UNREST IN KACHIN STATE
Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker, “In a remote expanse of emerald hills and jagged ridges in Burma’s northern reaches” the conflict pits “government forces against the Kachin Independence Army, a rebel insurgency that has demanded greater political autonomy and control over the country’s natural resources. The Kachin war had proved especially difficult to resolve, because the land is rich with gold and gems and other things worth fighting about. Each side blamed the other for the resumption of hostilities. In December, the President ordered the commander-in-chief to halt attacks and fire only in self-defense, but the war raged on—suggesting that the President lacked the power or the resolve to make his commanders carry out his orders. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, August 6, 2012 *-*]
The Kachin face persistent discrimination because of their Christian faith in a Buddhist-majority land. They have also struggled to obtain more autonomy from the Myanmar regime, which wants to maintain a firm hand in Kachin State in part because it is rich in natural resources. According to the U.S. State Department, Human Rights in Burma Report for 2013: “Many of Myanmar’s vast natural resources are located in its ethnic nationality regions, particularly in Kachin State, where war is being waged for both reasons of political autonomy generally and control over these resources specifically. This ongoing fighting has contributed to human rights abuses and social instability. In the past when the military and business join forces, often we have observed patterns of land confiscation, forced labor, environmental destruction, and severe human rights abuses on local populations around these projects. [Source: U.S. State Department, Human Rights in Burma, February 18, 2013]
The government has signed ten ceasefire agreements with armed ethnic groups in the past year, including with the Karen National Union with which it had previously been at war for over 60 years. Still, the government’s previously longest running and most stable ceasefire with the Kachin broke down 18 months ago and fighting has intensified in recent months. In December, the military used helicopters and jets to attack Kachin Independence Army positions, marking the first use of air power against an armed ethnic group in decades. The Army continued using heavy artillery to shell KIA positions. Estimates are that tens of thousands of Kachin IDPs remain cut off from international humanitarian aid since July 2012. In our talks with the government, I stressed the urgent need to grant immediate access for humanitarian organizations to all those in need. Since the December escalation both sides have tentatively returned to the negotiating table, though a ceasefire will not be reached easily. In the immediate term we have pressed for, and the government has committed to, restoring international humanitarian access to IDPs both in government and in KIA-held territory.
There have been recent signs of improvement: major international humanitarian groups such as ICRC and UNOCHA have recently regained limited access to deliver aid to Laiza and Hpakant in Kachin State; we are hopeful that these initial visits will produce the long-term sustained access these organizations need. Smaller community based Kachin organizations we spoke with have emphasized the need for these larger organizations to continue to fund smaller service delivery groups who do not need government permission to deliver assistance to IDPs in difficult to reach places. We have continued to press the government to allow ongoing humanitarian access for all groups which is crucial not only for delivering assistance but also laying the groundwork for the kind of trust that a ceasefire requires.
Kachin Independence Organization (KIO)
The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) is a political group that has fought for secession from the state since Myanmar was granted independence from Britain in 1948. Its military wing is the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
Kachin Independence Army
The Kachin Independence Army (KIA) is a military group that has fought for secession from the state since Myanmar was granted independence from Britain in 1948. Its political wing is the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO).
Kachin rebels have a reputation for fearsome hit-and-run guerrilla tactics that date to World II, when Kachin rangers fought with legendary bravery for the Allied side, even as other parts of present-day Burma fell under Japanese occupation. The largest and most active group today is the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). KIA does not give out information on its troop strength, but is thought to have several thousand soldiers under its command. Until fairly recently it had observed a ceasefire with the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) since 1994. [Source: Human Rights Watch, Sold to Be Soldiers, October 31, 2007]
Hannah Beech, Time wrote in Time: “A ragtag militia outfitted with rifles sometimes held together by duct tape, the KIA makes up what it lacks in technological sophistication with grit born of a long martial tradition. In the decades before their 1994 cease-fire with the Burmese army, the Kachin excelled in the kind of morale-sapping insurgency that can stymie a larger national army. Hundreds of Burmese soldiers have died on the Kachin front since the June 2011 cease-fire broke. [Source: Hannah Beech, Time, January 28, 2013]
Kachin Independence Army and Child Soldiers
Human Rights Watch has accused the KIA of using child soldiers. One KIA representative told Human Rights Watch in 2007: “Frankly speaking, in the past the KIA was not aware of international regulations restricting child soldiers so we recruited children. In Kachin culture there are no special rights for children so they didn't know it was wrong to do so. But now since the world is saying that child soldier recruitment and forced labor are human rights violations we have come to realize that it is not right to mobilize child soldiers. But we still have not decided on how to respond to the issue. [Source: Human Rights Watch, Sold to Be Soldiers, October 31, 2007 >>]
He added, "We have child soldiers but not intentionally. We do not purposely mobilize children. In many cases child soldiers come and ask to join the KIA because they are from poor families. There is no minimum age in the KIA." However, the KIA view of what constitutes a "soldier" differs somewhat from that of other groups. Though accepting children into the army, the KIA apparently sees this as a form of caring for vulnerable children, and does not see anything wrong in this: "In the KIA the child soldiers issue is not considered a serious problem. We have never regarded using child soldiers as a human rights violation. We house child soldiers in the army compound and they are allowed to stay with the officers. They stay as if they are the dependents of the officers and the officers become like a parent to them." Some of these children, while already registered as soldiers, continue to attend school, while others work around base camps. The KIA admits that even in their officer training program there are candidates who are under 18; graduates of Tenth Standard (high school) can enter officer training regardless of age. >>
According to a KIA soldier who enlisted a long time ago at age 15, the KIA previously operated under a 1972 directive forbidding it from conscripting anyone under age 16, but allowing it to accept volunteers younger than that. However, since 2005 he reports that the KIA has "restricted the mobilization of youth" and created a program to support those who volunteer for the army to continue their education. He estimated that there are about 50 soldiers in the entire KIA who are under 16. He was unsure how many 16- and 17-year-old soldiers there are, but estimated that their number is probably around 250. This does not include children in officer training, and may not include children attending school while registered as KIA soldiers. >>
The senior KIA officer stated that KIA policy changed four to five years ago, ending conscription and allowing only voluntary recruiting; he qualified this by stating that "in some areas the brigades may still recruit by force in violation of the KIC's [Kachin Independence Council] policy." A community leader interviewed by Human Rights Watch said he used to be furious when the KIA would come to his village and recruit children as young as 12, then lead the recruits away with hands tied behind their backs. He noted that things were different this year: "In June the KIA second brigade recruited about 80 soldiers. No children were included because they want strong recruits. This year the recruiters did not tie their hands behind their backs." He said some children are still recruited, though in training they are not pressed as hard as the adults, and they are not trained in combat. He thought there were about 10 soldiers ages 13 or 14 in his area, some working at the KIA battalion bases and some attending school.
