The US Ambassador to Burma Derek Mitchell visited conflict-torn Kachin State this weekend in advance of a visit to Burma by US President Barack Obama next month.
Obama has not announced plans to travel to Kachin State, where a civil war is still being fought between the government and ethnic rebels as Burma continues to work toward a nationwide peace accord.
During the three-day visit, Mitchell met with advisors to the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) religious leaders and peace negotiators in the state capital Myitkyina, according to a statement by the US Embassy.
The ambassador also visited several camps for internally displaced persons (IDP’s) during his third visit to the troubled state since taking the position in July 2012.
A spokesperson for the KIO’s Technical Advisory Team (TAT) told The Irrawaddy that the ambassador was briefed on the organization’s views on the nationwide peace process and apprised of on-the-ground conditions.
“The ambassador assured us that [the United States] would push [the Burmese government] and continue to support the transition to democracy,” said TAT spokesperson Dau Khar, adding that Mitchell explained the United States’ position on the peace process and that “the US government wants it to move forward.”
Dau Khar said that his team provided an up-to-date explanation of the situation in Kachin State for the ambassador to share with Obama, including briefing him on rising anxieties in Hpakant, a resource-rich area that has seen a sudden and sharp increase in Burma Army troop deployment earlier this month after a resumption in jade-mining operations led to tax disputes between miners and rebel authorities.
On Monday, the US Embassy issued a press statement about Mitchell’s visit, wherein he “underscored the United States’ deep concern about the increase in tension in Hpakant Township.” The statement stressed that the United States recognizes how increased military presence near civilian areas has fortified “a deep reservoir of mistrust toward central authority.”
“Actions that further risk the lives and well-being of the Kachin people will only increase suffering, deepen mistrust, and undermine confidence in the peace process,” the statement continued.
The ambassador was also escorted to IDP camps, where some war refugees have lived in isolation since violence broke out in 2011. The Embassy remarked of the visit that conditions in the camps “are a small indication of the continued suffering” of civilians throughout the state.
The Western superpower is keen to see a peace agreement reached between the government and the nation’s ethnic minorities, which Naypyidaw hoped to achieve by the end of 2014.
Recent fighting in Kachin, Karen and Shan states, however, have cast doubt on their ability to meet the deadline, and talks between government and ethnic negotiators have also been repeatedly delayed.
Further complicating the peace process are emerging disputes among ethnic leaders, particularly the Karen National Union (KNU), which is one of Burma’s biggest, oldest and most powerful rebel groups. Some within KNU leadership demand that federalism and ethnic equality be written into the agreement, while others want to end the state’s 60-year conflict quickly.
Moon Nay Li, a Kachin activist based in Thailand, said that she welcomes the ambassador’s visit to Kachin State because it will allow him to see how dominant “hardline” sentiments are among the general population in ethnic areas.
“I think the Kachin public is more hardline than the leaders,” she said, because they have experienced the real costs of the conflict such as physical danger, poverty, drug addiction and sexual violence.
“We don’t want our leaders to sign a tenuous NCA [Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement], one that does not guarantee equality for Burma’s ethnic minorities,” said Moon Nay Li, who is a spokesperson for the Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand and a peace delegate for the Women’s League of Burma.
“I would object if the international community, including the United States, pushed too hard for any ethnic groups to sign this feeble agreement,” she added.
This article was updated on Oct. 27 at 8 pm.