US Ambassador Conveys Urgent Concern Over Kachin

By The Irrawaddy 9 January 2013

RANGOON —The US ambassador to Burma has expressed concern about the escalating war in Kachin State, saying he has urged key officials in the capital to stop the bloodshed as their army continues air raids on rebel forces.

“We have conveyed quietly our concern about any escalation of violence,” US Ambassador Derek Mitchell told The Irrawaddy on Monday, saying he had spoken with top-brass officials in Naypyidaw. “I understand their position on this, including [their desire to] open up lines of communication, but you know there has to be recognition of the need for a political solution.”

War in Burma’s northernmost state has been escalating since late last month, when the government began launching daily air strikes to secure an important supply route being blocked by ethnic minority rebels from the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).

“I think both sides have to recognize that there is no military solution to this question, and that an eye for an eye will leave everyone blind,” Mitchell said in the exclusive interview with Aung Zaw, founding editor of The Irrawaddy. “I don’t see a viable political strategy here if escalation of military hostilities leads to further alienation of the Kachin people.”

His statement reaffirmed earlier criticism by the US government of the air strikes.

“We are troubled by the use of air power,” US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters in Washington last week, saying the United States urged both sides to cease fighting and work toward political dialogue.

The KIA, which is fighting for greater political autonomy from the national government, has been at war with the government army since a 17-year ceasefire between both sides broke down in 2011.

The rebels’ political wing, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), has met with government peace negotiators repeatedly, but with no tangible results.

The fighting was ongoing on Tuesday, with KIA rebels reporting heavy clashes around their headquarters in Laiza, a town near the Chinese border.

Two fighter jets and three helicopter gunships also attacked the Lajayang region, near Laiza, again on Tuesday, according to Min Htay, from the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF), an ally of the KIA.

Mitchell said he remained particularly concerned about the tens of thousands of civilians displaced in the conflict, as the government has blocked international aid groups from reaching internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Laiza and elsewhere in rebel-held territory.

“We continue to talk to them [military leaders] about the humanitarian access to these innocent civilians,” he said.

Mitchell, who became ambassador in July, made his first official visit to Kachin State last month, about 10 days before the government army launched its first air strike.

In the fact-finding visit, the ambassador saw IDP camps around the state capital Myitkyina, in government-held territory.

“We understand very well that these are not the worst of the IDP camps,” he said. “We understand those [camps] in non-government controlled areas have the most need, they have the most people.

“But we saw what we saw, and it was a first trip, a first visit,” he added. “We hope to make further visits to demonstrate our commitment on this side. But we appreciated the government’s willingness to facilitate and allow us to have the access that we did.”

He said his delegation was not able to meet with KIA or KIO members.

“But we did meet with representatives of Kachin civil society, people close to the KIA and the KIO,” he said. “We have engagements here with people close to the leadership and we will continue to have conversations with them.”

He refuted criticism that the United States had been too quiet about the war in Kachin State and unrest in other border states.

“We’ve been very much in consultation with the government on a continuous basis on this, and Washington has not been silent,” he said. “We consider this a very urgent matter. There are many ways to convey your concerns and your desire for justice.

“We’re trying to convey why this [continuing military attacks] is not in their interest,” he added later of Burma’s government and military authorities. “It is affecting their ability to build trust and find a political solution to a fundamentally political problem.

“Regardless of the government’s purpose in continuing these military actions, it is affecting their reputation in the international community and setting back their stated goals of peace, reconciliation and development.”