Even if one accepts the KIA's custodial attitude toward many of its child soldiers, caring for them and sending them to schools should be possible without registering them as soldiers and putting them through military training. Other groups such as the KA, KNLA, and SSA-S are known to do so without registering the children involved as soldiers. Regarding those not attending school and working at battalion camps, they are unlikely to see any possible future for themselves outside soldiering, so this treatment denies them their right to choose their own future. Human Rights Watch therefore strongly recommends that all of these children should be demobilized and given the option of continuing in school, with support continued as at present. The senior KIA officer pointed out, however, "When the KIA declared an opium-free state it just created problems. It created a big responsibility for the KIO, hardship for many poor villagers, and no international aid was forthcoming. This was a big lesson for us. So, the KIA will handle the child soldiers issue on our own." This expresses a perception common among non-state groups that the international community demands that they adhere to the same standards expected of states, but refuses them access to any of the necessary material support to do so.
Kachin Defense Army
According to [Source: Human Rights Watch: The Kachin Defense Army (KDA) a former breakaway faction of the KIA, has formally surrendered to the SPDC, and is nominally under the government's control as border police. It operates in northern Shan state, and is known to have engaged in active combat against the KNLA and the SSA. Human Rights Watch was only able to interview two witnesses with specific information on the KDA, both independent community workers in the KDA's area of operation. One witness estimated that the KDA has approximately 2,000 troops, divided into two brigades and seven battalions. The group's operating area covers about 200 villages where the majority of the population is Kachin. He stated that the KDA has a recruiting quota requiring each household to provide one member of the family, and that if a household refuses, the soldiers come to the house and collect a recruit by force. If people try to hide, the soldiers threaten the household and conscript someone else from the house. Unlike nearly every other armed force in Burma, the KDA recruits girls in addition to boys. The source was not aware of any age limitations, but believed that child soldiers in the KDA were not normally under age 16. [Source: Human Rights Watch, Sold to Be Soldiers, October 31, 2007]
The KDA also brings in recruits by offering places at a boarding school it operates in Kaung Kha for students from Fifth to Tenth Standard (roughly ages 10 to 17). There are approximately 100 students at this school, all of whom are supported financially by the KDA and must serve the KDA when they graduate or leave school. One of the community workers said it was difficult to determine the number of child soldiers but he estimated that the numbers may be around 6-7 percent of KDA forces. The other estimated that child soldiers make up about 10 percent of KDA forces. These testimonies indicate a need for greater scrutiny of this group, and the group's history of conflict with other armed groups raises concern about the possible use of children in combat roles.
Kachin, Kachin Rebels and China
Hannah Beech wrote in Time, “Kachin is a resource-rich region located at a strategic crossroad between Burma and China...Decades ago, Beijing funded communist-linked ethnic rebels in northern Burma who battled the national army. Although the Chinese government later became one of the Burmese junta’s few international patrons, it still maintains informal relations with various ethnic armies. Several rounds of peace talks between the KIA and Burmese government have taken place in China’s neighboring Yunnan province — although to no avail so far. [Source: Hannah Beech, Time, January 28, 2013 ^]
“There are economic interests for China too. Oil and gas pipelines — which originate in Burma’s western Arakan (or Rakhine) state, another ethnically combustive region, and snake through Kachin areas — are likely to begin flowing in June, 2013, channeling badly needed energy resources to interior China. Any instability in these ethnic regions could compromise Beijing’s attempts to secure natural resources for its economic engine. Already, unrest in Kachin, as well as a Burmese civil-society groundswell, led to Thein Sein ordering a suspension of construction of the Myitsone Dam, a massive project in Kachin that would send nearly all its electricity to China. When a top Chinese delegation visited Burma earlier this month, the sanctity of Chinese-backed projects, ranging from Myitsone Dam to a copper mine, was a key topic of discussion. ^
“Because it borders China and because of what’s underground, Kachin is very important geopolitically,” Matthew Smith, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, told Time. “That does not, however, totally explain the way the Burmese army conducts war there. That is related to the complex history of ethnic relations in Burma, and the plight of the Kachin is, ultimately, an ethnic war.” ^
Jason Motlagh wrote in the Washington Post: “The KIA is financed largely by taxes and illicit cross-border trade in products ranging from dry goods to teak, highlighting its awkward relationship with China, its lifeline to the world. In Laiza, the Chinese yuan is the currency, and Chinese mobile phone networks keep locals connected. China hosts Kachin university students, and when soldiers are seriously injured, lax border controls allow them to be taken to better hospitals for treatment. Even basic necessities such as medicine and rice are smuggled into Kachin territory. This dependence is tempered by the fact that Chinese-funded infrastructure projects are at the crux of the conflict in Kachin state. “We are neighbors in more ways than one, and we can’t avoid each other,” said Sumlat Gun Maw, the Kachin general, measuring his words carefully. “We welcome investment from China . . . as long as it doesn’t hurt civilians.”[Source: Jason Motlagh, Washington Post, June 29, 2012 ::]
“China has not taken a formal stance on the war, but KIA officers and analysts say it wants stability along the border to protect its commercial interests. China has refused to classify thousands of displaced Kachins living on its side of the border as “refugees” and is accused of sending some back to Burma. As a signatory to international refugee treaties, such a designation would require China to meet legal obligations for assistance. ::
Kachin Fighting in 2011
A 16-year truce with the Kachin rebels unraveled in 2010 and fighting erupted in June, 2011 near the Myitsone dam, a controversial joint venture between the Burmese government and state-owned China Power Investment Corp. that would have sent 90 percent of the electricity generated to China’s southwestern Yunnan province. Thein Sein later halted construction in response to protests over forced evictions and environmental concerns, a rare bow to public pressure that rankled Chinese officials. [Source: Jason Motlagh, Washington Post, June 29, 2012]
