Conflict in Myanmar: divide-and-rule tactics in far north

opinion February 02, 2013 00:00

By Htun Aung Gyaw
Special to The

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The civil war in Myanmar began right after the country gained independence from British colonial rule in 1948. Ethnic resistance forces have been fighting for equal rights and federal union status, but the response from successive army regimes has been mi

The Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) reached a ceasefire agreement with the military regime in 1994. But last year, the quasi-military-led civilian government issued an order to armed ethnic resistance groups to lay down their arms and switch to become border security forces under government control. The Kachin, Wa, Mon, Shan and the Karen refused to do this. Subsequently, in the case of the Kachin, government troops crossed the ceasefire agreement line and occupied ground on mountaintops that had been marked as KIO territory. The KIO’s armed wing, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), fought the occupying troops and the ceasefire broke down.

The Kachin leaders say there is no need to negotiate for a ceasefire – if the government wants a ceasefire it should withdraw its troops to the ceasefire agreement line. It is that simple, they said, when they met with former All Burma Students’ Democratic Front leaders late last year. But Myanmar’s president has claimed his troops will stop fighting and that they have no intention of occupying the Kachin headquarters at Laiza. But after intense fighting for more than a year and a half, government troops have successfully occupied high ground that overlooks the Kachin headquarters.
The government has said it wants a ceasefire with the Kachin. And the Kachin have said that even though the government announced that it would stop fighting, troops were still attacking the last mountaintop near Lajayang. The deputy news and information minister, U Ye Htut, said government troops were firing back in “self defence”. 
Only people on the ground know who is telling lies and who is telling the truth, but Kachin refugees are the only ones who suffer in the extreme cold weather. The winter in Laiza is severe – below zero degrees Celsius. Unlike other parts of the country, the Kachin State has snow in the winter. And unlike in Western countries there are no heaters or insulated homes for the Kachin people. Children are extremely vulnerable to cold weather, and more than 10 have died recently.
The US Embassy in Yangon issued a press release last week that strongly criticised the Myanmar government for prolonging the fighting in the Kachin State. It said the conflict would hinder the national reconciliation process, and demanded that NGOs be allowed access on humanitarian grounds, to help refugees, without any restrictions. A Chinese government spokesman then said, surprisingly, that the fighting had cooled down.
One well-known activist named Nay Myo Zin, a former army captain, marched towards Laiza carrying food, clothing and donations, only to be stopped by the army on the way to Kachin State. Some 20 youths and a monk who want to see peace in the Kachin State started a long march from Yangon to Kachin State on foot, in spite of hindrance from police when they passed through townships. Every township so far has supported the youths, with people joining them on their march for some distance. The journey to Laiza is nearly 1,300 kilometres. On the way, some township officials have caused problems by not giving the peace marchers a place to sleep or rest, but local people have supported them and they now number close to 50 individuals.
Meanwhile, the UNHCR has tried to help Kachin refugees turned back from China. Chinese authorities have stopped any foreigners who want to cross the border to go to Laiza. But the KIO warmly welcomes those who want to help the Kachin. People who want to see the situation firsthand and help refugees are greeted by the KIO. In contrast, the Myanmar army does not welcome people who want to help Kachin refugees. Furthermore, most of the video footage, photos and interviews from this conflict come from journalists stationed in Laiza. No video footage, photos or interviews are coming from the Myanmar army. It seems that the government does not want the world to see what it is doing in the Kachin State. It is obvious that the KIO side offers transparency but the government side does not.
The KIO response to the government is that if Nay Pyi Taw wants peace talks, they would rather talk together with the ethnic umbrella organisation, the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC). The news and information minister has agreed to the KIO proposal but has not said where or when negotiations will take place.
If peace negotiations start, people in Myanmar and around the world need to know what kind of facts both parties will present, as well as details about the agenda and what is blocking a peace settlement. The negotiations need to be transparent, so that the world knows which side’s demands are fair and acceptable. If people know the real situation, they can support the side that is honest and follows the people’s wishes.
Among the ethnic resistance groups, the Wa are the strongest. But while the conflict with the Kachin has raged on, government peace negotiator Aung Thaung went to the Wa area and assured the Wa that they did not need to form a border security force. That means the government is applying one rule for the Kachin and another for the Wa – divide-and-rule tactics. Currently, the Wa are unofficially the only ethnic group with self-rule in Myanmar. If the Kachin State falls, the Wa will be next.
Htun Aung Gyaw is a former chairman of the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front. He re-settled in the US and studied for a master’s degree in Asian studies at Cornell University. He is currently president of the New York-based Civil Society for Burma.