In Burma, Answers to Ethnic Conflict Elusive


Laiza residents hold a nightly vigil for KIA soldiers killed in fighting with the Burmese government army. (Photo: Steve Tickner / The Irrawaddy)

Laiza residents hold a nightly vigil for KIA soldiers killed in fighting with the Burmese government army. (Photo: Steve Tickner / The Irrawaddy)

LAWA YANG, Kachin State — Kneeling beside a line of freshly dug trenches carved like one long, open wound into a lush hillside, the rebel sergeant peered through dusty binoculars at all his troops had lost.

Scattered across the sprawling valley below, a dozen thatched-roof homes stood quiet, abandoned by fleeing villagers as government forces drew near. Towering above: four forested mountain ridges seized by Burma’s army after some of the bloodiest clashes here in decades—so fierce the ethnic Kachin guerrillas who survived said the artillery fire came down like rain.

If the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the last armed insurgent group still at war in Burma, loses just one more mountain ridge, there will be little to stop government forces from taking their stronghold on the Chinese border. They are ill-equipped—some rebels wear helmets made only of hardened plastic and admit running low on ammunition—but they remain defiant.

“We’re very vulnerable because the army now holds the high ground,” rebel Sgt. Brang Shawng said as he scanned the new front line at Lawa Yang, where his unit retreated last month.

But he added: “We will never give up. For us, this is a fight for self-determination, and I’ll keep fighting for it until I die.”

Government soldiers, bolstered for the first time by screeching fighter jets and helicopter gunships that pounded the hills for weeks, advanced late last month to within just a few kilometers of the rebel headquarters town of Laiza, the closest they have ever come.

The region has been relatively calm since, but even so, the dramatic upsurge in fighting underscores how far Burma is from achieving one of the things it needs most—a political settlement to end not just the war with the Kachin, but decades-long conflicts with more than a dozen other rebel armies that have plagued the country for decades and still threaten its future.

Much is at stake for this Southeast Asian nation, which has stunned the world by opening politically and economically over the last two years following five decades of military rule. President Thein Sein’s government rose to power in 2011 following elections that rights groups said were neither free nor fair, but it has since ushered in reforms, freed political prisoners and allowed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters to be elected to Parliament.

Still, Burma has yet to resolve a multitude of conflicts with its ethnic minorities, which make up about 40 percent of the population. Their persistent push for political autonomy has turned vast patchworks of territory along the borders with China and Thailand into rebel fiefdoms rich in jade, timber, gold and opium.

In Kachin State alone, the control of which is split between rebels and the government, resource-hungry China has invested billions of dollars in hydroelectric dams. A Chinese-backed pipeline project is due to begin pumping oil and gas from the Bay of Bengal in May, and more development projects are planned, including highways and railways that would link Indian Ocean seaports with the rest of Southeast Asia. Most of them cross rebel zones.

Thein Sein’s administration has signed truce deals with 18 armed groups—everyone except the Kachin, according to Min Zaw Oo, who heads cease-fire negotiations at the Myanmar Peace Center, a government-appointed body that is coordinating peace talks.

Most of those truces had already been negotiated with the former junta, but the nation’s former military rulers “never accepted the need for a political settlement,” Min Zaw Oo said.

Thein Sein’s administration, by contrast, realizes a cease-fire alone is not sufficient, he said. “This government sees dialogue as key. It is ready to talk. That’s a major policy distinction.”

Min Zaw Oo said he believes Burma has the best chance in 60 years of ending the country’s ethnic conflicts. But he acknowledged that “practically, there are a lot of obstacles in the way.”

Distrust runs deep, and even the truces remain fragile. The army and rebels in eastern Shan State, for example, have clashed at least 44 times since agreeing a cease-fire last year, Min Zaw Oo said.

In Kachin State, there has been speculation the government was trying to strengthen its hand at negotiations by escalating the war to new heights with airstrikes. But rebel Col. Zaw Taung, director of strategic analysis for the KIA, said the skirmishes only pushed the two sides further apart.

“They say they want peace, but they just threw everything they have against us,” he said. “With one hand they’re trying to burn us, with the other, they’re trying douse us with water. They cannot be trusted.”

The army, like the rebels, insists it fought only in self-defense.

On Wednesday, government envoys resumed talks in the Thai city of Chiang Mai with the United Nationalities Federal Council, an alliance of 11 ethnic militias, including the Kachin, that banded together last year. Few expected any breakthroughs, and no cease-fire was reached with the Kachin, which have met the government more than a dozen times since war in the north reignited in 2011.

The talks are “only about the framework of future discussions,” said Hkun Okkar, a senior alliance member. “We’re demanding a political dialogue, and the government agrees, but real dialogue hasn’t started.”

Last week, Thein Sein acknowledged that his country’s history of ethnic conflict has been a major barrier to progress, and that achieving stability is crucial as it pursues a democratic future.

His words, though, were delivered on an occasion infused with bitter irony: Union Day, which commemorates the 1947 deal between Suu Kyi’s father, independence hero Gen Aung San, and ethnic leaders to break away from Britain’s colonial arms together.