The BBC reported: “Burmese troops have been involved in deadly clashes with Kachin rebels near a northern site where China is building a hydro-electric power plant. At least four rebel fighters and 16 government troops have died. A truce between the government and rebels from the Kachin ethnic minority broke down last year when rebels refused to become state border guards. It is among the worst violence reported in Burma since March, when the military handed power to a civilian government. [Source: BBC, June 14, 2011 <>]
“The fighting appears to have started with a government offensive to force rebels belonging to the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) away from an outpost in an area where China is building two dams as part of a hydro-electric power plant. The US Campaign for Burma, a Washington-based lobbying group, said hundreds of Burmese government troops had been deployed. More than 2,000 people had fled the fighting, mostly into China, the group said. A rebel spokesman confirmed the rebel deaths. <>
“The Kachins have repeatedly warned against the building of the plant, saying it will destroy the livelihoods of many people in the area. China has said that about 30 Chinese engineers and hydro-electric power plant workers were caught up in the conflict, apparently held by government troops. A Kachin rebel spokesman later told the BBC that the workers had been allowed to leave. He said the conflict could be solved only through the mediation of a neighbouring country, though he did not name one. "We don't want the war to spread country-wide," said the spokesman, La Nam. "We don't believe the negotiation between government and us could be possible to stop the conflict. We wish a powerful neighbour country to mediate between us to relax the tension." <>
The next day the BBC reported: KIA “rebels say they have destroyed several bridges in the north of the country to prevent attacks by the army. The rebels said they had blown up two bridges in neighbouring Shan state. Separately, activists said two Kachin political leaders who are not linked to the current fighting have been put under house arrest. The Thailand-based Kachin News Group reported that the destroyed bridges were on a major trading route into China. Meanwhile, Kachin activists said the government had put under house arrest Zahkung Ting Ying and Waw Lau - who belong to militant groups that have accepted a government ceasefire. The government is reportedly trying to use their militias to attack the KIA[Source: BBC, June 15, 2011]
Kachin Conflict in 2012
Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker, By spring 2012, when I reached the site of the Kachin conflict, the fighting had uprooted seventy-five thousand people, according to a report by Human Rights Watch, which accused the Burmese military, since last June, of having “threatened and tortured civilians during interrogations for information about KIA insurgents, and raped women.” The Army also, according to the report, “used antipersonnel landmines and conscripted forced labor.” It accused the K.I.A. of “using child soldiers and antipersonnel landmines.” [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, August 6, 2012 *-*]
“I arrived a few days ahead of the monsoon, and the fighting had intensified. The rebels, who augment their supply train with the use of pack elephants, had steadily lost ground in recent months and were regrouping in the remote town of Laiza, beside the Chinese border. The town was awash in soldiers on motorbikes and in pickup trucks, and people were arriving from villages already gripped by fighting. “This is the most intense period in our revolutionary journey,” Kumhtat La Nan, the Joint General Secretary of the political wing of the rebel army, told me, when I stopped by the headquarters, a small hotel that had been fortified with gun positions and adorned with a banner that read, “God Is Our Victory.” China had reportedly turned refugees away at the border, but the rebel commanders expected an exodus in the event of an attack, because people had nowhere else to go.
Recently, President Thein Sein had announced a renewed commitment to negotiations, but nobody I met in Kachin expected a swift conclusion: not the father of seven, entrenched in an outpost of tunnels and foxholes, who was fighting because “the Burmese Army took everything (land, fields, prosperity)”; not the Baptist pastor who feared that violence was radicalizing a new generation of youths; and not the farmer who had been burned out of his house, and was now in a bamboo shelter for displaced persons, and told me, “The new government talks about peace, but if it doesn’t give us our rights, then the war will take a long time.”
Kachin Fighting in 2013
Hannah Beech wrote in Time, “Since June 2011, ethnic Kachin rebels have been locked in battle with the Burmese army, a conflict that has claimed hundreds of lives and displaced some 100,000 Kachin. A peace pledge by Thein Sein has gone unheeded. Gunfire still crackles in this borderland with China, where the hills boast jade, timber and hydropower. In fact, over the past few days, the Burmese army has inched steadily toward Laiza, the rebel headquarters of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). Only a few kilometers now separate the Burmese army from this last KIA stronghold. “Despite the Burmese government’s announcement [of] a ceasefire … media and NGO reports indicate that the Burmese Army continues a military offensive,” said a statement by the U.S. embassy in Burma on Jan. 24. [Source: Hannah Beech, Time, January 28, 2013 ^]
“For a year and a half, the Burmese army and the KIA have clashed in a low-grade but deadly combat. This was a war of land mines and unreliable mortar fire. Around new year 2013, the Burmese military escalated hostilities by launching air strikes against the KIA — a tactic the Burmese government at first denied employing. As government forces began closing in on Laiza, the government cease-fire was announced on Jan. 19. The Burmese military claims it has only engaged in defensive combat with the KIA, accusing the Kachin of attacking Burmese supply convoys. But how is it that after a week of supposed cease-fire and defensive movements, the Burmese army has edged ever closer to Laiza? Human-rights groups have spent the past few months documenting violence, like indiscriminate shelling, committed by the Burmese military against Kachin civilians. The Burmese government has refused to give international human-rights groups access to internally-displaced-person (IDP) camps. President Thein Sein has publicly vowed that the Burmese army will not overrun the KIA headquarters, which lies just across the border with China’s Yunnan province. But few Kachin believe the Burmese President’s assurances about sparing Laiza. The border town, surrounded by overflowing IDP settlements, is preparing for a final showdown. ^
“On Jan. 24, the International Labor Organization said that it had helped negotiate the release of eight underage Burmese soldiers that the KIA had captured. The Burmese army is routinely criticized for forcibly recruiting child soldiers, and a January report by the NGO Child Soldiers International detailed the way in which Burmese children are still involved in armed conflict, acting as porters, scouts and even land-mine exploders. Meanwhile, Burmese troop reinforcements are reportedly flooding the hills of Kachin, where the national army over the weekend captured a strategic pass just outside of Laiza. Town residents are stockpiling food supplies in case of a final offensive and building makeshift bomb shelters. Hospitals and Christian pastors are overwhelmed with casualties and IDPs. In phone calls to Laiza, the boom of mortar fire echoes on the line. If this is a cease-fire, what might war sound like? “
