combat with the KIA, accusing the Kachin of attacking Burmese supply convoys. But how is it that after a week of supposed cease-fire and defensive movements, the Burmese army has edged ever closer to Laiza? Human-rights groups have spent the past few months documenting violence, like indiscriminate shelling, committed by the Burmese military against Kachin civilians. The Burmese government has refused to give international human-rights groups access to internally-displaced-person (IDP) camps. President Thein Sein has publicly vowed that the Burmese army will not overrun the KIA headquarters, which lies just across the border with China’s Yunnan province. But few Kachin believe the Burmese President’s assurances about sparing Laiza. The border town, surrounded by overflowing IDP settlements, is preparing for a final showdown.

Over the past year, democratic reforms have energized Burma, which languished for nearly half a century under repressive military rule. But ethnic conflict has always threatened the country’s foundations — and it continues to do so today, despite the liberalizations introduced by a new quasi-civilian government headed by retired general Thein Sein. At least one-third of Burma’s roughly 60 million people hail from a mosaic of ethnic-minority groups that have chafed against the majority Bamar (or Burman) population. The army regime that ruled Myanmar, as Burma is now officially known, was dominated by Bamar officers, whose campaigns of forced labor, rape and child slavery were most cruelly targeted at ethnic peoples. Desperate for autonomy or even independence, dozens of ethnic militias declared war on the Burmese government, fueling some of the world’s longest-running insurgencies, particularly in Karen, Shan and Kachin states. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic villagers are internally displaced in Burma today because of fighting between the national army and various ethnic militias.

Since coming to power in 2010, Thein Sein, a former junta member, has signed long-term cease-fires with 10 ethnic armies, including the Karen, the Mon and the Shan. But peace has eluded Kachin areas of northern Burma, which are spread over Kachin state and parts of Shan state. For a year and a half, the Burmese army and the KIA, which is the military wing of the Kachin Independence Organization, have clashed in a low-grade but deadly combat. This was a war of land mines and unreliable mortar fire.

(MORE: The Regime’s Inner Reformist: Can Thein Sein Change Burma?)
A ragtag militia outfitted with rifles sometimes held together by duct tape, the KIA makes up what it lacks in technological sophistication with grit born of a long martial tradition. During World War II, Kachin rangers fought with legendary bravery for the Allied side, even as other parts of present-day Burma fell under Japanese occupation. Christians who were converted by British and American missionaries, the Kachin face persistent discrimination because of their faith in a Buddhist-majority land.

Around the new year, the Burmese military escalated hostilities by launching air strikes against the KIA — a tactic the Burmese government at first denied employing. As government forces began closing in on Laiza, the government cease-fire was announced on Jan. 19. It wasn’t the first time that Thein Sein, who took office in March 2011 as part of the new semicivilian government, ordered a break in fighting. In late 2011, he called a cease-fire that never stuck. Are his orders not being followed by a military frustrated that the new administration is curbing the armed forces’ power? Is there a grain of truth in the government’s complaints that the Kachin are sniping at Burmese forces — and that the KIA’s leaders somehow desire to profit from a war footing? Or could the latest cease-fire talk be an attempt to divert attention as the Burmese army prepares for a major offensive on Laiza? “I would imagine that there are people in the Burmese military who anticipate sitting down eventually with the Kachin,” says human-rights researcher Smith. “So the more ground they can take over before that point, the better their negotiating position will be.”
In 2009, the Burmese military, which then still ruled the country, overwhelmed the northern rebel stronghold of the ethnic Kokang people, in a fierce blitz that sent tens of thousands of Kokang scurrying across the nearby border to China. Some Kachin fear a similar strike is in the plans for their rebel base in Laiza. (Most of Kachin state has long been in government hands, with the KIA only controlling a few pockets of territory, even if sympathy for their cause remains high in Kachin areas.)

