Tensions Rise in Kachin, As Army Shells Land Near KIA Posts, IDP Camps

By Nyein Nyein 24 November 2014

Tensions continue to rise in Kachin State following last week’s deadly attack by the Burma Army on a Kachin rebel training school and over the weekend the army fired more than a dozen mortar shells that landed close to rebel positions and camps of internally displaced civilians, a rebel spokesman said.

La Nan, a spokesperson of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), said the military on Sunday fired nine shells that fell near KIA defense posts and Je Yang camp in the rebel-held area around Laiza, the rebel’s administrative headquarters located on the Burma-China border.

He said the shells landed “very close” near the camp and one exploded inside the camp grounds but no civilians were injured.

The army on Saturday fired six mortar shells at KIA positions situated on the border of Bhamo and Momauk townships, La Nan said, adding that the shells landed within 2 km of Nhkawng Pa camp located in a KIA-controlled area.

Je Yang is home to some 8,000 Kachin villagers who fled their homes, while Nhkawng Pa camp houses some 1,600 displaced people.

Mary Tawn, the director of the Kachin local aid group Wunpawng Ninghtoi (WPN), condemned the army’s attacks, saying that they had endangered and distressed the Kachin civilians in the camps.

“The refugees are not hurt, but worried and in fear [about the tensions],” she said, adding, “It is unbelievable that the artillery fire fell directly among those refugees in Je Yang camp, where there are thousands of refugees, including children and elders, taking shelter.”

La Nan dismissed the army’s claims that it had fired in self-defense, adding that they “used the local media to release information” blaming the KIA for the outbreak of hostilities.

“Actually it is not an engagement between both sides, as we did not start the shooting, we are just being attacked by heavy mortars,” said La Nan, adding, two of soldiers of KIA Brigade No. 3 area in Momauk were injured due to the artillery shelling on Saturday evening.

Local media outlet 7 Days News quoted a senior officer of the Northern Command as saying, “We did not start [the shooting]. We just fired back some ‘warning shots’.”

A total number of around 100,000 civilians—mostly Kachin, but also Shan and Lisu minorities—have fled their villages since fighting erupted in 2011. More than half reside in small areas under KIA control. During periods of rising tensions incidents, such as shelling, have affected the camps.

The Burma Army is also known for deploying close proximity mortar fire and other forms of intimidation to scare civilian populations away from areas that it wants to bring under its control.

La Nan said the KIA was preparing for the eventuality of an imminent army attack as the current dry season conditions are conducive for supplying military operations, adding that the KIA had also observed notable “army infantry battalion movements on the ground.”

Incident Was ‘Warning Shot’

On Nov. 19, the army surprised cadets carrying out exercises when it fired several shells at a KIA training school some 5 km outside of Laiza. Four Kachin commanders were injured, while 23 trainees were killed belonging to KIA allies, the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front; Arakan Army; Chin National Front and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA).

The army claimed it fired the shells into the grounds where dozens of young men were training in response to a KIA attack on a road construction site in Mansi Township some 70 km to the south. The KIA denied it had carried out an attack there.

Burma Army Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing told Voice of America in an interview that the shelling of the training ground was still within bounds of the army’s right to act in self-defense, which has been approved by the president.

“There are attacks on us in order to test our strength. So, sometimes we have to hit back at them,” he said. “It is true that our road construction site which was first attacked by them is far from the place where the [shelling] incident happened. But, when we are attacked, we have to fire warning shots to notify responsible persons from their side of the attack. We notified them. That’s exactly how it happened.”

The shelling was the single deadliest attack affecting the KIA since fighting began in 2011, La Nan has said, and the incident has heightened fears that the conflict could escalate again.

The National League for Democracy said in a statement posted on Facebook on Monday that it was “worried about the situation of the refugees, as such incidents could further burden them.”

The party called on both sides to continue “talks at the table, instead of fighting; to stop blaming each other; and to seek justice for those who lost their lives.”

Fighting has intensified in Kachin and northern Shan State in recent months, after national ceasefire agreement talks between the government, army and an alliance of 16 ethnic groups hit a deadlock. The KIA and the TNLA are the only two major armed groups that do not yet have a bilateral ceasefire with Naypyidaw.

Asked why he had not yet met with the KIA leaders, Min Aung Hlaing told VoA that the KIA had to first follow the army’s six-point statement regarding ethnic conflict, which includes demands such as that all armed forces come under the army’s command.

“They don’t normally follow some points in our six-point peace principles… It is meaningless to meet them if the meeting fails to deliver any result. If they really want peace, they should follow some points in our letter of principles,” he said.