The government said in the statement that because the guerrillas would not let the convoys through, it “had to take military action as self-defense and in order to protect the safety of lives and properties of the people, safe and smooth transportation and peace and tranquility of the region.” It added that the military had to take action but exercised “maximum restraint” in the use of force. It also said the positions from which the military dislodged the Kachin were in uninhabited territory. [Source: The Irrawaddy, January 5, 2013]
Myanmar Launches Airstrikes against Kachin
In early January 2013, Simon Roughneen and Richard Lloyd Parry wrote in The Times, “He was fixing his car when the shell landed in front of the simple home where he and his family lived as fruit farmers. There was no warning, no chance to escape and nothing that could be done to save him. A 105mm artillery round, fired from a Burmese army position, blew a ragged hole in the back of his head. “He died instantly,” said La Seng, the doctor at the spartan hospital where Maji Tu Ja, 42, was brought by his weeping family. “He had no change.” Three other villagers were wounded. [Source: Simon Roughneen, in Laiza, and Richard Lloyd Parry, The Times, January 7 2013
Associated Press reported: “ Myanmar's military acknowledged launching airstrikes against ethnic Kachin rebels in the north and said it captured a hilltop post from where the insurgents had attacked government supply convoys. The statement broadcast on state television Wednesday contradicted government claims two days earlier that the military was not carrying out offensive air attacks on the Kachin, raising questions about how much control the elected government of reformist President Thein Sein has over the army. Myanmar state television, quoting the Defense Ministry, said the military occupied a Kachin Independence Army hilltop post during a mopping-up operation of the area where attacks had been launched against supply convoys. [Source: AP, January 2, 2013 ~]
“The government has been seeking to supply a base at Lajayang very close to KIA headquarters at Laiza, the rebel group's last major outpost. The government delivered an ultimatum to the Kachin to clear a road by Christmas Day so it could supply its base. The Kachin rejected the ultimatum for fear of a government attack on their own outpost. KIA spokesman La Nan charged Monday that the supplies being sent to government troops included ammunition as well as rice. "We will obstruct any army convoy that carries arms and ammunition that will be used against us," he said. "This is the nature of war." ~
The government said in the statement that because the guerrillas would not let the convoys through, it “had to take military action as self-defense and in order to protect the safety of lives and properties of the people, safe and smooth transportation and peace and tranquility of the region.” It added that the military had to take action but exercised “maximum restraint” in the use of force. It also said the positions from which the military dislodged the Kachin were in uninhabited territory. [Source: The Irrawaddy, January 5, 2013]
“Each side blames the other for intensified fighting that began a little over a week ago. The Kachin they were being attacked by helicopter gunships and fighter jets, but President's Office director Maj. Zaw Htay said the aircraft were being used mainly to supply government units whose access to supplies by road had been cut off by the Kachin guerrillas. "During the attack, the army used air support," Wednesday's report said. It added that the military did not want to launch an offensive but attacked the outpost to maintain security and stability. The report said government troops seized weapons including mortars, hand grenades, mines and 4,000 rounds of ammunition. ~
“The military announcement highlights a seeming disconnect between the government and the military, which retains much power behind the scenes. An order late last year by Thein Sein to halt offensive operations against the Kachin was not honored in practice. Since fighting erupted in Kachin state in June 2011 there have been off-and-on skirmishes between the KIA and government troops, often escalating into serious bombardment by government troops. ~
Air Strikes Against the Kachin: Bombs and Refugees Land in China
A few days later Reuters and AFP reported: “China has made a diplomatic complaint to Myanmar after three bombs landed on its territory during air strikes on ethnic minority rebels in Kachin state, causing damage to one house. "The Chinese side has launched representations with the Myanmar side requiring them to take effective and immediate measures to avoid the repetition of similar incidents," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular news briefing yesterday. She said there were no casualties from the bombs, which landed on a village in Yingjiang county, Yunnan. [Source: Reuters, Agence France Presse, January 5, 2013 ++]
“Residents of the border county said there had been bombing and air raids close to their homes every day in the past week as the Myanmese army struck rebel positions. "My home is just 10 meters from a river that forms the border with Myanmar's Kachin state," a resident of the town of Nabang said. "We have heard bombing and air raids in Kachin day and night since [December 28]." He confirmed that no one had been injured on the Chinese side of the border, but that a house had been flattened by a bomb. Another Nabang resident said villagers had seen two Myanmese military jets enter China's air space on December 28. "It's been very common to see Myanmese military jets flying in our skies in the past week, but luckily they just came into our territory in the day time," the villager, who works for a Sino-Myanmese trading company, said. Nighttime air strikes took place in Kachin state, however. The air attacks began the day after the Kachin Independence Army ignored an ultimatum to stop blocking an army supply route in the hilly, resource-rich northern state, where more than 50,000 people have been displaced. ++
"The air raids have caused thousands of Kachin refugees to escape to our town. Our trading business has been affected, with our more than 100 Myanmese staff being forced to cross the border every day before dusk to sleep in a guesthouse in Nabang to escape air raids at night." The two villagers said the Myanmese refugees had caused no social unrest in Yingjiang county, although many had asked villagers for food. The trading company employee said none of the refugees had engaged in stealing or robbery, but police patrols had been stepped up anyway since December 28. ++
Burmese Army Closes in on Kachin Rebel Headquarters
