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More war than peace in Myanmar

Asia Times - December 17, 2012

Bertil Lintner, Laiza Helicopter gunships hover in the sky above a battlefield. The constant sound of explosions and gunfire pierce the night for an estimated 100,000 refugees and internally displaced people. Military hospitals are full of wounded government soldiers, while bridges, communication lines and other crucial infrastructure lie in war-torn ruins.

The images and sounds on the ground in Myanmar's northern Kachin State shatter the impression of peace, reconciliation and a steady march towards democracy that President Thein Sein's government has bid to convey to the outside world. In reality, the situation in this remote corner of one of Asia's historically most troubled nations is depressingly normal.

Along the dirt road that snakes through the forests and over the mountains to Laiza, the headquarters of the rebel Kachin Independence Army (KIA), civilians who have fled the fighting eke out a living by growing whatever they can and from the meager provisions provided by the rebels. They have been largely ignored by the international aid community, including United Nations agencies that to date have made only symbolic gestures towards the unfolding humanitarian crisis.

The KIA are clearly outnumbered and out-gunned by the government's forces, but they are operating in an environment where the mountainous terrain and sympathetic local population work to their advantage. Casualties on the government's side, meanwhile, are believed to have been extremely heavy since hostilities broke out in June last year. In September this year, a KIA officer, quoted by a local Kachin news group, urged the government to come clean about government losses in Kachin State war zones. The truth about the loss of life, he argued, would shock the general public.

In the conflict's initial phases, the Myanmar army deployed heavily armed but poorly trained infantry forces against the KIA, resulting in a virtual slaughter on the battlefield. Some of the young government foot soldiers, many of whom have since deserted and are now in Laiza, were street children who had been rounded up in the old capital of Yangon, given some basic training and dispatched to Kachin State to fight, according to human rights workers who have interviewed deserters from the government's army.

The Myanmar army was once a poorly equipped but battle-hardened light infantry force that was constantly on the move in operations against ethnic as well as communist insurgents. Since the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) then the country's largest and most powerful rebel army collapsed and splintered into four different ethnic forces that entered into ceasefire agreements with the government in 1989, there has been little action in most of Myanmar's frontier areas.

With the collapse of the CPB, many other rebel armies that depended on the communists for the supply of arms and ammunition also made peace with the government. They included the KIA, which signed a ceasefire agreement with the government on February 24, 1994. All of the dozen or so other agreements made between the government and rebel groups were made verbally rather than in writing.

The Kachins insisted on having their ceasefire in writing in hope that it would be more legally binding. However, the then ruling military junta said at the time that their government was only temporary and that the KIA would have to wait for an elected government to assume power before any talks about political issues, including their demand for local autonomy, could be held.

The Kachins waited for 17 years, but after an election was held in November 2010 no such talks on political issues were forthcoming. Instead, on June 9, 2011, government forces broke the ceasefire and attacked KIA positions along the Taping river east of Bhamo.

"Several of out liaison officers, whose duty had been to oversee the ceasefire and maintain contacts with the government, were also arrested. The one in Mohnyin town was badly tortured and died in hospital shortly afterwards," said Lazing Ji No, a senior officer in the KIA's political wing, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO).

Several rounds of peace talks between the Myanmar government and the KIO have been held since, but with no resolution in sight. "They just want to get us under their control. Our aim, and the aim of all the nationalities in the country, is to negotiate to get our rights," said KIO chairman Zawng Hra in an interview with Asia Times Online at his Laiza headquarters.

Clearly, peace means different things to the government and the ethnic rebels. The former want the latter to accept the 2008 non-federal constitution and convert their armed forces into so-called "Border Guard Forces" under the command of the Myanmar Army. Peace for the Kachins, on the other hand, means a new, or at least fundamentally amended, constitution that gives ethnic states a large degree of autonomy.

These two seemingly incompatible interpretations of peace are the reason why foreign interlocutors attempting to help broker a peace settlement have so far been unsuccessful. By avoiding discussions of political issues and only emphasizing ceasefires, disarmament and economic development, those interlocutors including a "Peace Support Initiative" sponsored by the Norwegian government and in a separate initiative the Switzerland-based Center for Humanitarian Dialog are essentially promoting the government's view, according to several people Asia Times Online spoke with in Laiza and elsewhere.

