During this year’s October talks between the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and the Union Peace-Making Work Committee, the two sides agreed to take steps to further de-escalate hostilities between the KIA (the armed wing of the KIO) and the Burmese army, with a view to ending armed clashes. But the truth of the matter is that fighting erupted just within days of the meeting.
The clashes began when the Burmese army attacked a KIA post near Man Hkawn village in the KIA-held territory of Mansi township on the Mansi-Je Hkam Road in southern Kachin State. The army then went on to seize the village of Namlin Pa, which hosts a large camp and school for about 1500 internally displaced people (IDP). Government troops bombarded the village with firepower before taking control of it. The IDP camp was surrounded, and 700 students and 34 teachers were held hostage in the school hall. After weeks of terror-filled forced confinement and food shortages, the villagers and IDPs fled Namlin Pa in droves. It was up to local NGOs to go collect them from their hiding places in nearby paddy fields and jungles and resettle them in other IDP camps. As a result, the existing IDP population of 100,000 in Kachin state has swollen by about 13,000.
The Army, as usual, explained away the assaults and mistreatment of IDPs with less than truthful accounts. Despite contrary reports by national and international journalists like Korean photojournalist Lee Yu Kyung and Nan Lwin of Mizzima News, NGOs and local residents, Gen. Tun Tun Naung, the Myitkyina-based Northern Region Commander, told members of the Peace-talk Creation Group (PCG) that military activity in the area was necessary to control illegal logging, conduct military training exercises, and for better interaction with the local population. Gen. Tun Tun Naung reiterated the same views to IDPs from Tar Law Gyi, as they prepare to return to their village from camps in Myitkyina. He told them it was not true that the army had driven out villagers from Namlim Pa. He said the army had actually gone there to help civilians, and the fighting had been the result of a misunderstanding.
Lt. Gen Myint Soe of the Bureau of Special Operations No.1, who represents the Commander-in-Chief in the peace talks, also said in an interview with VOA Burmese that the fighting in Mansi township was due to illegal teak logging and car imports. Asked why fighting was still taking place in the Kachin area despite on-going peace talks, Myint Soe challenged the VOA interviewer to name the battle locations, and conjectured that the reported fighting might not even be between the KIA and the Burmese army, insinuating that the battle reports were nothing more than media generated sensational stories. He went on to say that the two sides had agreed to take steps to reopen the roads in Mansi township, and that they were carrying out the said agreement.
Even as the two sides were preparing to meet for talks in October, the Burmese army was increasing deployment to the Kachin-Shan border, apparently in preparation for the Mansi offensive. At least 16 Infantry Battalions from the Theinni-based 16th Military Operations Command (MOC-16) and the Bhamo-based 21st Military Operations Command (MOC-21), took part in these operations.
The KIA, in the meantime, had withdrawn its troops stationed along the Mansi-Je Hkam Road, in keeping with the October agreement. The Burmese army now has full control of the roadway, which is the main commerce and communication artery of the area.
As of early December, KIA field commanders are predicting the clashes to intensify as two new Burmese army columns have been seen approaching KIA positions in the Mansi area. Truckloads of arms and munitions have also been seen headed towards Man Win Gyi in southern Kachin state from Namhkam in northern Shan state. It seems that the Army is fortifying positions there with increased man-power, arms and provisions to realise its strategy of severing connections between the KIA’s 4th Brigade stationed in northern Shan state with its 3rd Brigade in southern Kachin state.
The motives behind these latest offensives may be many and varied, but local analysts believe the current offensives are meant to pressure the KIO militarily to sign an agreement on the government’s terms. The KIO had been hesitant to sign another ceasefire agreement, consistently resisting the Government delegation’s repeated urgings for a ceasefire deal. The 17 years of ceasefire experience has taught the KIO to be more wary of signing another ceasefire without receiving assurances from the government to proceed to genuine political dialogue.
The assaults may also be part of the Army’s agenda to secure more ethnic lands before any agreement is reached between the government and the KIO. The army is making it abundantly clear to the KIA that as long as there is no signed ceasefire agreement, it will carry on with its area clearing plan, eventually eliminating all ethnic armed resistance, with the KIA as a prime example. The KIO for its part believes that a political solution through negotiations is the only answer to achieving permanent peace, and is holding fast to its demands for political dialogue.
One overriding reason for clearing the area of KIA presence seems to be to protect the joint economic interests of the Chinese and Burmese governments. The aim is to push out the KIA from west of the Bhamo-Man Win Gyi Road and drive it eastward all the way to the China-Burma border, allowing the army to take total control of the Nong Dao border gate, located 7 miles from Man Win Gyi.
All this is obviously to prepare southern Kachin state for infrastructure projects agreed upon with the Chinese government. China has a major plan to extend the Guangtong-Dali railway, in landlocked Yunnan, westward, connecting it to Myitkyina and India so that it finally connects with European railway networks.
The envisioned Trans-Asian Railway that starts from Yunnan’s capital Kunming and ends in Singapore, will connect landlocked Southwestern China with Southeast Asian countries. According to Li Wenbing, Deputy Director of the Yunnan Development and Reform Committee, the western line of the Trans-Asian Railway will start from Kunming, passing Dali, Baoshan, Ruili, Mangshi, Tengchong and end at the Kachin State capital of Myitkyina.
Chinese government officials in Baoshan have said areas along the proposed railway are rich in natural resources and thus the region’s economic prospects are bright. Officials in both countries said that they have planned to construct Myitkyina-Dali and Lashio-Dali railways.
In addition, Chinese officials donated river barges to the Myanmar Inland Water Transportation Department for transportation of heavy goods on the Irrawaddy River between Bhamo and Mandalay.
When all is said and done, the Mansi offensives boil down to attempts at territory control to make way for infrastructure and economic projects that benefit the powerful elite in the army and their Chinese counterparts, at the expense of local lives and livelihoods.
Given the fact that military offensives are ongoing, the question of whether the Burmese government is really sincere and honest in its attempts at achieving peace in the country needs to be addressed by the Union Peace-making Central Committee led by President U Thein Sein and Senior General Min Aung Hlaing before going on to the next step in the negotiations. If this trend continues, ethnic armies will have no other option but to opt for a military solution, and peace in Burma will again be a distant ideal as it was before.
Brang Hkangda is an editor of the Kachinland News’s English Website.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect DVB editorial policy.