In late June 2013, Associated Press reported: “A key outpost protecting the headquarters of ethnic Kachin rebels in northern Myanmar has fallen to government troops, a spokesman for the guerrilla group. The Kachin Independence Army spokesman said the hillside outpost at Hka Ya Bhum, near the guerrilla group's headquarters in the town of Laiza, was overrun. "The army stormed the post using about 3,000 soldiers and air and artillery assaults," said the spokesman, who asked to be identified only as Joseph. He said that heavy attacks on the post began week before despite a cease-fire unilaterally declared by the government. Over the past few weeks, the government has pushed toward Laiza, although it insists that it has no intention of taking the town. "The government did not live up to their own promises and they continue their attacks even today. I think their target is to totally occupy our Laiza headquarters," he said. No casualty figures were available, he said. [Source: AP, January 27, 2013 ==]
“The military has been actively engaging the Kachin in combat for 1 1/2 years, but fighting escalated when the government began using fighter planes and helicopter gunships in its attacks starting on Christmas Day. It said it was acting in self-defense because Kachin attacks kept it from supplying its forward bases, but the Kachin say they were seeking to stop the army from attacking their Laiza headquarters, near the border with China. ==
Abuses by the Myanmar Military and KIA in Kachin Areas
In March 2013, Gwen Robinson wrote in the Financial Times: “Both the Myanmar army and Kachin rebel fighters have been accused of “serious abuses” by Human Rights Watch in a conflict that has displaced 75,000 people and threatens to undermine the government’s attempts to open up the economy. Human Rights Watch said Myanmar’s military has tortured civilians and raped women during interrogations, and used anti-personnel mines and forced labour. “Children as young as 14 have been tortured and forced to serve as army porters, including on the front lines,” it said. The KIA has also been involved in “serious abuses”, it added, including using child soldiers and landmines. “Human Rights Watch found no tangible signs that the authorities in the KIA or the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) – the KIA’s political wing – are seriously addressing either practice,” the group said.[Source: Gwen Robinson, Financial Times, March 20, 2013]
Jason Motlagh wrote in the Washington Post, “International rights groups accuse the Burmese army of deliberate attacks against civilians, torture, rape, forced conscription and summary executions. Both sides employ child soldiers and seed the ground with land mines that have claimed the lives of combatants and civilians alike. :: [Source: Jason Motlagh, Washington Post, June 29, 2012 ::]
“Hka Htum Lu, 42, arrived on foot four months ago with her family after their village came under attack. Several weeks ago, her husband went back in search of belongings. He has not returned.“It’s hard to say what’s missing most, because we lost everything,” she said while nursing one of her six children. Like many others, the family subsists on rations of rice and salt provided by the KIA’s political wing, and whatever else it can scrounge from the forest. ::
Across town, a group of Burmese child soldiers passed the day chain-smoking cigarettes between meals at a lightly guarded cinder block compound. Nay Myo Oo, 16, said he was forced to join the Burmese army after a bogus arrest and trained to lay land mines until he ran away. Now his feelings are mixed: He’s relieved that his combat days are over but worried he’ll never see his family again. Citing a shortage of money and manpower, Kachin officers concede there are perhaps 100 underage soldiers in their ranks but insist they are there to be disciplined, not sent out to fight. “ ::
Arrest and Torture of Suspected Kachin Insurgents
Reporting from Myitkyina in Kachin State, Jason Motlagh wrote in the Washington Post: Of the more than 100,000 people uprooted by the fighting so far, about 7,000 live in dusty displaced-person camps around Myitkyina, a government-controlled port town. In the wake of a series of mysterious bombings in recent years, rights groups say that dozens of able-bodied Kachin men have been detained by security forces and abused with impunity. [Source: Jason Motlagh, Washington Post, February 24, 2014]
In June 2012, another farmer, Brang Shawng, 26, was arrested at a township camp shortly after fleeing clashes near his village. For the next three days and nights, he said, military intelligence personnel brutally tortured him to extract a fake confession. He was bound to a chair and beaten before hot knives were burned into his cheeks, thighs and navel, leaving permanent scars, he said.
Brang Shawng was sentenced to two years in prison on charges of being a sergeant in the independence army and involvement in a bombing. When a judge threw out his initial confession due to evidence of coercion, the judge was replaced, according to his laywer, Mar Kar. “I had no choice but to confess again,” Brang Shawng said, adding that he feared more abuse from his captors. Public pressure helped bring about Brang Shawng’s release in July 2013. But Mar Kar said his hands are full with similar cases that have only deepened resentment among ethnic Kachins toward the central government.
In 2012 alone, the Asian Human Rights Commission documented 36 cases of people being arrested and tortured by security forces in Kachin state for allegedly having “unlawful” contact with the independence army. In military custody, Mar Kar said, some were forced to stand naked and sodomize each other. In January 2014, a United Nations working group on arbitrary detention issued a ruling stating that “military courts and tribunals and the military assuming the role of a justice provider is unacceptable, as these fall far below the requirements of international human rights standards.”
Ethnic Rebels Among 106 Political Prisoners Released in Late 2013
In October 2013, Aung Hla Tun of Reuters reported: “Myanmar released 56 political prisoners in a presidential amnesty mainly for members of ethnic minority armies with which the government is seeking peace deals, activist and official sources said. The release is the second since the country's reformist President Thein Sein made a promise during a trip to Britain in July that all prisoners of conscience would be freed by the end of the year. A total of 73 were released on July 23. [Source: Aung Hla Tun, Reuters, October 8, 2013]
The prisoners were set free from at least a dozen detention centres across the country. According to Bo Kyi of the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners (AAPP), a body that monitors prisoners of conscience held in Myanmar, most of those released were former members of either the Shan State Army or the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). The two rebel groups are among about a dozen that for decades fought the central government in pursuit of greater autonomy in the mountains and jungles along the borders with China and Thailand.
To meet another condition to end sanctions, Thein Sein's government launched a complex and ambitious peace process in 2011. Though a preliminary peace agreement was made with the Shan group, the far stronger KIA has yet to come on board and conflict with the military is still going on. Talks between a government delegation and the KIA were due to take place in the Kachin State capital, Myitkyina. Previous rounds have all ended in stalemate.
