US Limits Criticism after Laiza Shelling

By Lalit K Jha 15 January 2013

WASHINGTON—The US government has stopped short of criticizing the Burmese government over its handling of the conflict with Kachin rebels in northern Burma, despite appeals by US Kachin groups and a Burmese military attack on Kachin civilians on Monday.

Instead, US officials emphasized the need for the Kachin to open political dialogue with the government in the same way that other ethnic “separatist areas” have done.

Last week, 23 US Kachin organizations sent an open letter to President Obama asking him to condemn the Burmese military’s use of airpower against the Kachin rebels, to reinstate US sanctions against the Burmese government, and to help guarantee the safety of thousands of displaced Kachin civilians.

The groups demonstrated at the US State Department on Saturday to highlight their demands.

US State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said in a press briefing on Monday however, that the US would not reinstate sanctions in order to address the Kachin conflict.

“I don’t have any changes to US policy to announce,” she said, adding that the lifting of the sanctions earlier this year “was conditional on continued progress” by the Burmese government towards democracy and respect for human rights.

Fighting in Kachin State has intensified since December and the Burmese army has been launching airstrikes on Kachin rebel positions in an effort to conquer Laiza valley, where the rebel headquarters is located and where some 35,000 Kachin civilians are sheltering.

The Kachin rebels are demanding greater autonomy, basic rights and amendments of the military-drafted 2008 Constitution.

On Monday, reporters saw two artillery strikes by the Burmese army land in the center of Laiza. Three civilians, including a teenager, were killed, while four others were seriously injured.

Asked if the escalating Kachin conflict represented a step backward for the Burmese government Nuland said, “there’s been violence on and off in Kachin for a very, very long time.”

The State Department did not directly address Monday’s artillery strike by the Burmese army.

Instead Nuland said, “[I]n a number of these other separatist [ethnic] areas, the Government of Burma has had success in getting into a dialogue about grievances and working things out politically. That’s what we want to see in Kachin as well,” she said.

She added that the US was urging both parties to open political dialogue and had asked the Burmese government to stop blocking UN access to displaced Kachin civilians.

Britain on Monday expressed its concern about the Kachin conflict and the Burmese army’s use of heavy firepower near Laiza in strong terms.

“The British Government is deeply concerned by reports emerging from Kachin State of an escalation in hostilities, including the use of Burmese military helicopters and aircraft against Kachin Independence Army positions in areas around the state capital and Laiza,” Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt told British Parliament.

“These tactics represent a marked escalation, and pose a significant risk of civilian casualties,” he said, adding that, “The situation in Kachin is increasingly serious and could present a threat to wider reforms.”

Burt said Britain was encouraged by the recent political reforms under President Thein Sein but he added that “progress on ethnic reconciliation must remain the highest priority.”

He urged both sides open negotiations and for the Burmese government to allow UN access to the displaced Kachin.