Photo: Sunset over Bhamo, southern Kachin State (Alex Bookbinder).
As fighting in northern Myanmar enters its third year, calls for an end to hostilities
Three years ago this week, a small group of soldiers from the Myanmar army crossed into territory controlled by the insurgent Kachin Independence Army (KIA), uninvited and unannounced.
The incursion marked the beginning of the end of a tenuous peace in Kachin State, the mountainous frontier where northern Myanmar meets India and China. A 17-year ceasefire between the KIA and the government broke down almost immediately, and fighting has continued since then.
Over the past nine months, the violence has been focused in the southern part of the state and northern parts of neighbouring Shan State, where the army has zealously challenged the KIA and its close ally, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA). More than 100,000 people have been displaced by fighting since the ceasefire broke down.
Kachin groups across the country, and their allies in Myanmar’s broader civil society, marked the anniversary on Monday with a series of events intended to highlight the ongoing crisis, conveying a simple message: stop the fighting.
“This year, our main goal is to stop the war. We aren’t [pushing] anyone to sign onto a nationwide ceasefire, but we want everything to stop on the ground. Three years is too much. We’ve already killed one generation. We don’t want to see a four-year anniversary,” said Khon Ja, who chairs the Kachin Peace Network, a Yangon-based advocacy and relief group.
On Monday morning, a prayer vigil and peace march was held in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State. Unlike the majority of Myanmar’s citizens, the Kachin are overwhelmingly Christian. The Kachin Peace Network simultaneously held a daylong commemoration ceremony at Yangon’s Kachin Baptist Church, following two days of marches and concerts over the weekend.
Myanmar’s government is keen to see a nationwide ceasefire implemented by the end of the year. Negotiations with some armed groups – such as the Karen National Union (KNU), which is based in the southeast – have shown progress in recent months, in stark contrast to the state of affairs in the north.
“Both sides want a nationwide ceasefire, but [civil society] wants to help ensure that the military follows a code of conduct, and that a federal constitution [be introduced],” said Naw San, an activist with the All Kachin Student and Youth Union.
The military’s newfound closeness to the KNU, against the backdrop of its campaign against the KIA and its allies, has revived fears that the military is pursuing a divide-and-conquer strategy against the country’s ethnic armed groups, which, through an organising committee called the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), presents a unified front at negotiations with the government.
Myanmar’s insurgents are pushing for the devolution of political power to ethnic minority areas through the creation of a federal system, a demand the military – which has long been paranoid of secessionist movements – is unlikely to grant.
Establishing such a system would invariably require a rewriting of Myanmar’s controversial 2008 constitution – a hurdle that will be very difficult to clear. “We want [peace] to be guaranteed through the creation of a constitution that protects ethnic rights,” Naw San said. “It is all linked together.”
A critical transportation route to China passes through the areas where the fighting is now at its worst, leading many to believe the military is “pacifying” the area rather than negotiating power and revenue-sharing arrangements.
“Before 2010, when the government changed, a lot of investment deals had already been signed with the Chinese. This is also the area of the Shwe Gas pipeline, with a strategic route that a railway line will pass through,” Khon Ja said. “If you look at conflict – not just ethnic armed conflict, but inter-religious, communal conflict, as well – you see it is in areas where there is foreign investment.”
Although the peace process is making limited headway, the military still enjoys total impunity in the conflict zone. At the Yangon event on Monday, Bangkok-based human rights watchdog Fortify Rights released a report documenting the “systematic use of torture by Myanmar authorities against Kachin civilians” over the past three years, which the organisation claimed “appears to be carried out with the knowledge and consent of senior military officers.”
The 72-page report details a litany of abuses inflicted upon civilians, including psychological and physical torture, forced portering and rape. Fortify Rights claims the actions of the armed forces “may constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity under international law,” because the military’s actions indicate a campaign against civilians with the state’s apparent blessing.
For its part, Myanmar’s government has attempted to distance itself from the military’s actions. On Monday, presidential spokesman Ye Htut told the media that torture was not government policy, and that Myanmar’s human rights commission took such allegations seriously.
While senior generals have begun to attend the peace talks – a development which Khon Ja feels is promising – the government’s negotiators are delegated by the office of the president, a nominally civilian institution. Because the commander-in-chief of the armed forces is not subject to civilian oversight, getting the military to modify its behaviour and adhere to the peace process is likely to prove challenging. “The military culture still has the mindset of the generals,” Naw San said. “We are victims of more than 60 years of military dictatorship, which has shaped our mindset, and it is difficult to change.”