In the northern Myanmar state of Kachin the war between the military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has re-escalated as government forces have struck KIA bases in force. The military and the KIA resumed hostilities in 2011, breaking a ceasefire that had briefly interrupted a conflict that has been ongoing since 1961.
The conflict between the Kachin rebels and the government is part of a wider scenario of conflict within Myanmar that are ethno-political in origin, in that the primary identification of the warring parties is ethnic and there are political demands for autonomy or independence. These are generally understood as lasting since independence from the British in 1948, making the conflict in Myanmar the world’s longest running intra-state conflict. To some degree this is misleading as there was considerable protest at British colonial rule before this date and during the Second World War groups arose against both the British and Japanese while the country was devastated, a frontline in the wider war between the allies and the Japanese that is underrepresented in the literature of Second World War history. While the short lived Japanese empire was forced out through defeat, the British chose to leave as part of a wider process of decolonisation. The democratic state that succeeded them lasted until a military coup in 1962, leaving the leadership of the country dominated by the majority Buddhist nationalists at the expense of moderates and escalating tensions with minorities in a country that is diverse and multi-ethnic. Insurgencies have raged ever since.
There have been inevitable comparisons with the situation in Rakhine State, where the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fleeing ethnic cleansing in Myanmar’s Rakhine State has drawn international condemnation, but little concrete action. These are largely due to allegations of war crimes, including rape and murder, by the military in Kachin and because it is another instance where a religious minority is under assault. The Rohingya are Muslim, the Kachin, Christian, while the majority of Burmese are ethnically Bamar and Buddhist. This would, of course, be a simple caricature that merely pitted one religion against another and would be inherently misleading. The differences due to ethnicity and religion, which are inextricably linked, stem from the dominance of conservative Theravada Buddhists in the government after independence and then military rule, which fuelled the secessionism of minority groups and has dominated politics in Myanmar ever since. There was promise that under the new democracy that has replaced military rule that peace agreements between the government and myriad insurgents would bring about a reduction in tensions and take Myanmar into a bright new future under civilian leadership. It has become increasingly obvious that this is not the case, the military still wields considerable power and the war against the Rohingya may be an indicator of what is to come. When pressed about allegations of war crimes in Kachin the government resorts to outright denial, much in the manner that it has done about the plight of the Rohingya and despite the considerable evidence of major human rights violations.
Combating the KIA has been a very different task to that of the outright persecution of the hapless Rohingya and has meant the use of heavy weaponry and airpower against an organisation that is established in Kachin and holds territory. The UN has raised concerns about civilians caught in the crossfire and human rights abuses, in particular those by the Myanmar military. The UN has also called for both sides to respect human rights and ensure the safety of civilians, whom are being displaced in their thousands. The current government offensive is a marked escalation of the intermittent killings and sporadic violence that has been the norm in recent years. Where this will lead in the long run should be a major concern as there already tens of thousands of internally displaced people as a result of previous fighting and the offensive against the KIO is causing severe damage to what may be the only bulwark between government forces and civilians.
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Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator