Last week, the Shan Human Rights Foundation (SHRF) called for an end to fighting in Shan State and hit out at Myanmar’s army for bombing schools, shooting at civilians, and using rape as a weapon of war.
Chronic fighting has taken place in Kachin and Shan State in Northern Myanmar in recent weeks, with air attacks and skirmishes displacing thousands of civilians. Even in ceasefire areas, the Myanmar Army has not withdrawn its troops.
“These allegations, if true, are reprehensible, and we urge the Government of Burma to undertake a credible, independent investigation into these allegations, and to hold perpetrators accountable for their actions,” said Katina Adams, a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, according to Reuters.
The recent Myanmar Army offensive has displaced over 10,000 from Ke See, Mong Hsu, and Mong Nawng townships and other regions. Since October, seven out of the fifteen non-state ethnic armies have refused to sign a ceasefire agreement, including the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Shan State Army-North (SSA-North). This refusal has led to an aggressive offensive by the Myanmar Army.
Some non-state ethnic armies were excluded from the peace process in Naypyidaw altogether, including the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) in Kokang, the Arakan Army, and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA).
The renewed conflict in Kachin State erupted on June 9, 2011 after a 17-year-long ceasefire agreement was broken between the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) — the political wing of the KIA — and the Myanmar Army near the Ta-pein hydropower plant. The continuing conflict in Kachin and Shan State has displaced more than 100,000 since 2011.
Many rights groups believe the ongoing offensive in Kachin and Shan State is for control over natural resources and hydroelectric power along the Salween River. Rights groups and observers believe the escalated fighting before the election was intentional in order to stop ethnic people from going to the polls. Yet the international community, which was so supportive of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) and election, has largely ignored the price of conflict in northern Myanmar.
Despite elections and reforms in Myanmar, many ethnic areas continue to experience major conflict. Two men were tortured on November 19 by Myanmar Army troops in Kachin State’s Mansi Township. The systematic use of torture of civilians is widespread in Kachin and Northern Shan State, according to a 2014 report by Fortify Rights, a human rights organization based in Bangkok that has documented cases of beatings, deprivation of food, and sexual assaults in detention among others by Myanmar Army battalions.
Matthew Smith, the executive director of Fortify Rights, told The Diplomat in an email early this month that the military was “carrying out offensives with little regard for the laws of war, committing abuses against civilians with impunity.”
“Myanmar’s Kachin and Shan activists have been strong and we believe their work documenting human rights abuses over the years has had a preventative affect, but there is still much work to do,” he added.
In 2010, the Myanmar government started on U.S.-backed reforms toward elections. Last month, Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory after years of living under house arrest during military rule. Although Suu Kyi won, the military by statute still controls 25 percent of parliamentary seats and other key positions entrenching their political power.
The reforms have done little for ethnic areas. In Kachin State, school enrollment rates currently are less than 27 percent, according to the Democratic Voice of Burma. According to The Diplomat earlier this year, access to aid in Kachin State was restricted by Myanmar troops, supposedly for tactical purposes. Some villages were reported to not have food for over a week due to restrictions by the local army.
In Shan State at headquarters of the SSA-N in Wanhai, there have been sustained air strikes since mid-November by government forces. In other areas, the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S) and Myanmar Army joined forces to flight against the TNLA. SSA-S for many years had fought against the Myanmar Army, but recently signed the nationwide ceasefire agreement. This divide and rule tactic against ethnic groups has been a regular tactic used by the Myanmar Army for years.
The ongoing offensive and troop buildup has taken a toll on civilians, particularly women and children. For example, in Shan State there have been eight documented cases of sexual violence committed by Myanmar government troops since April, according to SHRF.
“Attacks are still taking place with impunity in Myanmar ceasefire areas,” said Nang Charm Tong, a Shan human rights activist, last month at a press conference in Bangkok The Diplomat attended. Furthermore, at the same press conference, veteran human right lawyer Surapong Kongchantuk indicated that information from the field clearly showed that the Myanmar Army is targeting civilians.
