In the New Burma, One Marginalized Group Has Yet to See Peace

The Kachin's prolonged suffering may turn civilians against the government.
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A soldier from the Kachin Independence Army puts on his shoes as he and his comrade cross a stream towards the front line in Laiza, Kachin state, Burma on January 29, 2013. (Reuters)

RANGOON, Burma --- Each year on February 12, Union Day is meant to celebrate cross-racial unity among Burma's more than 100 minority groups, which comprise nearly one-third of the population. The day - marked by pageantry, traditional outfits, speeches and music - commemorates the 1947 Panglong agreement that joined the Burmese majority and three minority groups to unify the country in its final push to cast off British rule. That sense of unity proved fleeting, however, and reconciliation between the many ethnic groups and the ethnic Burman majority remains out of reach more than six decades later.

Rev. Saboi Jum, a member of the majority-Christian Kachin ethnic group native to northern Burma, spent the morning of this year's Union Day working at the NGO he leads rather than joining in Rangoon's festivities. The Baptist minister had little reason to celebrate. The Panglong agreement promised the Kachin people their own semi-autonomous state that never materialized, and Kachin rebels in northern Burma continue to die fighting against the country's military today. To Saboi Jum, the agreement that Union Day is meant to honor marks the first of countless accords with the Kachin that the government has failed to live up to.

For some, the agreement that Union Day is meant to honor marks the first of countless accords with the Kachin that the government has failed to live up to.

"Now Panglong Agreement is abolished. The '47 constitution destroyed. And all the agreements we made and the ceasefire we made were neglected, and the fighting erupted," said Saboi Jum, director of the Shalom Foundation, which advocates for peace between Burma's many ethnicities. Out of 11 ethnic militias around Burma, the Kachin rebels are the only group that remains in open conflict with the government.

The Democracy Report

The most recent 1994 ceasefire between the Kachin and the government broke down in June 2011 and gave way to fierce clashes, as well as alleged war crimes committed by the Burma military. Roughly 120,000 civilians have fled to temporary camps in both the military and rebel-controlled areas, according to aid workers. Fighting intensified this December and January as the military began airstrikes in the region.

The two sides appear to have reached an informal detente after talks brokered by China on February 4, with the most intense fighting giving way to sporadic skirmishes. But a lasting peace appears as unlikely as ever as the Kachin Independence Organization rebel group and peace proponents survey the history of broken promises, and hatred toward ethnic Burmans grows among Kachin living in displaced-person camps.

There is no definitive account of how the first shots were fired that ended the 17-year ceasefire, although both sides point fingers. It's generally agreed that tensions first began to boil over in 2010 when the Kachin Independence Army, the armed wing of the KIO, refused to meet a series of deadlines to transform into a border security force under the oversight of the military. Around the same time, the government sent troops into a KIA-controlled area to protect workers at a Chinese dam. The KIA said that the military needed to leave the area by May 25, 2011, while the military labeled the nearby KIA as insurgents and demanded they withdraw from the vicinity of the dam by June 11.

Fighting broke out around this final deadline, leaving 50 dead in the first days of the conflict. In the months that followed, NGO workers and others in the region have recorded evidence of brutal atrocities committed by the military. Gruesome pictures of dead Kachin, including many civilians, who appear to have been tortured have been widely circulated with one Christian relief organization suspecting the military of committing war crimes.

Fighting now seems to have subsided after the military and rebels met in China, which borders the Kachin state, on February 4 when the two sides issued vague statements about agreeing to ease tensions. May Sabe Phyu, an aid worker with Kachin Peace Network, traveled to the region in the days immediately following that meeting. She said that Laiza, the headquarters of the rebel's political branch and the center of much of the fighting, seemed normal and there was no sound of mortar fire. Father Paul Aung Dang, a Catholic priest who works with another local aid organization, said recently that by all appearances there has been little fighting in Kachin since February.

Kachin rebels, however, maintain that the violence has never completely halted. Reports from the rebels, relayed via aid workers, detailed multiple clashes this month. Another round of peace talks held March 11 only led to an agreement to continue negotiations.

The Kachin Independence Organization, the rebel's political organization, is reticent to return to an arrangement similar to the 1994 ceasefire. That agreement called for political dialogue, which never transpired. Politicians closely associated with the KIO have also been shut out of the parliamentary politics . As a result, the rebels are now calling for political dialogue as a precondition to a new ceasefire.

Presented by

Jake Spring

Jake Spring is an American writer based in Shanghai.

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