Many Kachins Among the Political Prisoners Still in Jail in Early 2014
Reporting from Myitkyina in Kachin State, Jason Motlagh wrote in the Washington Post: “When President Thein Sein pledged that all of Burma’s political prisoners would be released by the end of last year, Hkawn Nan believed that her husband would be among them. Arrested by the army in June 2012 while driving cattle near a displaced persons camp where his family was living, Brang Yung, 25, and another ethnic Kachin man, Lahpai Gam, 52, endured torture and sodomy to force a false confession of ties to a rebel group, according to their lawyers. The Burmese government did free several hundred political prisoners last year, the latest grand gesture in the transition from a military dictatorship...But the two cattle-herders remain behind bars, a sign that the promise of amnesty for prisoners remains incomplete. [Source: Jason Motlagh, Washington Post, February 24, 2014]
Rights groups say that former prisoners remain subject to rearrest at any time and that more detainees languish in jail under catch-all laws that disproportionately target Kachins and other ethnic minorities, particularly those from the war-torn northern highlands.“Peoples’ lives are being torn apart, and there is no access to justice,’’ said Matthew Smith, executive director of Bangkok-based Fortify Rights, an independent advocacy group. “This is not reform. ”
According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a body that monitors prisoners of conscience in Burma, at least 33 political inmates remain incarcerated, and 166 are awaiting trial. At least 10 people have been arrested since the start of the year, some of them held under the same laws used to detain others who were granted amnesty.
Brang Yung and Lahpai Ga stand accused of links to the independence army and multiple bombings. A United Nations working group on arbitrary detention The group asserted that Lahpai Gam has been “denied his fundamental right to a fair trial” and called for his immediate release, while pointing out that the Burmese government has not denied allegations of torture.
But local rights activists in Kachin State contend that the ongoing detentions, bogus charges and abuse are part of a broader campaign to scare tens of thousands of displaced Kachins living in government-held territory to return home. International aid agencies have faced heavy restrictions since the conflict reignited.
To some critics, the military’s manipulation of courts is further evidence that Thein Sein’s authority in Kachin State takes a back seat to that of the Burmese Army’s Northern Command, which has long ignored his orders for a cease-fire. For the prisoners’ relatives confined to the camps around Myitkyina, the wait drags on. Lashi Lu, 45, the wife of Lahpai Gam, relies on food handouts and has not found work. The last time she was able to see her husband in prison, she was jarred by his failing health, but even more by the psychological toll the punishment has taken. “Maybe one day he will be free again,” she said. “But he will not be the same man.”
Myanmar Leader Urges Kachin Peace, Rules out Independence
Hannah Beech wrote in Time, In mid January 2013, the office of Burma’s President Thein Sein announced a unilateral cessation of violence in Kachin areas of the country. Yet the peace pledge has gone unheeded. Gunfire still crackles in this borderland with China, where the hills boast jade, timber and hydropower. [Source: Hannah Beech, Time, January 28, 2013 ^]
Gwen Robinson wrote in the Financial Times, “Since coming to power a year ago, the government of President Thein Sein has signed nine agreements with ethnic groups including Karen and Shan rebel forces. But the Kachin conflict is the most persistent of nearly a dozen such struggles in Myanmar’s ethnic zones... Mr Thein Sein recently laid out a three-point plan to resolve the Kachin conflict, involving phased negotiations and a proposed gathering of all ethnic groups. However, government negotiators have so far failed to engage KIA leaders in peace talks and the onus is now on the government, said another diplomat. “It’s a deadlock – it seems the government has to make a big concession, whether it’s withdrawing forces or allowing foreign observers into talks. Without that, it’s difficult to see how things can progress.” [Source: Gwen Robinson, Financial Times, March 20, 2013]
In March 2012, Aung Hla Tun of Reuters wrote: “Myanmar President Thein Sein urged government troops and ethnic Kachin rebels to end hostilities and take part in talks, but he ruled out independence. In his first public explanation of the in Kachin State, he said he had ordered troops not to attack the rebels. "Both sides need to cease fire first to start a peace dialogue," he said during a 45-minute speech that was aired on national television with an English translation. "I've already ordered the military just to defend themselves and not to launch any offensive actions." [Source: Aung Hla Tun, Reuters, March 1, 2012]
“But unlike other forces, the Kachin have demanded a political resolution in the first stage of peace efforts, using the term "self-determination". "The first phase does not cover political discussions. To make the first phase real, both sides need to bear sincere goodwill for peace," Thein Sein said, adding the third stage would be a conference in parliament to cement peace deals. He said second-stage talks would involve agreements to combat illicit drug production, form new political parties and amend the constitution. But one condition, he said, would be to agree to "never secede from the union".
Burma Government and Kachin Rebels Hold Peace Talks
In February 2013, Kate Hodal wrote in The Guardian: “Ethnic Kachin rebels have begun peace talks with the Burmese government in China after recent intense fighting saw the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) lose key positions around its headquarters in Laiza, northern Burma. Senior negotiators from each side arrived in Ruili, a city on the Chinese border with Kachin state, including Aung Min, a high-ranking minister in the office of Burma's president, Thein Sein, and the KIA's second-in-command, General Gun Maw. The general was absent from earlier peace discussions in October, a move seen as a significant blow to the Burmese army. The negotiations were also attended by other ethnic rebel groups in Burma, among them Karen and Shan leaders, as well as representatives from the Myanmar Peace Center, an EU-funded government body that mediates conflict between the Burmese government and the country's ethnic groups, Khon Ja of the Kachin Peace Network told the Guardian. [Source: Kate Hodal, The Guardian, February 5, 2013]
After seven hours of talks both sides released a statement saying they would work to calm military tensions, open lines of communication and invite observers to attend their next meeting. The meeting is expected to be the first of many negotiations after 11 rounds of previous peace talks ended without solution. Although Thein Sein called for a ceasefire in January, it was almost immediately ignored by the army, raising questions on how much power the president has over the military.
The Chinese government is central to the mediation between the KIA and Burmese government as China, which shares a border with Kachin state, houses a significant number of Kachin refugees who have fled the fighting. Whether the peace talks will stop the continued fighting remains to be seen. The latest negotiations came just one day after the Burmese government shelled rebel outposts near Laiza, Khon Ja said, as well as across other parts of the state.
