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Thursday, September 18, 2014
- Worried over the possibility of further escalation of armed conflict in Myanmar, activists here are calling on Washington to take stronger action to condemn state forces for aerial bombardment of ethnic Kachin rebels and civilians in the country’s north, which some say constitutes crimes against humanity.
While combatants with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) have been fighting the Myanmarese state since tensions flared again in June 2011, the aerial attacks, which have continued daily since late December, marked the first time that helicopter gunships and modern aircraft have been used by state forces in the country’s many long-simmering ethnic conflicts.
The bombardments are said to have killed an estimated 300 people in the north, while nearly 100,000 people have fled the increased violence over the past year and a half.
“The fighting is not just hurting the Kachin army, but more than that it is the civilians who have to live in fear,” Myra Dahgaypaw, with the U.S. Campaign for Burma, told IPS ahead of a planned rally on Saturday in front of the White House and U.S. State Department. “What this tells us is that it doesn’t seem as though the changes that have taken place in the country in recent years are authentic.”
Over the past two years, Myanmar (also known as Burma) has seen a rapid series of political reforms, spearheaded by President Thein Sein. While some suggest that these changes remain only superficial, international actors, largely led by the United States, have rushed to embrace the moderately reformist regime and try to nurture on ongoing opening-up.
At Saturday’s rallies, activists are urging President Barack Obama to reconsider newly strengthened economic and diplomatic ties with Myanmar, and to reassess re-established military-to-military ties.
In October, following a series of rollbacks on economic sanctions, the U.S. military announced that it may extend an invitation to the Myanmar army to participate in joint military exercises in Thailand. Known as Cobra Gold, the drills are the largest in the region, and the possibility was seen as a major coup for the Myanmar Army.
But according to the Pentagon, the invitation would only be formally extended “as long as it is consistent with U.S. efforts to advance protection of human rights, civilian rule of the military, anti-corruption efforts and other reform issues.” (Likewise, the State Department has long said ending the sanctions was conditional on ongoing strengthening of reforms.)
“We don’t think that the Burmese regime should be allowed to attend a prestigious event like the Cobra exercises yet,” Dahgaypaw says. “More importantly, we want to ask the administration to keep pressuring the regime to enter into political dialogue with all of the country’s ethnic minorities – not just the Kachin – and to do so not separately but as a unified front.”
Myanmar’s use of armed aircraft against the Kachin has elicited broad international condemnation, including from the United States and United Nations. Yet the new clashes appear to have already sown bitter communal enmity among some Kachin, dimming the possibilities of long-term peace and threatening to undermine recent ceasefires between the government and other armed ethnic groups.
On Thursday, an umbrella group of ethnic groups, the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), announced that it would now be the only group authorised to negotiate with the government. In line with Dahgaypaw’s suggestion, this now sets up one side of a potential pan-ethnic discussion towards reconciliation.
Yet a stronger sense of unity on the part of the ethnic groups could also increase the possibility of additional flare-ups in other parts of the country, particularly in neighbouring Shan state.
“If the government continues its action, there could be offensives against the Shan, who border with the Kachin,” Nai Han Tha, a UNFC spokesperson, said in early January. “We will consider the Kachin’s situation and discuss what we will do for our next step.”
Although Myanmar is made up of some 135 ethnicities, the ruling Burman have long marginalised the rest of the country’s population. According to some, this process has not changed in the current reforms era.
“In Kachin and elsewhere, the government is trying to dilute the ethnic identity of these states – we are seeing that there is no intrinsic interest on the part of this ruling government to institute national reconciliation,” Gum San, a spokesperson with the Kachin Alliance, based here, told IPS.
“Kachin is just a test case. We’re getting the brunt of it, but this conflict shows this can happen to anyone else. ‘Peace is selective,’ that’s what the government is trying to establish here.”
The KIA is currently the only major group still fighting the government. Yet the group only took up arms again in mid-2011 after 14 years of negotiations over greater autonomy – some say mere equality – failed to yield any result.
According to a new analysis released Wednesday by the International Crisis Group (ICG), a global watchdog, this could present some grounds for optimism. The protracted struggle in Kachin has “produced two sides that may be wary but are very familiar with each other and in regular contact,” the brief states. “It is a complex but not intractable conflict.”
Still, ICG calls the fighting in Kachin “one of the most serious threats to peace” in Myanmar’s nascent transition period. Further escalation would be “serious” in two ways, ICG analyst Jim Della-Giacoma writes: by “making it harder to convince other groups of the government’s … intentions” and “undermin(ing) the President by suggesting either that he is not the peacemaker he claims to be, or that he does not have the power to rein in the military.”
Worryingly, President Thein Sein on Friday publicly lauded the Myanmar Army’s actions in Kachin, stating the military had done all it could “to make positive contributions to the peace process”.
But according to Kachin Alliance’s Gum San, no peace process will hold in Myanmar until a political settlement is reached that establishes equality for the country’s many ethnic communities.
“We were established as a union of Burma, but we have never developed as a nation. That is the central problem: the government has never been able to agree to equality for the ethnic people,” he says.
“These ceasefires have no substance, in that they have yet to address the foundation of the problem. In the ethnic areas we hear about development, development, development – but if there’s no political settlement, all of this development can be rolled back within weeks.”