Rebels in northern Burma have released three police officers held captive for nearly a week, though access to villagers affected by the ensuing conflict remains restricted, according to local peace mediators.
Lamai Gum Ja of the Kachin Peace Creation Group (KPCG), which serves as a mediator between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Burmese Army, confirmed that the three men had been transferred to civilian hands, but expressed concern about locals who were forced to flee after fighting flared up following the initial detention.
“We received [the officers] from KIA soldiers and then we handed them over to township authorities. They look well, but the KIA didn’t give them their weapons back,” he told the Irrawaddy, adding that the group was unable to access some 2,000 civilians trapped in villages near Hpakant, a jade-rich area about 110 kilometers (68 miles) the state capital Myitkyina.
The three officers and the state’s transportation minister were arrested by the KIA while overseeing construction of a road on Jan. 14. The minister, Kaman Du Naw, was released the same day. The next morning, fighting erupted between the KIA and government troops near two villages around Hpakant. Conflict has continued sporadically and is believed to have led about 2,000 civilians to flee.
The displaced have since sought shelter in several churches of Hpakant Township’s Aung Bar Lay and Hka Si villages, where they are subject to interrogation by authorities and face shortages of food and water.
“We heard that they are in trouble with food and supplies,” said Lamai Gum Ja. “Relief groups and NGOs are not allowed access to the stranded communities for security reasons. When we met with the commander [Brig-Gen Saw Min of the Burma Army], he told us that he would be responsible for providing assistance.”
The commander did not explicitly forbid the KPCG from entering the area, he said, but warned that the Burma Army could not ensure their safety and if they “dare to go” they could do so at their own risk.
Reports have also surfaced that more than 100 Chinese nationals who were involved in the timber and mining industries were among those who fled the fighting, though China’s Foreign Ministry denied the claim.
A Chinese businessman based near the Burma-China border said that about 120 Chinese were believed to be caught up in the troubled zone, while more than 200 others have lost contact with their families. The man said that many foreign businesspeople tried to flee to the border but couldn’t, explaining that trains had been stopped and many vehicles confiscated by the Burma Army.
“We are not illegal loggers, but the victims of a war between the Burma Army and the KIA,” he said, adding that Chinese merchants in the area had acquired necessary permits and had been granted access by Burmese authorities. Cross-border trade of raw timber, however, has been illegal in Burma since April 2014.
Others said that jade mining operations had been temporarily suspended because the Burma Army “blocked the way” from Hpakant to Myitkyina. “There is no way anyone can travel from one place to another, even now,” according to an ethnic Chinese merchant in Hpakant.
The latest outbreak of violence erupted as ethnic leaders and government negotiators scramble to reach a nationwide ceasefire agreement on Feb. 12. The KIA is one of two major ethnic armed groups that have not signed a bilateral agreement with the government.
Burma Army Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing placed responsibility for achieving peace in the hands of the country’s rebels in statements made during a recent interview with Channel News Asia. The commander said that the government is keen to reach a ceasefire agreement, but questioned whether ethnic armed groups are fully committed to ending Burma’s decades of conflict.
“This depends on the armed ethnic groups. Do they really want peace? If they really want peace, there is no reason why they should not get it,” he said.
Intermittent fighting has taken place in northern Burma since a 17-year ceasefire between the government and the KIA broke down in 2011. Prior to last week, the latest episode occurred in November, when the Burma Army shelled a rebel training academy near the Kachin State capital of Myitkyina, killing 23 cadets in the deadliest attack on an ethnic armed group in years.
Additional reporting by Echo Hui in Hong Kong.