Despite Donor Love-in and Ceasefire Pledge, Kachin War Continues

By Simon Roughneen 21 January 2013

SINGAPORE — Despite a government ceasefire called on Friday evening, fighting continued over the weekend between the Burmese government forces and rebels from the Kachin ethnic minority based close to the border with China.

On Saturday, fighting raged near the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) stronghold of Laiza even as the government was telling international donors at a two-day conference in the capital Naypyidaw that it would work to end the conflict.

When the ceasefire was unexpectedly announced by state media on Friday, the Kachin initially saw it as a ploy to try resupply government soldiers. There was also confusion over the extent of the ceasefire, which appeared to be confined to the vicinity of Laiza, where fighting has been fierce since the final week of December.

The KIA, which resumed fighting for greater autonomy for the roughly 1 million ethnic Kachin in Burma’s rugged northernmost state after a 17-year-old ceasefire broke down in June 2011, said that the Burmese army’s offensive over the weekend centered on the militia’s Hkaya Bum outpost, which appeared to be its next target after taking three other KIA outposts on Friday. Reports by Irrawaddy correspondents on the front line confirmed the KIA’s accounts of the weekend’s fighting in the area.

Burmese authorities accused the rebels of killing two police officers in the town of Kamaing on the morning of Jan. 19, after the ceasefire was supposed to take effect. The same morning, KIA landmines injured 22 people traveling on buses in Kachin State, according to the government mouthpiece The New Light of Myanmar.

The government says that the ceasefire breakdown is because the KIA continued to attack army positions. Speaking to The Irrawaddy on Monday, President’s Office spokesperson Ye Htut said that “current fighting in Lajayang after the [ceasefire] statement is because our troops have to shoot back at the KIA. They attacked the outposts which we secured last week.”

Despite the latest clashes, President Thein Sein again pledged peace on Saturday in a speech to representatives of Western governments and international organizations such as the United Nations and the World Bank. “Our government will make genuine and lasting peace with the KIA. We plan to hold a political dialogue in early 2013 after signing ceasefire agreements with 10 other armed groups,” he said.

In stark contrast to the president’s tempered tone, however, state media continues to attack the KIA and its political wing, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), engaging in “Nazi-like propaganda” against the group, according to the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), a coalition of Burma’s ethnic minority militias of which the KIA is a member.

The UNFC, which includes several militias which already have ceasefires with the government, accused the same government of trying to “paint the KIO/KIA black in the eyes of the people of Burma and international community” and accused Naypyidaw of trying to isolate the Kachin, emulating a tactic used prior to the Burmese army’s storming of the Karen National Union (KNU) headquarters at Manerplaw in 1995.

The KIA says that it wants any forthcoming peace talks with the government to be conducted via the UNFC. “We want the UNFC to take a leading role in the political dialogue. We have agreed in the UNFC that it will take that role if the dialogue takes place,” KIA spokesperson La Nan told The Irrawaddy on Monday.

The KIA conceded in late December that an upsurge in attacks by the Burmese armed forces—including airstrikes and fatal artillery shelling of civilian areas—means that there is now a direct threat to Laiza.

Dr Nyo Tun Awng, deputy head of the small contingent of Arakan Army militia fighting alongside the KIA, said that the fighting was taking a heavy toll on the rebels.

“I have not slept in two days,” he said, audibly fatigued, speaking by telephone from an undisclosed location.

The latest upsurge in fighting around the rebel headquarters came when the Kachin—supported on the front line by the All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF)—countered a Burma Army attempt to resupply soldiers near the front line on Dec. 14.

The Kachin overran a Burmese army position near a Buddhist temple on the main road from Laiza to the state capital Myitkyina, upping the ante in a grueling 18-month war but sparking an aerial counterattack by Burmese forces and subsequent loss of several KIA-held positions close to Laiza.

Kachin-based parliamentarians have twice proposed peace talks in recent days in Burma’s Parliament, in an attempt to stop fighting in the resource-rich northern region.

China, which shares a border with the war-torn region and has substantial economic interests in Kachin State, has also voiced concern over the conflict, and particularly the possibility of a refugee influx should fighting worsen. After meeting with Burma’s President Thein Sein over the weekend, China’s Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying told China Central Television that both sides had “reached consensus and will strive for” a stable and peaceful border to ensure that people’s lives are not affected by the conflict.

Meanwhile, the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission said on Friday that it was concerned that insufficient aid was reaching Kachin civilians in camps inside KIA-held areas.

“It is a great concern that the humanitarian situation in Kachin State is worsening as a result of the conflict while access to humanitarian aid in conflict areas and along the border [between China] and Kachin State is difficult,” the commission said.

The Burmese government says it limits aid getting into KIA areas as it fears the assistance could bolster the rebels, rather than help civilians.

On Saturday, the US embassy in Rangoon tweeted that America has to date provided $5 million in aid to assist civilians displaced by the Kachin conflict. Asked how much of this had gone to support the tens of thousands sheltering in camps inside KIA territory, the embassy had not responded by the time of writing.

After the weekend conference in Naypyidaw, international donors are expected to allocate around a half a billion dollars a year in aid to Burma in the coming years, as the country’s government outlines changes in key sectors of the economy in an attempt to woo Western investors and secure a write-off for at least some of the $3.5 billion debt it owes donors, excluding Japan.

Roughneen reported from Kachin State in late December.