War in Kachin: ‘This is a One-Sided Offensive’

By The Irrawaddy 6 June 2014

In this week’s “Dateline Irrawaddy” show—first aired on DVB on Wednesday—panelists discuss the situation in northern Burma on the third anniversary of fighting between the government army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).  

Kyaw Zwa Moe: This week marks the third anniversary of the resumption of fighting between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the government’s forces. How many Kachin people, including women and children, are suffering from the consequences of fighting and have to live in the IDP (internally displaced persons) camps?  We are going to explore more with our invited guests: Ma Khon Ja, the coordinator of the Kachin Peace Network, and Ma May Sabe Phyu, the coordinator of the Kachin Women’s Peace Network. And I am Kyaw Zwa Moe, editor of the English edition of The Irrawaddy magazine.

The KIA and government forces resumed fighting in 2011 and there have been frequent skirmishes over the past years, including as recently as April. The government and KIA are blaming each other for causing the war. Who do you think is more responsible for the past three years of war? The government or the KIA? Or should both be blamed?

Khon Ja: Let me talk about where these clashes have taken place. After the ceasefire agreement in 1994, the KIO (Kachin Independence Organization) built military bases according to mutual agreements. Now the government’s forces are invading these bases. Since 2011, no ethnic armed group has gone beyond the boundaries of their bases to attack government bases. This is a one-sided offensive from the government, while the KIA and other armed groups in similar situations are just defending their positions. The government is using a lot of resources to wage this war, and the situation is even worse than fighting against a foreign invasion. This is the worst in Burma’s history, and the government is solely reasonable.

KZM: President Thein Sein carried out some reforms after he took office in 2011, and he managed to achieve peace agreements with some ethnic armed groups, except the KIA, which is one of the biggest ethnic armed groups. What is the root cause? And why is it taking so long to make them sign a peace accord?

KJ: It is like solving the chicken and egg problem. Looking from one side, it is the Constitution which is responsible. And according to that Constitution, only one person can make war and end war. Because the commander-in-chief is standing at the top echelon of the hierarchy, according to the Constitution, he alone is accountable in this matter. If the Constitution provided checks over the commander-in-chief, the war would have been over by now.

KZM: Ma Khon Ja, do you want to say the commander-in-chief is powerful, but what about the president? Does he play any role in the war? Only the commander-in-chief?

KJ: It is very hard to say. Because the president already ordered to halt offenses on September 10, 2011, and again on January 18, 2013, he says there is armistice already in Lajayan. However, fighting still continues. Hmu Zaw (aka Zaw Htay, a director of the President’s Office) once told DVB that the army obeys the orders of the president. That’s why we don’t know if they are plotting this together.

KZM: Ma May Sabe Phyu, as we know, hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons have been displaced in three years of war, and more of them are women than men. Do the women suffer more in the camps? What is going on over there?

May Sabe Phyu: Among the 120,000 IDPs, over 60 percent are women, and the number of children is also high, between 5,000 and 7,000. I have no words to describe the effect of war on them, except that they were badly and severely hurt. The effects of war on women are not just the immediate effects—the health of childbearing women, their undernourishment and the future of the children they deliver in the camps, who will have to spend their early lives and developmental years in the camps will have to be considered. Because women are the mothers and the future of the nation. In this sense, they are not only destroying the lives of Kachin women and children, they are destroying the future of the whole Kachin nation. That is what I want to say. At the same time, I am not saying that men do not face any troubles. Men are targeted as having connections with armed groups or links to bomb attacks, and they are arrested and punished. Women sometimes endure sexual assault and rape. Although we have taken such cases even up to Naypyidaw to sue those who are responsible, we have never succeeded.

KZM: We heard the army is targeting civilians, and that’s why there are many IDPs, including women. But when we asked the deputy minister of information, Ye Htut, who is also the presidential spokesperson, after the fighting started in June 2011, he always denied this. How do you want to respond?

MSP: Whenever women have become victims of violence during the war, we are always faced with the question: Does only the government’s forces commit such atrocities, or are any other armed forces committing the same acts? According to information and records we collected as women support groups, government forces commit many more acts of violence against ethnic minority women. There can be a counter argument that we are only following the cases committed by the government’s forces. No matter what they say, ethnic minority women are targeted by the government’s forces, who accuse that their husbands, fathers or brothers are either members of armed groups or have connections with armed groups.

KJ: I want to add one thing here. Not only women, they are also targeting children. In Nam Lim Pa, on November 16, 2013, the army followed a logistics force and entered the village at about 4 in the evening. And they took as hostages over 200 students living at a boarding house for IDPs for over four hours, and they did whatever they wanted in the village. That incident will leave behind trauma in the children’s minds, and they will hate and be afraid of soldiers for the rest of their lives. Since the soldiers are the only Burmans they have ever seen, that is like creating ethnocentric animosities among the different ethnic groups. That’s why the government’s forces are not only attacking the KIA, but also attacking all the ethnic groups.

KZM: If we look at the international political setting, the UK and US are engaging with the army, as you can see. But at the same time, the army is waging war against domestic armed groups. What is your take on such engagement?

KJ: When they started the engagement, they said they would do capacity building for the army, which would not include enhancing weaponry or combat skills, but only enhancing the conduct of the army.  It is unacceptable for me, because the army doesn’t need to learn from anywhere else that raping women, robbing, threatening, bullying and torturing are not good. These are matters of the innate conscience of human beings, they don’t even need to learn these from any religion. Now when they do military-to-military engagement with the Burmese army with that reason, they are giving credit to them. Even the UN Peace Corps invited the army to join them. I think this is too much. Because those at the top learn things they don’t even need to learn, but those at the bottom are going on in their own ways in the army. That would make it difficult to take action for the war crimes they have committed. The international community is covering the army in more positive tones. I can’t accept that, unless this engagement is meant to push the army to do policy reform. I can’t accept that, if the army is taking advantage of this engagement and going on committing atrocities.

KZM: Ma May Sabe Phyu, in fact, the government’s war with the KIA did not start in 2011, but has been ongoing for the past 50 or 60 years.  As we understand that equality is the ultimate goal of the ethnic people’s struggle, how can the war be stopped, even if it has not been achieved yet? Any recommendations for leaders of both sides?

MSP: The most important thing is to have honesty and not to lie. Negotiations and dialogue have not been successful because mutual trust can’t be built. Why? Because they don’t keep their promises. They always break their promises. They just pressure others until they get the situation they want. This kind of one-sided behavior is not the way to build trust, and as a result, the wars are still going on. That is my sincere view.

KZM: Ma Khon Ja, are you pessimistic or optimistic about the prospect of ending the war?

KJ: I see both ways. I don’t want to push for merely signing the ceasefire agreement, but I want to push for an immediate and genuine ceasefire on the battlefield.

ZKM: Can you see any possibility of this happening?

KJ: If the army can control their forces, they can stop the fighting instantly because ethnic armed groups will never attack them in the first place.

KZM: Ma Khon Ja and Ma May Sabe Phyu, thanks for joining us. We can roughly conclude from our discussion that ending the ongoing fighting between the KIA and the government’s forces depends on trust-building and mutual agreements between them. Thanks to you all for watching.