Burma’s quasi-civilian government has come up with yet another proposal to hold talks with the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO). This latest move comes off as just another ploy – offering an olive branch with one hand while unleashing weapons of destruction with the other. All indications on the ground are that the Burmese army is in a fight to the finish with the hope of bringing the recalcitrant Kachins to their knees once and for all.
To this end, they have brought in helicopter gunships and heavy artillery including the controversial Swedish made 84mm Carl Gustaf rocket launchers against an outnumbered and outgunned foe.
The Kachins, with their backs against the wall, have fought back ferociously –inflicting heavy government casualties. The government has never acknowledged these casualties, which are estimated to be in the thousands. Evidently their troops are being treated as expendables – human fodder to be sacrificed in the struggle for control of this resource rich region. The suffering and death of the ordinary foot soldiers or innocent civilians the army had pledged to protect apparently count for nothing when compared to the riches the generals will garner for themselves and their Chinese sponsors.
The government’s response to the escalated fighting is to come out with bold-faced lies. Just as President Thein Sein blatantly denied army abuses in ethnic areas despite mounting credible evidence during his US visit in September, a military representative in parliament said the the army is not attacking the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
The President’s Office echoed this by claiming that the current fighting is “not serious”. Even the problematic proof of possession of embargoed weaponry like the Carl Gustaf was blithely explained away as left overs from imports in 1982 – a time before the arms embargo which ignores the fact that the captured gun is clearly of a much later model. Swedish authorities have confirmed that the model was part of a larger shipment of arms sold to the Indian government in 2003. The Indians thus cornered had no choice but to corroborate the Burmese lie.
Even before the recent escalation in fighting, the government’s sincerity over peace talks with the Kachins has always been in doubt. The government’s side, led by smooth talkers like Aung Min, skirted serious political dialogue and focused instead on issues such as ceasefire agreements and economic development. The government, or rather the army’s main goal seems to be to continue their stranglehold on political power while protecting personal and institutional economic interests. For ethnic minorities like the Kachin, the priority is not to agree to shaky ceasefires and dubious economic deals but to have their rights, which were guaranteed during the creation of the Union, restored.
While the army steps up its assault on KIO/KIA strongholds, international pundits have been busy heaping accolades on President Thein Sein. The International Crisis Centre Group (ICCG) plans to honor the president in April 2013 for the “remarkable and unprecedented set of reforms” accomplished since taking office in March 2011.
[pullquote] “The Kachin conflict is a microcosm of all other ethnic struggles across the land” [/pullquote]
The brutality with which the Kachin war is being waged, the crackdowns in Rahkine [Arakan state] and the Latpadaung Copper Mine have been conveniently swept aside. It is not too surprising that thus far, no movement has been undertaken either by the UN or any of the western countries to mediate or to call for a halt to the senseless killings, rather they continue to lavish funds on government-controlled peace initiatives.
So why should the international community concern itself with what goes on in this remote corner of the country, one might ask. The Kachin conflict is a microcosm of all other ethnic struggles across the land, where a myriad of complex issues such as ethnic rights, environmental protection and ethical economic investment converge. Ethnic peoples comprise about 40 percent of the national population and inhabit 60 percent of the land including all borderlands abound with natural resources. How these issues are resolved will serve as a litmus test for the government, the NLD and other political parties to demonstrate their democratic credentials.
The wages of war
A by-product of the fighting is the human tragedy of the more than 100,000 civilians displaced by the fighting. A third of them have sought shelter in government- controlled areas while two thirds are being looked after in KIO/KIA area camps. These displaced populations lack even the most basic of human needs, especially in KIO-controlled areas where access by aid groups has been restricted by the government.
Languishing in makeshift camps for more than a year now, they need not only material support, but psychological and social support as well. These are people who have lost everything – homes, livelihoods, and for some, even family members. A great number of them are struggling to deal with the trauma of having experienced or witnessed the torture and brutalities inflicted by the advancing Burmese army. The prospect of a protracted stay in the confinement of camps, with little hope of a return to normal life, is only adding to their suffering.
Efforts are being made by UN agencies and international organisations to provide humanitarian assistance to displaced populations in government-controlled areas. The UN recently called for unrestricted access to camps in KIO-controlled areas as well. The US ambassador Derek Mitchell and his delegation have also made a trip to Kachin state in the past week, visiting camps in government-controlled areas and exploring ways how the US government might help the people affected by the conflict.
All this concern for the internally displaced and talk of providing much needed aid is well and good. But it seems the main issue is being side stepped here – how to put an end to the senseless fighting. It is high time the US and EU, as major donors, inject themselves directly into the peace process and provide a framework whereby meaningful political dialogue can take place. Third party unbiased mediation is the will and wish of the KIO/KIA as well as the Kachin population at large, as the only viable means to counter the government’s shenanigans of talking peace and waging war at the same time, and flaunting shaky ceasefire agreements.
The EU has poured millions of dollars to found the Myanmar Peace Center, supposedly to “serve as a platform for dialogue between all parties involved in Burma’s peace process”. In the meantime, a group of ethnic community and civil society organisations published a collective message to the Peace Donor Support Group (PDSG), which is made up of Norway, the EU, the UK, Australia, the UN and the World Bank, expressing their concerns regarding the governance of peace funds and the potential it has to do more harm than good.
What we need is more Bertil Litners among citizens of PDSG nations. The veteran journalist’s exposure of the Carl Gustaf issue led the Swedish government to conduct an investigation as to how the embargoed weapon came into the hands of the Burmese army. Further ramifications are in store, as a move to raise the issue in the European Parliament is reportedly in the works. PDSG citizens should be raising questions with their governments, putting their feet to the fire, asking whether the returns reaped justifies the amount of funds injected in the name of peace.
The opinions and wishes of ordinary Burmese seem to have no sway over a government/army with a “might is right” ethos. The onus then is now on PSDG countries with a stake in the country’s peace process. They should make use of whatever leverage they have as donors, to pressure the Burmese government to enter into meaningful dialogue with the Kachins and other ethnic groups and put an end to the cycle of violence.
The time to take action is NOW. Lasting peace in Burma is not possible unless a just and equitable relationship is cemented between all ethnic groups.
Pangmu Shayi is a native Kachin political analyst at Kachinland News
-The opinions and views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect DVB’s editorial policy.