The UN has expressed concern over reports of renewed hostilities between Burmese government forces and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), and has called on all sides to protect civilians and respect international humanitarian law.
Speaking to DVB on Tuesday, Pierre Peron, a spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said, “We are concerned about the reports of renewed hostilities, and we are particularly concerned about reports of shelling near villages and IDP [internally displaced persons] camps.
“The UN continues to call on all sides to ensure the protection of civilians and to respect international humanitarian law,” he said.
Peron could not confirm details about specific incidents in recent days, but said he had received reports of shelling near Jai Yang, currently home to about 8,000 IDPs, and Mai Ja Yang, the second largest town in the area, sheltering up to 20,000 internal refugees. Both lie close to the headquarters of the KIA and its political wing, the Kachin Independence Organisation, in the town of Laiza, which sits astride the Sino-Burmese border.
The UN spokesperson said he could not confirm whether additional numbers of Kachin villagers have been displaced or fled their homes due to this most recent surge in fighting.
Tensions in the region have risen since an incident on 19 November when 23 cadets were killed by a Burmese army artillery shell at a KIA training camp. Another 20 were injured, some seriously. The KIO said the Burmese army’s 389th Light Infantry Battalion shelled the camp with 105mm artillery. Burma’s government forces have called the killing a “mistake” and said they intended to fire a warning shot after several incidents when the KIA had attacked Burmese government forces on patrol.
“Skirmishes are continuing to this day, but we have ordered our troops not to attack their camps,” President Thein Sein said in an interview with Voice of America (VOA) the day after the fatal shelling. “Still, everyone has the right to defend his life. So, other than [in cases of] self-defense, our troops will not attack.”
Burma’s Commander-in-Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing has likewise defended his frontline forces. “The president told us not to attack the ethnic armed groups and we don’t do it,” he said. “Until this day, we have not attacked their camps or their headquarters. But sometimes we need to respond to their actions when they attack or shoot at us.”
However, in a statement posted by the KIO Central Committee the day after the incident, the Kachin leadership referred to the shelling as “deliberate”.
“While the KIO is making efforts to resolve the issues via political means, the Burmese army’s columns and units are systemically stepping up unprovoked attacks, capturing bases, and targeting ambushes at KIA outposts,” it said.
The rise in temperature at the front lines comes at a time when both the government and the KIO have sat for a series of peace negotiations aimed towards a nationwide ceasefire.
After maintaining a bilateral ceasefire for 17 years, a truce between the KIO/ KIA and government forces broke down in June 2011.
UNOCHA estimates that some 99,000 Kachin villagers remain displaced by the war in Kachin and northern Shan states.