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Britain has warned of the “increasingly serious” situation unfolding in Kachin state after fresh shelling hit the town of Laiza on Monday night, following the deaths of three civilians by artillery fire earlier in the day.
Responding to an urgent question raised in the UK parliament yesterday, Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt said the fighting “could present a threat to … wider reforms” and called for “an immediate cessation of hostilities”.
La Rip, head of the Laiza-based Relief Action Network for IDP and Refugee, told DVB last night that another shell landed in the backyard of a house in Laiza at 10:26pm, although there were no injuries. Fighter jets have been flying low over the town today.
“People are really terrified,” said La Rip. “They’re shocked to see shells land in the heart of Laiza. Since middle of December, the shelling [around Laiza] has been continuous.” He added that internally displaced persons (IDPs) had been among those killed by helicopter gunship attacks in December, stoking fear among the area’s swelling refugee population.
The three that were killed by an artillery attack on Monday morning included a 15-year-old boy and a man who had recently fled to Laiza after fighting broke out near his village. A two-year-old boy received face wounds, while his mother was also hospitalised.
As fighting moves close to the headquarters of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), calls to evacuate the town have arisen. The KIA has dug trenches and foxholes around nearby IDP camps, although people are already beginning to leave.
“There are no plans to evacuate [Laiza], but if they want to find a safer place they will have to cross into China,” said La Rip, adding that people had begun making their way to the border on 14 December when the Burmese army launched its first wave of air strikes on Kachin positions.
According to Chinese state media, authorities across the border from Kachin state have already begun preparing camps to accommodate up to 10,000 refugees. La Rip said however that he is worried the Chinese government will turn them back, as they did in August last year when around 7,000 who had sought shelter in Yunnan province were repatriated. “If they reject refugees that might cause mass killings and slaughtering if the government tries to capture Laiza.”
A Burmese military analyst based in China, Aung Kyaw Zaw, said yesterday that the Kachin conflict was the “biggest in Burma’s recent history” and the “most expensive”. The only comparable battle was the final assault on Manerplaw, the former headquarters of the Karen National Union, in 1995, when the military used air strikes.
“This time there are more ground forces than were at Manerplaw,” said Aung Kyaw Zaw. “I think there are around 130 battalions now in Kachin state – that is 20 percent of all Burmese troops.”
Burma Campaign UK yesterday called on the British and US governments to “adopt a much more robust approach with the government of Burma”. Both countries are eyeing business interests in the country, with the UK recently sending a high-level trade mission focusing on energy to Burma. This conflict of interest may have dampened their responses to the crisis in Burma’s north.
There is also criticism that the international community is not responding as vociferously as they could because of the geographical remove of Kachin state. “If Burmese Army was killing civilians with mortarbombs in Rangoon instead of Kachin State would UK still be taking trade missions to #Burma?” tweeted BCUK’s director, Mark Farmaner.
Matthew Smith, Burma researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that despite the group having documented “serious violations of the laws of war” committed by the Burmese army, “it’s clear the international community hasn’t done enough” to respond.
“Attacks on civilians have continued, no one has been held accountable for abuses, and the government is still blocking humanitarian aid for tens of thousands of Kachin, all while reaping praise for reforming,” he said. “Just a couple years ago the level of abuse that we’ve seen in Kachin state would have been met with serious repercussions internationally.”
The extent of President Thein Sein’s control over the army is again being questioned. He has twice called on the military to cease attacks on Kachin, but state media last week quoted him as praising the military for its “sacrifices in blood and sweat”, and claiming it had done everything possible “to make positive contributions to the peace process”.
The army’s push on Laiza has surprised some analysts who thought they might use the town as the Kachin army’s final bargaining chip. “They want to see the Kachin kneel down at the peace table prepared by Thein Sein and others,” one observer said.
The two sides have held several rounds of talks since fighting first began in June 2011, but to no avail. The Kachin say they will not sign a truce until the government pledges not to recommence aggressive development of the resource-rich state. As it stands, however, the proposal put forward by Thein Sein’s negotiating team calls for economic development before cementing a political solution to the protracted conflict.
During the ceasefire period between 1994 and 2011, Kachin state saw heavy investment in the mining, timber and hydropower sectors, much of it fuelled by China’s energy needs. The loosening of international sanctions has been criticized for being too premature, in light of the absence of any binding regulations in Burma’s foreign investment law that would stem the human and environmental costs of development.
During the UK parliamentary session yesterday, Burt said that sanctions could potentially be reimposed. “I do not doubt for a moment that the Burmese government are well aware of the conditions that are likely to attach to any further progress in relation to sanctions,” he said.