The U.S. and China have both called for an immediate end to the conflict in the north, where the pattern of engagements indicates that Myanmar’s military is trying to cut off the main Kachin and related ethnic armed group from the jade and amber mines it uses for funding.
Displaced people and local villagers attending a church service in Myitkyina, Kachin state. Photo: ye aung thu/AFP/Getty Images
The current fighting against the Kachin and allied groups could mark the end of a roughly five-year period in which the military preferred negotiations to all-out offensives against rebel groups, which generally desire greater autonomy from the central government.
Some of the military units deployed to the northern state of Kachin are among those accused by human-rights groups of committing atrocities against the Rohingya in western Myanmar, including the 33rd Light Infantry Division. However, unlike the Rohingya, who didn’t have a well-equipped fighting force, the Kachin field a battle-hardened militia of around 10,000 fighters who have used guerrilla tactics for decades and are some of the national military’s toughest opponents.
The Never-Ending War
More than a dozen ethnic armed militias exist in Myanmar, ranging in size from fewer than 50 to 30,000 fighters. Many of the groups are participating in cease-fire agreements, while a few are fighting Myanmar’s military, which has around 300,000 troops.
*Numbers are approximate Note: Based on 2016 data
Source: Myanmar Peace Monitor
The military restricts access for journalists and international monitors to violence-affected areas of Kachin state, making a full accounting of the latest outbreak in fighting difficult. There are no comprehensive casualty counts. But conversations with residents displaced to other parts of the state, aid groups on the ground and local political actors reveal a sharp increase in fighting and an accelerating humanitarian crisis.
Civilians have been caught in the crossfire, with thousands fleeing into the jungle, sometimes on the back of elephants, and smaller numbers escaping over the border to China. The International Committee of the Red Cross, which is providing food and supplies to civilians, estimates that 7,500 Kachin residents have been displaced since the beginning of April.
Last week, Lt. Gen. Tazay Kyaw, Myanmar’s top military commander in the state, told media the fighting had been instigated by rebels and denied reports that government troops had directed fire at villages.
Internally displace people resting in a church compound in Myitkyina after fleeing the conflict between government troops and an armed ethnic militia in Kachin state. Photo: ye aung thu/AFP/Getty Images
Ntap Tu Mai, a Kachin who helps run a camp in the state for those displaced by the violence, said the 1,300 people who have arrived there since fighting broke out in late April are in poor health and suffering from diarrhea. The military began conducting frequent airstrikes in his area in late April, he said, causing villagers to abandon their farms and flee.
Rebels boast on Facebook of killing commanders of elite Myanmar military units but say they have struggled to hold fixed positions. The reports cannot be verified.
“Gradually, we are losing ground because we don’t have capacity against the artillery or airstrikes,” said Daung Kar, a spokesman for the Kachin Independence Organization, whose armed wing is fighting the military.
The fighting is part of the Myanmar military’s general offensive against key militias in the Northern Alliance, a coalition of ethnic militias in northern Myanmar that includes the Kachin rebels and the Ta’ang Liberation Army, a militia representing the ethnic Palaung in Shan state, east of Kachin state.
Children who have been driven from their homes by the conflict in Kachin state playing at a temporary shelter in Danai, Kachin state. Photo: ye aung thu/AFP/Getty Images
“The military has simply become more aggressive,” said Richard Weir, a researcher for Human Rights Watch. He said the international community’s failure to punish the military for reported abuses against the Rohingya, which the U.N. has called ethnic cleansing but hasn’t followed up with sanctions, has encouraged the military to step up action against other groups.
Myanmar has been locked in civil conflict since gaining independence from Britain in 1948. Many of its border minorities, which often adhere to different faiths than the dominant Buddhist Bamar group, desire greater autonomy or outright independence. The government’s offensives against various militants over decades have been consistently criticized for their brutality by human-rights organizations and Western governments.
When Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi became Myanmar’s civilian leader in 2016 after defeating a military-backed party in historic elections, she said achieving peace with ethnic groups would be her highest priority. In the lead-up to the vote, the government announced a cease-fire with many of the most powerful ethnic militias, though not with the Kachin Independence Army.
Since Ms. Suu Kyi took power, however, her government and the military—which has ruled the country for decades and remains largely outside her control—have generally failed to persuade holdout rebels to sign on to the cease-fire.
Some analysts see the offensives as part of a strategy by the generals to sabotage the peace process and embarrass Ms. Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy. The party denies this. The military didn’t respond to questions directed toward its spokesman.
Myanmar state counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, center, arriving on May 22 for a meeting with a Chinese official at the president house in Naypyitaw, Myanmar. Photo: thet aung/AFP/Getty Images
“Escalating war establishes that the NLD’s flagship policy has been a complete failure,” said Anthony Davis, a security analyst. “Elections are coming up in two years. What does the NLD have to show for it?”
Zaw Htay, a spokesman for Ms. Suu Kyi’s office, said a Kachin ambush in early April that killed 26 soldiers ignited the recent wave of fighting. The “military is handling the situation properly,” he said. The Kachins say the violence was triggered by a military incursion by government forces.
A national peace conference planned for this year has been delayed twice and many observers predict it will be pushed back again.
“The peace process has totally stalled,” said Amara Thiha, a senior program officer at the Myanmar Peace Center, which assists in negotiations between the military and rebels.
Fighting in the northern highlands usually slows down by mid-June as heavy rains render rural roads impassable. But in recent years, Myanmar has significantly bolstered its air power. Mr. Davis and other analysts expect the military to continue bombarding Kachin positions, rain or shine.
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