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The United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) has condemned Wednesday’s killing of 23 cadets at a Kachin Independence Army (KIA) training camp near Laiza as a “cowardly” act, as has the US-based Kachin Alliance. The Burmese military has, however, declared that the direct strike was a mistake and that the artillery shell which hit the camp was meant as a warning shot.
The 23 were members of other armed groups who were conducting training exercises at the KIA base. The Palaung State Liberation Front (11), the Arakan Army (8), the Chin National Front (2) and the All Burma Students Democratic Front (2) have each issued statements confirming they lost young men in the attack.
In addition to 23 cadets killed, another 20 were injured when, just after midday on 19 November, the Burmese army’s 389th Light Infantry Battalion shelled a KIA training camp with 105mm artillery.
“The Tatmadaw [Burmese military] carrying out sneak attacks and applying military pressure on ethnic armed groups while at the same time trust-building efforts are ongoing to bring about internal peace have made questionable whether the Tatmadaw really has a genuine will for peace. This incident could gravely hinder such trust-building,” the UNFC said in a statement.
The ethnic bloc also questioned the “coincidence” that the attack came so shortly after Union Parliament House Speaker Shwe Mann had announced that the Constitution could only be amended after next year’s general elections. The UNFC said the move can be assumed to be “an orchestrated political and military conspiracy”.
The UNFC is made up of 11 ethnic armed groups, including the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), Karen National Union, New Mon State Party, Karenni National Progressive Party and the Chin National Front (CNF).
Burma’s military on Thursday rejected blame for the incident, saying that the artillery shell fired was a “warning shot”, which was taken shortly after KIA troops attacked a Tatmadaw column providing security at roadworks along the Sama Junction-Gagun route.
In a report published by Burma’s military-run newspaper Myawaddy, the Tatmadaw claims it requested the KIA to desist from firing at the unit on Wednesday morning and had issued “repeated warnings” in recent weeks on several occasions after the Kachin rebels launched unprovoked attacks on Burmese military positions.
“The Tatmadaw column that was building a road for food supplies also warned the KIA troops not to launch attacks on the Tatmadaw column and [said that] the Tatmadaw column would respond if attacked,” Myawaddy reported on Thursday evening. “However, KIA troops attacked the Tatmadaw personnel and the bulldozer that were building Sama Junction-Gagun road section for food supplies at about 11am on 19 November. The Tatmadaw column on security duty had to respond to the attack.
“As the KIA failed to control its troops and increased its military activities despite the repeated warnings by the Tatmadaw not to attack Tatmadaw personnel who were discharging national defence [duties] such as providing security for the safe travel of the local people, changing personnel at security posts, and repairs of roads, the Tatmadaw camp fired a warning shot of a large-calibre weapon which fell and exploded at a KIA camp, causing causalities,” the report said.
It listed similar incidents in Momauk Township on 1 June, 13 and 26 September, and 27 and 28 October. It said Kachin soldiers ambushed one of its columns in Mansi on 16 November, and near Magiguam Village on 17 November, leaving one Burmese personnel injured.
The report said the Tatmadaw contacted the KIA to object to these assaults, and that it had also complained to the group’s peace-negotiating team as recently as 18 November.
Myawaddy further reported that the Tatmadaw is cooperating with both the government’s Union Peace-Building Work Committee and their ethnic counterparts, the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team, “in order to reduce military activities without starting an attack and to forge political agreements for sustainable peace.”
The Kachin Alliance, a network of Kachin communities and organisations in the US, has issued a statement calling Wednesday’s attack “unprovoked and deliberate” and “in blatant violation of the agreement reached between the government and the KIO on May 13, 2014, to de-escalate military tensions”.
It accused the Burmese army of engaging in military maneuvers, encroaching upon KIO territory, taking control of frontline positions and fortifying them with heavy artillery, “even in the midst of nationwide ceasefire talks”.
For the sake of the safety of innocent civilians, the Kachin Alliance said, it demanded an “immediate and complete withdrawal” of Burmese government forces from the positions in question.
“We demand that President Thein Sein, if he is to claim credibility for the peace process his government is currently engaged in, take full responsibility for the Nov. 19 killings, and take steps to prevent any such violations that would derail the peace talks,” the group said in its statement on Thursday.
It also called on the US, the UN and others in the international community to pressure the Burmese government to keep to its reform promises and to “find solutions to the decades-old ethnic conflict through political negotiations rather than military means”.
Meanwhile, the Palaung State Liberation Front Central Committee on Thursday issued a statement promising its 11 fallen cadets that it will “continue fighting until a Palaung State is established.”
The 11 Palaung trainees were all aged between 18 and 25.
The Arakan Army and CNF announced that they had each lost eight and two cadets respectively.
The All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF) announced that two of the group’s members – Hein Htet and Thet Zaw – were among the cadets killed in the shelling.
Than Khe, chairman of the ABSDF, said the attack “could cause negative impacts on the peace-building and national reconciliation processes”, and that it indicates an “ignorance of the efforts being put in by all parties to implement these goals.”