As of today, the war in Burma’s Kachin State has been going on for one year. It’s a sad anniversary.
In early January 2012, the Kachin journalist Lahpai Naw Ming was hit by a bullet fired by a Burmese soldier. But Naw Ming’s companions had no way of getting him to a hospital for immediate treatment, because of the heavy ongoing fighting between Kachin rebels and Burmese government troops.
Bleeding profusely, the 44 year-old Kachin journalist was forced to hide in a trench in the Kachin lines for almost two hours. By the time he arrived at a hospital in a Chinese border town, the bullet in his throat had already caused damage to his main nervous system.
“I still can’t move the lower part of my body up to the chest,” Naw Ming told me on the phone from his hospital bed. As the chief reporter for Kachinland News, Naw Ming filed a series of dispatches from the front lines of the war between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and Burmese government troops, which broke out last June after 17 year of a ceasefire agreement. The journalist also documented on video how the Burmese army has wantonly killed Kachin villagers and razed their houses.
On May 27, Naw Ming was honored with the Citizen of Burma Award, chosen by a public online vote. Although he was not a high-profile figure in the Burmese public in comparison to other candidates in the final list, Naw Ming won the award, receiving 51.25 percent of the 513,922 votes cast.
“The voting statistics showed that Naw Ming won significant and sweeping support from the voting public,” says Htain Linn, of the Citizen of Burma Award organization. “The ratio of the votes he received was over two times higher than the runner-up.”
The news of the award surprised even Naw Ming: “I was amazed because this award was not just given to me by my fellow Kachin compatriots, but by mostly ethnic Burman voters and other supporters,” Naw Ming told me. “I see this prize as increasing [public] understanding of the ethnic struggle among members of the Burman majority.”
Many unprecedented things are happening around the war in Kachin State. A group of well-known musicians go on the road every Sunday to perform at teashops in Rangoon to raise funds for the support of Kachin war refugees. Respected Burmese charity organizations, such as the Free Funeral Service Society, have also been sending aid to those fleeing the war. Some publications have published interviews with Kachin rebel spokesmen and featured articles on the war and the resulting humanitarian crisis. Five journalists are hosting a photo exhibition this weekend to highlight the urgent need for ending the civil war and bringing peace in Kachin State. And influential members of the 88 Generation Students group have visited the war zone and offered to mediate the conflict.
While many ethnic Burmese are demonstrating their solidarity with the Kachin people, the Burmese army’s continuing crackdown on Kachin rebels shows a very different picture. According to a recent report by Human Rights Watch, the Burmese army has indiscriminately attacked Kachin villages, razed homes, pillaged property and forcibly displaced tens of thousands of people. Soldiers have threatened and tortured civilians during interrogations. They have also raped women. The army has also used anti-personnel mines and conscripted forced laborers—including children as young as 14— for work on the front lines.
Combat incidents have been occurring an average of four times a day since June 2011. The number of refugees has reached an estimated 75,000 people. Most of them have been seeking refuge in some 30 camps for the internally displaced along the Chinese border in KIA-controlled areas. With the rainy season around the corner, an imminent humanitarian crisis is looming in these refugee and IDP camps.
In his open letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, KIA leader Zawng Hra calls on the UN to “intervene before the conflict becomes even wider and more complex.” Zawng Hra warned that there is strong evidence that the Burmese army is not only waging war against the KIA and its political wing but also against the Kachin population as a whole. The war, he said, is turning from a political conflict into a racial one.
Some ethnic Burman volunteers who regularly deliver food to the Chinese border-based IDP camps told me they were recently cautioned by camp leaders not to speak the Burmese language inside the camp. “Anti-Burman hatred is growing fast among the refugees, because they do not make any distinction between the government army and Burman ethnic people,” said Aung Kyaw Zaw, a military analyst base on the China-Burma border. Such sentiment, however, is not confined to refugees.
Gen Sumlut Gun Maw, the vice chief of staff of the KIA and one of the most influential Kachin leaders, also told me that the Burmese army’s relentless offensive and manipulative “peace strategy” has radicalized the urban Kachin population and some of the key Kachin rebel leaders.
As a journalist, Naw Ming has been tracking the increasing ethnic tension. He warned that a quick-fix “peace strategy” is not going to work: “It will take time and patience to restore trust and ease tensions on the ground. But it’s encouraging that more and more of the general public in the Burmese heartland are taking interest in the ethnic issue and showing their support.”
The one-year anniversary of the Kachin conflict is filled with tragic memories. Yet Naw Ming’s Citizen of Burma Award revives the hope that Burma’s many different ethnic groups really have the will to live together in peace. And that does offer grounds for optimism.
Min Zin is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. This commentary originally appeared on the Foreign Policy blog “Transitions.” The views expressed here are those of the author.