Other ethnic groups and prominent political players share the KIO's view. In an interview in Yangon in September, Hkun Htun Oo, chairperson of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, a legal political party, said that, "We totally reject the 2008 constitution." Pro-democracy icon and opposition parliamentarian Aung San Suu Kyi told Asia Times Online in a recent interview in the new capital Naypyidaw that "democracy cannot be substituted by economic development".

Intensified conflict

With such divergent, locked-in positions, it is hardly surprising that the war in Kachin State is intensifying. According to several diplomatic sources, the government is set to launch a major offensive to try to capture Laiza and other KIO/KIA strongholds.

Perhaps fearing more heavy casualties in face-to-face combat, government forces have recently resorted to the extensive use of artillery, including 105mm howitzers, 120mm mortars and Russian-made Mi-35 helicopters, the export version of the Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunship that was used extensively in the Afghan war in the 1980s. Such helicopter gunships have also been used to attack KIA forces in the area west of Laiza and near the Pangva area northeast of the state capital, Myitkyina.

In the Hpakan area in western Kachin State, the government has used 84mm Carl Gustaf rocket launchers manufactured in Sweden to attack rebel positions. The revelation, first reported by this correspondent earlier this month, has prompted a Swedish government investigation into how the weapons ended up in Myanmar despite a European Union embargo on arms sales to the country.

According to a statement made by trade minister Ewa Bjorling in the Swedish parliament on December 13, the weapons in question were supplied to the Myanmar army by India despite an agreement between Stockholm and New Delhi that the guns could not be transferred to a third country. The Myanmar government has tried to dodge the issue by claiming in a report published in the Myanmar-language weekly The Voice on December 17 that the guns were imported to Myanmar from Sweden "before the EU arms embargo came into force".

While Myanmar did buy a quantity of Carl Gustaf rocket launchers from Sweden in 1982, they were a much older model. The one that was captured by the KIA in October this year was the most recent model of the gun, and according to the serial number was part of a larger shipment of arms sold to the Indian government in 2003, according to a spokeswoman for Sweden's Agency for Non-Proliferation and Export Controls (ISP).

According to informed local sources in Myanmar, the Swedish weapons were given to the Myanmar army to be used against insurgents from the northeastern Indian states of Assam and Manipur who maintain bases across the border in northwestern Myanmar. But instead of attacking those rebel camps used to launch cross-border raids into India against Indian government positions, the Myanmar army deployed the weapons against the KIA.

The controversy has internationalized the Kachin war in an unprecedented way and comes significantly at a time when many Western countries have largely turned a blind eye to the conflict in pursuit of engagement policies and commercial opportunities with Thein Sein's quasi-civilian government. According to knowledgeable sources, the arms embargo issue will soon be raised in the European Parliament, a move that could lead to a more critical diplomatic approach to recent developments in Myanmar.

Even so, it is doubtful that the Myanmar government will halt its offensive against the KIA or engage any time soon in meaningful peace talks. One major problem is that the government's chief negotiator, minister in the prime minister's office Aung Min the darling of the Norwegian government and other foreign interlocutors has no mandate to negotiate political issues with the KIO.

"Aung Min has no political mandate," said KIO chairman Zawng Hra. "So far, he has always avoided talking about political issues. His duty is only to present and follow his government's policies."

Moreover, it is not clear that even Thein Sein has the power to negotiate with the Kachin. His calls upon the army to stop fighting have fallen on deaf ears on at least two occasions since hostilities broke out last year. That has raised questions about whether Thein Sein has control of the military, which appear to answer only to Commander-in-Chief Gen Min Aung Hlaing. The ongoing war in Kachin State is thus a grim reminder that when it comes to crucial issues of national security, Myanmar remains firmly under military rule.

[Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review and author of several books on Burma/Myanmar, including Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency Since 1948 (published in 1994, 1999 and 2003), Land of Jade: A Journey from India through Northern Burma to China, and The Kachin: Lords of Burma's Northern Frontier. He is currently a writer with Asia Pacific Media Services.]

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