The so-called Panglong Agreement also granted ethnic minorities autonomy, but it fell apart after the assassination of Aung San.

The Kachin, who are predominantly Christian in a majority Buddhist country, first took up arms in 1961. A 1994 truce with the army lasted 17 years, but during that time, rebel demands for rights and a federalist system were never addressed.

Instead, the junta in 2008 forced through a new constitution. The nation’s minorities say it places enormous power in the hands of the central government and the military, which rights groups say has orchestrated a campaign of discrimination, forced labor and abuse against the Kachin and other groups for decades. The constitution can be amended only with approval of the armed forces, which even now control 25 percent of Parliament.

Tensions rose further in 2009, when the junta tried to persuade ethnic armies to join a new border guard force. Most, including the Kachin, refused.

Two months after Thein Sein took office in 2011, the Kachin truce finally broke down when the army bolstered its presence near a hydropower plant in Dapein that is a joint venture with a Chinese company, and rebels refused to abandon a strategic base nearby.

Since then, more than 100,000 Kachin civilians have been displaced, and the rebels have progressively lost territory, pressed closer and closer against the Chinese border.

Only one major mountain ridge now separates Laiza from Burma’s army, and a grim mood has settled over the town.

At the main cemetery, workers are erecting concrete tombstones for rebels who died in the latest fighting. At least 23 are buried here under mounds of red dirt, though rebel officials declined to say how many were killed altogether.

Every night, a single-file candlelight peace vigil organized by a Catholic priest snakes through Laiza’s darkened and nearly deserted streets. Shops are closed. Displaced people crowd camps perched on a rocky river that marks the border with China.

The rebels, clearly outgunned, say they will not even try to retake lost ground. There is talk of the rebels abandoning Laiza if need be, of shifting their headquarters to a secret location if the army makes a push for the town. Most of their offices on a hillside overlooking town already appear empty, and the rebels’ most senior leadership is no longer here.

“For a guerrilla army, what matters most is not holding ground, but maintaining the support of the people,” Zaw Taung said, speaking at a Laiza hotel the rebels use as an office that is decorated with wall-to-wall maps.

Judging by comments from many Kachin, across many levels of society, they overwhelmingly support the rebels, whom they see as protectors and their legitimate government, perhaps now more than ever.

Asked why the rebels were the only armed group that has yet to sign a truce with the government, Zaw Taung was dismissive.

“We tried that for 17 years. What did it get us?” he asked. “The only thing that will end the war is a political solution. Without that, a truce means nothing. The fighting will go on.”

4 Responses to In Burma, Answers to Ethnic Conflict Elusive

  1. Members of UNFC did not lay down their arms. They will never do that unless genuine Union is formed and democratic government is formed. Wiping out armed conflicts without political achievement will never happen. Hatred and distrust may run even deeper. Every ethnic and even Burmans do not like the way senseless group of people are running the nation. Ethnics are not the only ones who want to live in peace but also the Burmans too. So, the current regime has many opposition groups inside and outside the country.

    • Sure, hatred among the ethnics for the majority Burmese is deep. Because of mistrust and the experiences of being cheated by the Bamas for generation led to hate them as well. My mother would not encourage us to bring back friends for a visit especially if the are Bama (Phama). Only now that it’s not just the ethnics who are having a hard time under the successive military regime the Bamas (if they are not from the military) also are finding a bitter taste. Before the Chin, or Kachins troops would be used to do the killing of those who dare to defy them; then it became the Chins and Kachins to have a taste of their own medicine they are fleeing, they are making noises and so on. In spite of all the injustices done to all the ethnic groups they find it hard to unite against the Bamas. They include my relatives too. The regime may have many opposition groups but try and organise them into a ‘united front’. You may find it easier to ‘straightening’ the curly tail of a dog.

  2. What will become of the soldiers if there is no conflict left in the ethnic minorities regions? They cannot be demobilized unless and until the military is put in place of its proper role – an organ of state – neither above nor beneath the laws of the country. When the role of the military is enshrined in the Constitution as such that it is ‘immune’ from crimes then paying lip service to ‘democracy’ is like wanting liberation while at the same time the wife is giving birth to one child after another. As for the ethnic (of which I’m one) as the Burmese saying goes we are worse that Ma Aye when we’re dealing with Bama (Phamas). It’s not just twice like Ma Aye that we’ve been cheated. We cannot blame on them alone. Since we ourselves cannot live up to our promises. It was the Kachins who broke up from the Alliance. They even go as far as to collude with the military regime in drafting of the constitution at the National Convention. Now that both the Chinese and the military saw them as obstacles in their way (both the pipe-line and the lucrative trade in jade) they are in conflict with the military and abandoned by their once staunch ally. As you sow, shall you reap.

  3. “We tried that (Cease fire) for 17 years. What did it get us?” he asked. “The only thing that will end the war is a political solution. Without that, a truce means nothing. The fighting will go on.”

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