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.

"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 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.

The government, however, maintains a ceasefire must come first. Asked about the conflict, Aung Thein Lin, former military general and a senior leader of the ruling Unity Solidarity and Development Party, said, "Whoever gets lost, they are our nationals. If the conflict takes long, revenge and hatred will be born. So, we need to cease all fights first and hold political dialogue and then make peace process."

Paul Aung Dang said he's not optimistic that the two sides will resolve their differences through Chinese-led talks. "We don't trust them unless those UN organizations and other countries are seated as a witness," he said. The Kachin people have reason to distrust opaque peace talks. Saboi Jum was part of a group that negotiated a peace accord in 1980. Holding a copy of that agreement, Saboi Jum said that the military government balked when it came time to announce the agreement, with the KIO having requested the media and diplomats be present. The government ultimately did not honor the agreement in spite of having already signed it.

There are nevertheless some signs of progress. The informal easing tensions since February 4 may be a way for both sides to appear to win in their disagreement over whether political dialogue or a ceasefire should come first. The government also for the first time in decades held talks with all 11 militant ethnic groups - including the Kachin - in Thailand on February 20, indicating they may be serious about brokering a nationwide solution. The country's leaders had previously refused to meet with ethnic rebels together, leading some to accuse the government of trying to divide and conquer the nation's minorities. Another round of such talks are to be held soon.

However, both that broader meeting of minorities and the China-brokered Kachin negotiations have only shown an ability to negotiate to have future negotiations. The KIO's eventual goal - having a semi-autonomous state while remaining a part of Burma, as originally set forth in the Panglong agreement, may be too much for the democratic but still military-dominated government to swallow. The current gradual pace of reform likely puts such a solution years out of reach.

In the meantime, Kachin civilians must endure the brunt of the suffering brought on by the conflict. Khon Ja, an ethnic Kachin aid worker with the Kachin Peace Network and a volunteer with a variety of NGOs, spent December and January in the camps where displaced civilians have fled. The eased tensions since Khon Ja's visit mean those in the camps are now no longer at risk of being hit by a stray mortar, but they still must battle a lack of food as well as the elements. "One elderly woman, about 73 years old, we thought she was sleeping but really she was dead," Khon Ja said, describing and showing pictures on her mobile phone of a woman who had died Christmas Day. "She was healthy, she didn't have any disease we diagnose but just cold."

Although the region has opened to UN assistance, delivering aid to a few hundred displaced Kachin families barely begins to address the problems of the thousands that live in the temporary camps. Father Paul Aung Dang said he's seen little impact of that aid and the situation in refugee camps is largely unchanged.

Ultimately, prolonged suffering may turn civilians against the government and could prevent ethnic reconciliation if left to fester, said May Sabe Phyu of Kachin Peace Network. The Kachin people, partly influenced by the KIO, tend to blame the military and the mostly ethnic Burmans who fill its ranks for why they need to live in camps and the lack of food. There is a deep-rooted misconception among Kachins that ethnic Burmans seek to deprive them of their land, resources and the ability to decide their own futures. These ideas must be dispelled if the two groups are to reconcile, she said.

Admittedly, not all of the distrust can be blamed on rebel misinformation. "If you are seeing your own people are dying, your own people are losing their body [parts], all these kind of sorrow, it's really making them angry, frustrated. And it is not because of something KIA or KIO is doing," said May Sabe Phyu. "We have to deal carefully that will not become hate between Burman and Kachin."

Ethnic group and opposition politicians say the country urgently needs a second Panglong Agreement to again unite the many ethnic groups and lay out terms for minority groups. Talks between ethnic minority leaders and the Burman majority government are a start. But, more than 66 years after the original Union Day, lasting peace will only be attainable by winning over ethnic civilians as well.