Signs of democratic reforms in Burma are welcome. But are they likely to help bring an end to ethnic unrest in Kachin state?
Burma’s flurry of reform measures, coupled with the breezy spirit of openness prevailing in the former capital of Yangon, has created genuine hope that Burma’s underlying fault line – its ethnic divisions – can now finally be resolved.
Yet the ongoing conflict in the northern state of Kachin looks like it could remain an intractable blot on the landscape as Burma attempts to shake off a 40-year legacy of rule by a brutal military junta.
“The president called for a ceasefire in March. But more troops were sent,” says Ja Seng Khawn, daughter of former Kachin Independence Organization Chairman Brang Seng. “The conflict has intensified. Government troops burnt down villages, and 65,000 civilians have fled from their homes.”
Earlier this month, government troops moved closer to Laiza, the largest town inside the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) liberated zone. And, despite calls for peace talks, the fighting is continuing.
Karen, Kachin, Chin, Shan and other dissident ethnic forces have been demanding equal rights and local autonomy for more than forty years, and their repression at hands of the military has thwarted any attempt to create a genuine Union of Burma based on its myriad cultures and diversity.
Prospects appeared to be brightening with the apparently reform minded President Thein Sein reaching out to non-Burmans, and efforts to bring a halt to the fighting have enjoyed better results in the case of the Karen National Union and its armed wing. A draft agreement for a ceasefire has already been signed.
After decades of bitter conflict with the central government, the dissident Karen forces never dreamed that one day the president would invite their banned organization to peace talks in the capital. However, on April 12,Thein Sein hosted seven KNU leaders in Naypyidaw after another round of peace talks was successfully concluded in Yangon.
Various sets of talks have taken place with other small ethnic armies, including the Karenni, Chin, Shan and others, but it’s primarily the resource rich Kachin state that finds itself excluded from the friendly embrace of the government’s charm offensive.
Indeed, there’s been very little charm exuded by the government peace panel responsible for the talks. The panel is led by Aung Thaung, a former industry minister described in leaked U.S. diplomatic cables as a “notorious hard-liner.” It has met a KIO Kachin delegation in China on three occasions, but without any success in reducing hostilities.
“Wecalled for military operations launched since June 2011 to stop, in order to achieve a ceasefire,” says Ja Seng Khawn, now based in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin state, after years of working with the KIO leadership. “They didn’t listen to us. There’s no trust between the two sides.”
Photo Credit: Tom Fawthrop