Jason Motlagh wrote in the Washington Post, “Though outnumbered and outgunned, Kachin rebel leaders say they are willing to lay down their weapons only in exchange for greater autonomy and a fair share of economic largesse. The Burmese “want to solve this dispute militarily,” said Brig. Gen. Sumlat Gun Maw of the Kachin army. “We want a real dialogue. Kachin is rich in natural resources, and so they don’t want to give us equal political rights,” he added in an interview at his command center in a hotel in Laiza, the KIA’s administrative capital. “We know the way the Burmese think. They are tricky,” said a rebel supporter with knowledge of the talks. During the last face-to-face meeting, hosted by China, the Burmese army maneuvered heavy guns deeper into Kachin territory, the supporter alleged. [Source: Jason Motlagh, Washington Post, June 29, 2012]
Peace Talks with Kachin Postponed Due to Objections from Beijing
In April 2013, The Nation reported: “The peace talks between the government and the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) have been postponed due to an objection from China, even though it was denied by the Chinese embassy, a Myanmar minister has said. Win Tun, minister for Environmental Conservation and Forestry, made the revelation in a speech on Radio Free Asia (RFA) on Friday during a tour of European countries as a member of the government's union level peace working committee. Win Tun is one of the members of the visiting delegation led by committee vice-chairman minister Aung Min. The team also includes members of the Myanmar Peace Center. [Source: The Nation, April 23, 2013 /\]
"China seemed to be reluctant to invite representatives of the United Nations, the US and Britain to be present at the talks. It showed its reluctance on the Kachin side, not the government side. The invitation was made by the Kachin side," Win Tun told the RFA. The Chinese embassy released a statement on April 7 saying it is regrettable that the local media in Myanmar reported the peace talks due on April 6 were postponed because of an objection from the Chinese government. Actually, the postponement was due to logistics measures, it said. /\
Khun Jar from the Kachin Peace Network said: "Any nation, let alone China, cannot interfere in the affairs of other nations. China said it would be neutral. But looking back to history, China has always sought self-interest. For example, it supported the Burma Communist Party and armed the ethnic Wa. That means its interference in our national affairs. Now it is also interfering, which both the government and KIO should not accept." /\
The fighting has displaced an estimated 75,000 civilians amid reports of grave human-rights abuses. Most of the refugees live in ramshackle camps along the Chinese border in rebel-controlled territory. As many as 10,000 have fled to China, and the rest are in camps around the riverside capital of Kachin state, Myitkyina, which is about 25 miles south of the Myitsone project. [Source: Jason Motlagh, Washington Post, July 14, 2012]
Diplomats and aid workers broadly agree with Human Rights Watch estimates that the fighting in 2011-2013 has displaced at least 75,000 civilians in Kachin areas. Most have sought refuge in some 30 camps along the Chinese border in KIA-controlled areas mostly in Dehong Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan Province. Some rights groups say nearly 100,000 people have been displaced by the fighting, with an unknown number of casualties. [Source: Gwen Robinson, Financial Times, March 20, 2013; The Guardian, February 5, 2013]
Describing one Kachin villager, who fled the fighting in the summer of 2011, Jason Motlagh wrote in the Washington Post, “When Burmese mortar rounds crashed into his village last July, Magawng La Hkam hobbled into the bush with nothing but his wooden crutches. Confined to a camp for displaced persons near the Chinese border ever since, the 68-year-old ethnic Kachin farmer said he yearns to return home but can’t shake the memory of what he saw on that day: the mangled remains of a boy he passed as he fled. Deep in the resource-rich hills of northern Burma’s Kachin state, a civil war grinds on between government forces and Kachin rebels, calling into question the more conciliatory signals emanating from the country. Over the past year, an estimated 75,000 civilians have been driven from their homes. Shifting front lines have pushed thousands more refugees into China, where aid is scarcely able to reach them. [Source: Jason Motlagh, Washington Post, June 29, 2012]
Min Zin wrote in Foreign Policy: The Kachin refugees are living in overcrowded camps, enduring heavy monsoon rains without food, drinking water and medicine. Both the Myanmar and Chinese governments are exacerbating the situation by blocking the delivery of aid to the refugees. To make matters worse, Beijing has also forced thousands of refugees who tried to escape the fighting by crossing the border into its territory back into the war zone. [Source: Min Zin, Foreign Policy, October 8, 2012]
“We are really afraid and can’t sleep well at nights,” said Dashi Lu, 60, from Daw Hpun Yang village, about a day’s walk from the Laiza camp where she has lived for a year. “If I were small enough, I would hide under a leaf,” she said. Dashi Lu, the displaced villager, said that for safety’s sake, she had already a year ago fled the village home in which she had lived all her life, along with her daughter-in-law and two grandchildren. Her son is with the Kachin guerrillas and she hasn’t heard from him for three months. “I thought we were safe but these days, the military bombardments make us very fearful,” she said. “There’s no place for us to run again.”[Source: The Irrawaddy, January 5, 2013]
“In the meantime,” Jason Motlagh wrote, “refugees rely on grass-roots organizations for help. May Li Awng, the founder of a local aid group based in Maija Yang, the second-largest town under KIA control, fears that conditions are poised to go from bad to worse as the monsoon season continues. “I’m not sure anything will change; the Chinese are paranoid about foreigners,” she said. An eerily vacant sprawl of gambling halls and brothels, Maija Yang has attracted droves of civilians from Shan state, scene of the fiercest clashes. Many are children separated from parents. They sleep three to a bed in camp. [Source: Jason Motlagh, Washington Post, June 29, 2012]
China Forces Kachin Refugees to Return
In August 2012, the New York Times and China Digital Times reported that despite human rights groups urging China to protect them, thousands of Kachin refugees have been forcibly sent back to Myanmar. Thousands have fled to escape violence between the Myanmar government and the Kachin Independence Army: [Source: China Digital Times, New York Times, August 24, 2012]
“All the refugees in China now are being pushed back,” said one resident of Laiza, the capital of the rebel-held part of Kachin State. “Many of them are back already.”Officials in Yunnan and Beijing had been tolerating the presence of the Kachin refugees for more than a year, although Yunnan officials had been threatening to evict them. It is not clear why the refugees are being expelled now.
According to the Global Times, authorities in Yunnan Province have denied forcing the refugees to leave. Officials from the Yunnan government and the government of Ruili, a town bordering Myanmar, told the Global Times that they hadn’t received any orders to pressure the Myanmar people who had fled to the province to leave. “The Chinese government does not need to ask them to leave because it’s very common for Kachin people to come to Yunnan to visit relatives and friends as they share the same ancestors,” Zhu Zhenming, director of the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies at the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times.According to the expert, Kachin people belong to the same ethnic group as Jingpo, a Chinese ethnic group who mostly live in the Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture of Dehong, which administers Ruili.