Aid organizations have had a hard time reaching many of the internally displaced persons (IDP) in Shan State. According to Shan Herald Agency for News, aid was stopped from reaching some 1,500 IDPs on November 18th in Mong Hsu Township by Myanmar Army checkpoints.
Sai Khur Hseng, one of the founders of Shan Sapawa Environmental Organization, told The Diplomat in an interview on December 5 that “there should be a political dialogue instead of fighting… the people who suffer from fighting are civilians.” He went on to say that they needed humanitarian aid from the international community.
Sai Khur told The Diplomat that the government has blocked aid in recent weeks from reaching IDPs.
Community health workers are also badly needed in affected areas. Nearly half of the residents of Kesi Township IDP camp in Shan State have reported health problems, including chronic diarrhea, respiratory problems, and fever. Sai Hin Hseng, one of the camp managers and volunteers helping coordinate resources at Wan Wa IDP camp, told The Diplomat via phone from the camp on December 5 that his main concern was “for IDPs returning to their villages with landmines and unexploded bombs.” He also said that the camp needs more medicine and hygiene kits.
According to an email to The Diplomat from SHRF on December 4, the main concern for IDPs on the ground is “health problems and food shortages.” They further stated that the “situation is still unstable…the IDPs are going back and forth from their towns.”
The exact numbers of IDPs are difficult to determine. Some IDPs are staying with friends and relatives, others are in camps, and many are going between the camps and home to tend to their crops.
“The UN remains concerned about people displaced by the recent outbreak of fighting in southern Shan State” said Pierre Péron, Public Information and Advocacy Officer for United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Myanmar in an email to The Diplomat. “UN and INGOs continue to work closely with local organizations in Shan State to provide immediate humanitarian assistance,” he added.
One organization providing aid in Shan State is Partners Relief & Development , an international NGO based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. They distributed aid including basic shelter, blankets, and food to IDPs in Shan conflict affected areas. The team reported meeting one woman who had given birth in a cave after fleeing army attacks and waiting for six days for gunfire to stop before moving to a camp.
“[Partners] will continue to send aid. We will set up schools if they continue to be displaced for their children. We will invest in sustainable development. We have made a promise to the people and we won’t walk away,” Steve Gumaer, International CEO at Partners Relief & Development told The Diplomat in an interview.
One of the main concerns are the Shan farmers’ livelihoods, “Losing their harvest is the biggest impact… All those people that are under attack leave behind their rice and it gets ruined. It sets them back years,” Gumaer added.
The attacks against SSA-N could be a strategic move by the Myanmar Army against the United Wa State Army (UWSA), which is just across the Salween river. The UWSA controls a “special region” outside of Myanmar Army control and has a friendly relationship with China. IHS Jane’s analyst Anthony Davis wrote in the Bangkok Post that in the following months we are “likely to see either increasing Wa military aid channeled to Shan and other insurgent allies; or, quite possibly Wa troops – perhaps not in their own uniforms – moving West of the river themselves.” Increased military activity is expected to take place among all parties involved.
Shan State Progressive Party (SSPP), the political wing of the SSA-N, could soon travel to Naypyidaw to have political talks during a pause in fighting in Shan State, although no date has been finalized. Even as fighting slows down for now, there is tension in the air. Sai K-Main, deputy chief of the SSA-N told The Irrawaddy, “They could come and attack us at an area where we do not expect, so we all have to be alert for our security.”
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has said he will not step down from his role in the military. He believes it is too early for the Myanmar military to retreat from politics, citing ongoing conflict and the need for Myanmar’s democracy to transition in a “disciplined” fashion. With the military’s power still entrenched, there is little hope for fighting to stop and peace to take place.
Peace in ethnic areas should be a primary goal for Suu Kyi’s political agenda and the quasi-civilian government. The government reforms are a welcome sign, but for lasting peace the military-backed civilian government must put an end to the military offensive in Northern Myanmar. As Smith of Fortify Rights told The Diplomat, “The international community should pressure the military to end its abusive ways but it should also redouble support for Myanmar’s human rights activists, who ultimately will drive the change.”
John Quinley III is a Bangkok-based researcher focused on human rights, refugees, migrants, and development in Southeast Asia, particularly Myanmar and Thailand.