With reforms spreading hope across much of the country, the future is less auspicious for isolated Kachin State
By Sebastian Strangio
Last month’s election to parliament of Myanmar’s democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was for many observers a hugely symbolic event.
The election of ‘The Lady’, as she is widely known, capped off a remarkable year of opening under President Thein Sein, who took office at the head of a nominally civilian government in March 2011.
Even long-time critics have been won over by the former general’s reforms, which have included the release of political prisoners, the loosening of media controls and the halting of a mammoth Chinese-backed dam project in the country’s north. With Western nations now relaxing long-standing sanctions, a new future and identity beckons for this one-time pariah state.
But in the mountainous regions of Kachin State in northern Myanmar, a different story is unfolding.
Since June 2011, bloody fighting has raged between government troops and ethnic Kachin rebels, displacing tens of thousands of civilians.
The clashes shattered a 17-year-old ceasefire that had preserved a fragile peace between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which has been fighting for autonomy since 1961, and the Myanmar military.
Despite optimism about the reforms ushered in by Thein Sein, life in the Kachin conflict zone shows just how far the country has to go.
In a report released in March, the US-based Human Rights Watch documented how Myanmar troops have pillaged and destroyed Kachin villages during the past year’s conflict, firing indiscriminately at civilians.
The developments in Kachin State, it stated, “stand in stark contrast to hopeful human rights developments in lowland Burma in recent months”.
Since the outbreak of fighting, the population of Laiza, the shabby border town of 7,500 that serves as the capital of the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), the KIA’s political wing, has swollen with civilians fleeing the fighting.
For many of the displaced, like Zau Teng, a 43-year-old who fled the Myanmar military’s advances, ‘reform’ remains a distant concept.
“They burned down some of our homes, they burned down our shops, then the military shot some of the villagers,” says Zau Teng, one of more than 1,300 displaced villagers living at the Manau Wang camp for displaced persons in Laiza.
Ethnic conflict is like the glitch in the hardware of independent Myanmar. Since the departure of the British in 1948, the country has been in a state of near-constant civil war with the raft of ethnic militias occupying its hilly hinterlands.
Thein Sein’s reforms have brought some signs of progress. The government is currently in talks with the Karen National Union to bring to an end the world’s longest-running insurgency, and ceasefires have been signed with a number of other ethnic groups. But the Kachin conflict is a high-stakes affair. The KIO controls valuable gold, jade and timber deposits, and the area is home to surging rivers that are being dammed by Chinese hydropower projects.
With so much on the line, and half a century of suspicion to overcome, a long-term political solution in Kachin State remains elusive. The last round of talks between the KIO and the government collapsed in March, and KIO officials doubt the sincerity of Thein Sein’s ethnic charm offensive.
“We want to figure out how to sort out this problem with a political dialogue, but the Burmese government has a hidden agenda. They just want to disarm all the ethnic armed groups,” KIO spokesman Kumhtat La Nan said at the KIA’s command HQ in Laiza. “Though it is seen by the international community that there are changes in our country, there has been no change for the ethnic peoples yet.”
After so many years of conflict, it may be a long time before there is sufficient trust to build a lasting peace between the two sides.
The dilemma is summed up well by Khawng Lum, one of the pastors at the small, white-bricked Baptist church in Laiza. The 35-year-old said that even if peace comes, the Kachin risk losing their identities in a flood of ethnic Burman migrants.
Fearing that they could disappear like the Manchu people of northeast China, he said the Kachin would be better to fight for an independent state than to sell themselves out at the negotiating table.
“Supporting the fighting is not good in a spiritual perspective, but we have to do that now, we have no choice,” Khawng Lum said. “Peace talks don’t represent progress now.”
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The current reform process is top-down, military-led; it is not transparent and the public is kept in the dark. There is no clear policy and President Thein Sein doesn’t have real power. The military does not support women, so I doubt women-related issues – especially the human rights abuses against non-Burman ethnic women – will be raised in parliamentary sessions to discuss the amendment of the 2008 constitution.
As for Aung San Suu Kyi, at the moment I cannot see her playing a specific role in championing women’s rights and issues – though we will have to wait and see.
An activist and advocate, Khin Ohmar is the coordinator of Burma Partnership, a network of civil society organisations that support democracy, human rights and freedom in Myanmar, and founder of the Womenís League of Burma.