Photo: A small camp in northern Shan State populated by IDPs fleeing fighting in southern Kachin State, January 2013 (EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection\flickr).
Mistrust persists between Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups and the military
Over the past few weeks, the overcast skies and torrential downpours of the monsoon season have begun to give way to bluebird mornings and cooler temperatures across Myanmar, marking the beginning of the transition to the dry season. For most, it’s a welcome change.
But for the ethnic minorities that reside on Myanmar’s peripheries, the change of season has long been a time of anxiety. For decades, the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, has launched “dry season offensives” against ethnic armed groups across the country, taking advantage of the dryer weather to make forays into insurgent-controlled territory.
The government has now entered into ceasefire agreements with most of Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups, but the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and its armed wing, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), remain the most significant holdouts.
They have good reason to doubt the army’s sincerity: in June 2011, the Tatmadaw launched a vicious assault on the KIA, unilaterally breaking a 17-year ceasefire, ushering in a nearly two-year period of intense fighting. In May of this year, a preliminary ceasefire was signed between the two sides, but clashes have continued sporadically since then.
Fears that the improving weather will bring about another round of violence in Kachin State seem to have been realised. On October 15, the Tatmadaw shelled a camp for internally displaced people in Southern Kachin State’s Mansi township, killing a child and wounding two others, according to a report by broadcaster Democratic Voice of Burma.
The following Tuesday, more than 200 soldiers invaded the nearby town of Mung Ding Pa, prompting roughly 1,000 civilians to flee into the jungle. The 500 or so that remained were herded into a church compound before being moved to an adjacent school, according to Khon Ja, the coordinator of the Kachin Peace Network, a Yangon-based civil society umbrella organisation that provides humanitarian assistance to civilians in Kachin State.
Some 2,000 people in five villages remain trapped by the army, unable to leave the immediate area, and are subject to draconian restrictions on their freedom of movement.
“The villagers in the school are allowed to go back [to their homes] to cook during a [designated] cooking time and return back,” Khon Ja said. “It’s like roll call. If someone were to escape, it would cause trouble for the rest, so they can’t escape…they’re like hostages.”
Local Catholic and Baptist relief organisations have attempted to send aid into the occupied areas, but have been prevented from doing so by the army.
The ongoing operation is the largest manoeuvre by the military in recent months, involving more than 1,000 soldiers from Sagaing Division and Shan State.
According to a statement released on October 25th by UN Resident Coordinator Ashok Nigam, a further 1,200 civilians have been displaced in the nearby village of Nam Lim Pa.
The army claims it moved into southern Kachin in an attempt to stamp out illegal logging, but Khon Ja claims this is not a problem in the area. “All the logs are coming from Sagaing division, Mandalay division,” she told The Edge Review. “It makes no sense. If they really want to block [illegal log shipments], they have to block it [there].”
The assault on Mansi Township came just days after the conclusion of the third round of peace talks between the government and the KIO. On October 10, following two days of negotiations, the two sides agreed to implement a “seven-point agreement” for cooperation that was first proposed in May. While the agreement falls short of being a true ceasefire, it might have been a step in the right direction and a foundation for further negotiations.
But that’s not a foregone conclusion anymore. According to the Kachin Peace Network, the military has already violated three of the agreement’s seven points.
The events in Mansi come at a delicate time for Myanmar’s government, which is keen to establish a nationwide ceasefire before the end of the year, in the hopes of paving the way for a permanent political solution with the country’s ethnic armed groups.
The KIO held a meeting in its de-facto capital of Laiza from Wednesday to Friday to coordinate strategy with other armed groups, and it will send a delegation early next week to Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State, for further talks with the government’s negotiation team.
For the time being, however, the KIO is unlikely to sign onto a nationwide ceasefire, because any sort of arrangement of this kind is unlikely to address fundamental issues of power sharing and regional autonomy. Moreover, given the military’s track record of breaking ceasefires, the KIO can’t take for granted that its word is bond.
In October 2012, the government established a nominally independent think-tank – the Myanmar Peace Centre – to mediate negotiations between the Tatmadaw and ethnic armed groups. Aung Naing Oo, the centre’s Associate Program Director with the Peace Dialogue Program, summarily dismissed the Kachin Peace Network’s concerns, claiming the Tatmadaw has not, in fact, violated the seven-point agreement in any way.
“On the ground, there’s still a distrust issue. And that’s why any kind of fighting can flare up,” he told The Edge Review. “Even if we sign a nationwide ceasefire agreement today, there’s no guarantee that fighting won’t break out tomorrow. It takes time to implement these agreements… we need to sign this ceasefire precisely because [existing] ceasefires are very fragile. Even the one we did [on the 10th]. From the media’s point of view, it’s black and white, but the peace process is really complex.”
He’s bullish on the prospects for the nationwide ceasefire. “We’ll have clear [territorial] demarcation, liaison offices, communication on the ground. Then, we’ll make it binding,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is get parliament to endorse this. We’re a democracy now, so we need to get everything institutionalised. The military is on board. They want clear rules, clear answers.”
He declined to assign blame to any one side, despite the fact that it is the military, not the KIA, that has been responsible for instigating practically all of the violence in Kachin State since June 2011.
To Khon Ja and the Kachin Peace Network, the Tatmadaw’s strategic aims in Southern Kachin are clear: pacify the area to facilitate cross-border trade with China. Over the past six months, the most violent region in Myanmar has been the border area between southern Kachin and northern Shan State, according to data provided by the Myanmar Peace Centre itself.
The Shwe Gas pipelines – which carry natural gas from the Bay of Bengal and offloaded crude from the Persian Gulf and Africa – are a critical part of China’s development plans for its energy-starved southwest. A railway spur from Bhamo in southern Kachin State to the Chinese border is also under development, which Khon Ja claims is a primary motivating factor for the Tatmadaw’s “pacification” campaign in Mansi Township.
Aung Naing Oo denies that the army units in southern Kachin are receiving direct orders from Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, whose position rivals that of the president for supremacy in Myanmar’s quasi-democratic political system. “Once you’re on the front line, once you [suspect] that you’re going to come under attack, you don’t wait for an order from the commanders,” he said. “These are localized issues you cannot avoid. This has nothing to do with orders from the top.”
But if the events of the past few weeks are anything to go by, there’s a level of impunity the military still enjoys that will make reconciliation with ethnic armed groups a difficult task. “Even after signing, [the ceasefire] will just be a showcase for the government, not peace for the people,” Khon Ja said. “As a civilian, I will support any decision made by the ethnic groups. If they want to fight, I still support that. Let them fight. They’re just defending themselves.”