Why Burma Is Still Not Free

Burma is still not free.

Shocked? We didn’t think so. You probably knew this well before the release of Freedom House’s 2013 report that lined up Burma shoulder-to-shoulder with other “Not Free” countries such as North Korea, Iraq and Iran. The resurgence of fighting in Kachin state between government forces and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), highlights how ethnic tensions, often enveloped in issues of control over Burma’s rich natural resources, continue to create serious conflict in the fledgling democracy.

Let’s start with the basics.

Where is Kachin State? Kachin state is in Northern Burma, bordering India and China’s Yunnan province.

What’s the (most recent) background? The Kachin Independence Army (KIA) is the military arm of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), headquartered in Laiza, near the Burma-China border. On June 9, 2011, the 17-year ceasefire agreement between the Burmese army and the KIA ended. We wrote about the refugee crisis on the Burma-China border at that time, highlighting the tens of thousands of refugees being forced across the border to escape fighting. Fighting continued in the area throughout 2011 and 2012. In December 2012, the Burmese army launched particularly intense airstrikes on the KIA, escalating the conflict. On January 18, 2013, Burma’s President Thein Sein announced a unilateral ceasefire for Laja Yang village outside of Laiza in response to the conflict that had been reignited in December 2012. The unilateral ceasefire has not been upheld as both sides continue to fight. Despite President Thein Sein’s unilateral ceasefire announcement, the Burmese army seems eager to capture KIA stronghold Laiza.

What’s happening now? We’ve been getting daily updates from our grantee partners, colleagues and friends working in and around Laiza telling us about continued airstrikes, ground attacks and civilian casualties. As the Burmese army is closing in on Laiza from all sides, including from China (apparently the Burmese army is also using Chinese airspace in an attempt to capture Laiza), the 24,000 people living in the five IDP camps inside and outside Laiza have nowhere to go. The UN further reports that there are close to 75,000 IDPs in Kachin State altogether. Access to food and humanitarian aid is increasingly limited as the fighting escalates. Kachin state is on the verge of a humanitarian crisis.

Why Kachin State? Since 2011, President Thein Sein’s calls to end the conflict in Kachin State have not been heard. In December 2012, journalist Francis Wade pointed out that the transition from the junta to a civilian government left Thein Sein in a clearly subordinate position to the military despite his attempt to be its “acceptable political face.” But perhaps most important was the connection he drew between the military and their investment in Kachin State’s lucrative natural resources. As highlighted by Wade and pulled out through quotes from Kachinland News writer Pangmu Shayi, the military has a particular agenda for continuing the conflict with the KIA, “…foremost being maintaining its grip on this resource-rich area where personal and institutional fortunes are so intricately intertwined.” Moreover, Kachin State—wedged between BRIC countries, China and India and resource-dependant Thailand, and with a history of military-led and authoritarian-leaning leadership—quickly becomes a geopolitical battleground. (The Shwe Gas Pipeline project is a key example of this tension.)

What Next? On January 16th, Aung San Suu Kyi made it clear that she won’t “interfere” with the work of Parliament’s Ethnic Committee. As early as September, Kachin groups around the world urged Suu Kyi to respond to the violence and have been frustrated by her lack of engagement. “We Kachin had looked to you to speak out about the abuses being committed against our people at least based on humanitarian grounds as you were once silenced by the same regime and were eventually triumphant by unwavering voices of freedom,” wrote 23 Kachin organizations in an open letter to Suu Kyi. Despite a January 10 follow-up letter, Suu Kyi remains silent.

The international community has done little to ease tension in Kachin State. The US Embassy in Rangoon finally released a statement on the conflict on January 24 stating it “strongly opposed the ongoing fighting” that has caused increased civilian casualties and “undermined efforts to advance national reconciliation.” Despite the clear call to end the violence, allow humanitarian aid to enter the conflict zone and begin peace talks the US remains at arm’s length.

The military is continuing its offensive on Laiza. Human rights abuses committed by the Burmese army against Kachin civilians include rape and gang-rape against women, children, elderly and the disabled, murder, arbitrary executions, torture, mutilations, beatings, forced labor, mortar bombing, burning of villages, looting of villages and use of child soldiers. The government refuses to provide aid to conflict areas and will not allow the free delivery of aid by humanitarian relief organizations in violation of international law. Civilians continue to suffer at the hand of the military, the brutal winter weather is setting in, and there is no end in sight.

The thin trust between the Kachin community and the government has been shattered. With this broken trust coupled with years of conflict between the KIA and the Burma army, we’re left with so many questions. What will the impact of two years of fighting in Kachin state have on relationships between other ethnic populations in Burma? Has the conflict created a more isolationist stance within Kachin state? How has the fighting changed Kachin views about their place within Burma as a whole?

We’d love to hear your thoughts! Want to learn more about our work in Asia? Follow @AJWSinAsia on Twitter!

Anne Lieberman is a program associate for Asia at American Jewish World Service.