Human Rights Watch has stated China should stop forced returns due to the violence and lack of aid in Northern Myanmar: “China is flouting its international legal obligations by forcibly returning Kachin refugees to an active conflict zone rife with Burmese army abuses,” said Bill Frelick, Refugee Program director. “China should urgently change course and provide temporary protection for the refugees in Yunnan Province.” The Kachin refugees repatriated the week of August 19 were not allowed to remain in the more than a dozen makeshift camps in China in which they had lived since June 2011. In July 2012, authorities in Yunnan Province, along Burma’s northern border, visited Kachin refugees and informed them they were no longer welcome in China and had to return to Burma.
A local Kachin aid worker who has communicated directly with the Yunnan authorities told Human Rights Watch, “I went to the camps when the [Chinese] authorities came to give a speech to talk about this to the refugees. They said, ‘We cannot accept you living here. We allowed you to stay here for over one year but it is no longer possible for you to stay here. You must go back.’”
While the Chinese government has provided sanctuary to an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 Kachin who fled conflict-related abuses in Burma and sought safety in Yunnan Province, the authorities have failed to provide them temporary protection or aid. The Chinese government has denied United Nations and international humanitarian agencies much-needed access to these refugees. Those returned to Burma will be relegated to living in camps for internally displaced people that lack adequate aid and are currently isolated from U.N. agencies because the Burmese government has blocked humanitarian access to the area.
Kachin Situation and Aung San Suu Kyi
Hannah Beech wrote in Time, “ Aung San Suu Kyi has has shied away from a harsh condemnation of the Burmese army’s actions in Kachin, preferring to note that abuses have occurred on both sides. In January 2013 she expressed affection for the Burmese army, which her father, Aung San, founded while Burmese soldiers were bearing down on the Kachin in Laiza. The comment hasn’t pleased exiled Kachin, who took to social media to criticize her. The Kachin have long been wary that Suu Kyi’s democratic principles might not extend to their home in the Himalayan foothills. “She is a Nobel Peace Prize winner and she should stand up for victims of human-rights abuses in Kachin,” says Naw La, a Kachin activist and environmental campaigner who lives in Thailand. “If she doesn’t speak out for oppressed people, then who else will? I’m surprised and disappointed.” [Source: Hannah Beech, Time, January 28, 2013]
Min Zin wrote in Foreign Policy, Aung San Suu Kyi “didn’t have a single word to spare for the fate of some 70,000 ethnic Kachin people fleeing the war between the Myanmar army and Kachin rebels. Suu Kyi’s silence about all this is alarming...A group of 23 Kachin ethnic organisations issued an open letter to The Lady, challenging her position and inviting her to visit the refugees in Kachin state. Kachin activists point out that no one is in a better position than Daw Suu to publicise their dire situation. “You are now able to travel all over the world and speak openly to large audiences,” they write. “We have trust in you that you will recognise the urgency and importance of this request and not refuse the invitation.” [Source: Min Zin, Foreign Policy, October 8, 2012 <<]
“Acknowledging the criticism, The Lady rationalised her silence in a public event in New York. She argued that taking sides in the war will make it worse, and warns the members of the Myanmar exile community to focus on reconciliation rather than dwelling on what divides us. Instead of ascribing blame, she called on the people to examine the root causes of the conflict and to address them. This all sounds very reasonable, of course. But, in reality, it’s a position that falls far short of the high standards we’ve come to expect from Suu Kyi. To see someone of her stature treating the oppressor and the oppressed as morally equivalent is depressing. Let’s be clear about it: In this situation, the oppressed are the Kachins. So it’s puzzling that Suu Kyi would choose to stress the virtues of neutrality. I should be clear about something else: respecting the cause of the ethnic minorities doesn’t mean that you have to be silent about human rights violations committed by the ethnic armed forces. <<
In January 2013, Xiao Ting Shirley wrote in Mizzima, “Aung San Suu Kyi said she would not step in help end the conflict between the Burmese army and ethnic Kachin rebels without government approval. “It is up to the government,” Suu Kyi told Agence France-Presse (AFP). Suu Kyi said she would require an official invitation to join peace negotiations aimed at quelling the worsening civil war which has stoked great international concerns. “Aung San Suu Kyi also has responsibility to implement ethnic peace,” Yup Zaw Hkaung, a local businessman and peace negotiator in the Kachin state capital Myitkyina, told AFP. “When she came to Kachin State to campaign for votes, she talked about peace. She cannot abandon Kachin,” he said. [Source: Xiao Ting Shirley, Mizzima, Monday, January 7, 2013]
In February 2012, AFP reported: Aung San Suu Kyi appealed for unity among Myanmar’s disparate ethnic groups as she hit the campaign trail in the country’s conflict-riven far north. Thousands of people greeted the Nobel Peace Prize laureate in northernmost Kachin state, where bloody fighting between government troops and ethnic minority guerrillas has displaced tens of thousands of people since mid-2011.“We cannot forget that our country is a union,” Suu Kyi said in a speech in the town of Namtee to drum up support for her National League for Democracy (NLD) party ahead of April 1 by-elections. “We won our independence because the ethnic groups united to work together. To achieve democracy all ethnicities must work in unity,” she said.” [Source: AFP, February 24, 2012 >>]
“Suu Kyi is trying to shed her image as a ‘Bamar’ leader first and foremost, said Myanmar expert Renaud Egreteau, an assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong, referring to the country’s dominant ethnic group. “The rhetoric that she has always used is that of a national leader who portrays herself as a unifier of an entire people,” he told AFP. “But basically Aung San Suu Kyi’s positions have difficulty going beyond the simple vague message calling for dialogue and national reconciliation.” Suu Kyi was greeted on her arrival in Kachin by supporters waving the party’s fighting-peacock flag and wearing T-shirts bearing her image. “I’m very happy. I want to see her in person as I haven’t seen her before. She is a Nobel Peace laureate,” said an ethnic Kachin NLD supporter, Khaug Nyoi. >>
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2014