(MORE: Will Ethnic Violence Kill Burma’s Fragile Reforms?)
The KIA, though, is far better prepared and much bigger than the Kokang militia ever was. In the decades before their 1994 cease-fire with the Burmese army, the Kachin excelled in the kind of morale-sapping insurgency that can stymie a larger national army. The Tatmadaw, as the Burmese armed forces is known, may be one of the world’s largest militaries per capita, but its ranks are filled with ill-prepared, underpaid recruits. Hundreds of Burmese soldiers have died on the Kachin front since the June 2011 cease-fire broke. On Jan. 24, the International Labor Organization said that it had helped negotiate the release of eight underage Burmese soldiers that the KIA had captured. The Burmese army is routinely criticized for forcibly recruiting child soldiers, and a January report by the NGO Child Soldiers International detailed the way in which Burmese children are still involved in armed conflict, acting as porters, scouts and even land-mine exploders. (The KIA has also been accused of sending underage soldiers into battle.)

The prospect of more strife right on its border surely displeases the Chinese, who have much riding on peace in the region. Decades ago, Beijing funded communist-linked ethnic rebels in northern Burma who battled the national army. Although the Chinese government later became one of the Burmese junta’s few international patrons, it still maintains informal relations with various ethnic armies. Several rounds of peace talks between the KIA and Burmese government have taken place in China’s neighboring Yunnan province — although to no avail so far.

Beijing has a right to be concerned. Earlier this month, Burmese shells strayed onto Chinese soil, prompting a complaint from the Chinese Foreign Ministry. Tens of thousands of Kachin refugees have flooded into Yunnan, a repeat of the Kokang influx of 2009.

There are economic interests for China too. Oil and gas pipelines — which originate in Burma’s western Arakan (or Rakhine) state, another ethnically combustive region, and snake through Kachin areas — are likely to begin flowing in June, channeling badly needed energy resources to interior China. Any instability in these ethnic regions could compromise Beijing’s attempts to secure natural resources for its economic engine. Already, unrest in Kachin, as well as a Burmese civil-society groundswell, led to Thein Sein ordering a suspension of construction of the Myitsone Dam, a massive project in Kachin that would send nearly all its electricity to China. When a top Chinese delegation visited Burma earlier this month, the sanctity of Chinese-backed projects, ranging from Myitsone Dam to a copper mine, was a key topic of discussion.

It’s telling that Thein Sein’s administration isn’t the only one equivocating on the Kachin. As her homeland’s most famous citizen, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has tremendous moral sway domestically and internationally. But the leader of the opposition National League for Democracy has shied away from a harsh condemnation of the Burmese army’s actions in Kachin, preferring to note that abuses have occurred on both sides. Over the weekend, while on a trip to Hawaii, Suu Kyi expressed affection for the Burmese army, which her father, independence hero Aung San, founded. Coming at a time when Burmese soldiers were bearing down on Laiza, the comment hasn’t pleased exiled Kachin, who took to social media to criticize her. (Another target of their ire was a politician from the military-linked Burmese ruling party who said late last week in parliament that the only way to achieve peace in Kachin was to essentially wipe out the KIA.)

Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, was one of the few Bamar to earn the trust of ethnic groups. He spearheaded the 1947 Panglong Conference, in which five ethnic groups, including the Kachin, agreed to join the Union of Burma in exchange for a certain amount of autonomy in a federalized system. Aung San, however, was assassinated soon after the Panglong agreement was signed, and civil war quickly descended over a nation that had only recently wrested itself from the British Empire. His famous daughter has disappointed some of Burma’s ethnic groups, including the Rohingya, a stateless Muslim people who now crowd refugee camps in far-western Arakan state, along the border with Bangladesh. The Kachin too have long been wary that Suu Kyi’s democratic principles might not extend to their home in the Himalayan foothills. “She is a Nobel Peace Prize winner and she should stand up for victims of human-rights abuses in Kachin,” says Naw La, a Kachin activist and environmental campaigner who lives in Thailand. “If she doesn’t speak out for oppressed people, then who else will? I’m surprised and disappointed.”

Meanwhile, Burmese troop reinforcements are reportedly flooding the hills of Kachin, where the national army over the weekend captured a strategic pass just outside of Laiza. Town residents are stockpiling food supplies in case of a final offensive and building makeshift bomb shelters. Hospitals and Christian pastors are overwhelmed with casualties and IDPs. In phone calls to Laiza, the boom of mortar fire echoes on the line. If this is a cease-fire, what might war sound like?

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