There’s nothing quite as disconcerting as a military operation launched over Christmas. Of the more notable examples in recent history is the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan and Vietnam’s incursion into Cambodia which resulted in the ousting of the Khmer Rouge.
Both invasions took place in the late 1970’s when much of the world were sitting down for Christmas dinner or gearing-up for New Year celebrations and were timed to minimize criticism from the West.
It’s a strategic approach and one that the Burmese must have considered when ordering air strikes against Kachin rebels in the northeastern part of the country near its border with China.
It seems at odds with President Thein Sein who has been winning accolades for the political reforms he has instigated over the past year-and –a-half. He has been nominated for a series of awards and some have even suggested that his efforts might warrant a Nobel Peace Prize.
Such suggestions are misplaced. Burma remains a place of brutal oppression and internal strife. Jet fighters, helicopter guns ships and heavy artillery bombarded positions held by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and reports say that thousands have fled their homes for shelter in nearby forests. Reports suggest most are not seeking to take shelter across the border in China after the government in Beijing forcibly repatriated around 10,000 refugees last summer, according to non-governmental organizations.
The heaviest fighting is reported to be occurring near the KIA’s headquarters in Laiza. It also remains unclear exactly who was responsible for launching the Christmas strikes, raising doubts over whether Thein Sein and his government have control over the generals.
Thein Sein’s government initially denied that the Burmese military had launched offensive airstrikes on the KIA stronghold. On Wednesday, however, the state-run media ran a government statement that confirmed the airstrikes and defended them as a response to KIA attacks on the military’s supply lines.
Burma is beset by internal strife and while the world, in particular the West, has welcomed the political and economic reforms designed to open up the country, much depends on Thein Sein’s ability to resolve ethnic tensions, which in recent months have focused on the violent unrest between Burmese Muslims and Buddhists.
Attempts elsewhere to strike ceasefires with about a dozen different warring groups who occupy the country’s perimeter and border regions have had mixed success.
A 17-year ceasefire between the government and KIA broke down in June 2011, and hostilities have resumed since then. Kachin state is rich in natural resources including timber and jade and has enormous hydropower potential.
Rebels are demanding greater autonomy from the central government including more control over the land’s valuable resources.
The government and military are undoubtedly frustrated by their inability to find a resolution to the conflict with the KIA. But the level of military firepower used and in such a suspicious manner is hardly worthy of peace prizes or humanitarian awards, and is likely to lead to an escalation in the conflict during the upcoming year.