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Kachin Conflict Highlights Deep-seated Ethnic Concerns and Dire Need for a Commission of Inquiry

By Burma Partnership  •  June 20, 2011

Yesterday, democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi celebrated her birthday in freedom for the first time in 7 years. However, her 66th birthday was marked by ongoing conflict between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Burma Army that broke a 17-year ceasefire between the two sides.

During an address at the National League for Democracy (NLD) headquarters, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi stated that there are “sparks of war flying” in Burma. With as many as 10,000 civilians displaced by the ongoing conflict in Kachin State, and documented conflict-related human rights violations, the past week’s conflict has only served to further highlight the failure of the regime to address the needs and concerns of ethnic communities in Burma.

The conflict was allegedly sparked by the Burma Army’s aggressive attempts to protect Chinese development projects near the Sino-Burma border. On 8 June, several Burma Army soldiers entered KIA-controlled territory to gather intelligence, and were arrested by the KIA, who urged regime troops to withdraw. The Burma Army responded with gunfire the following day.

The regime had previously demanded that KIA troops withdraw from the Sang Gang post, located near two Chinese hydropower projects. However, the KIA has refused to move away from the post which is part of their territory, condemning the regime for placing foreign and financial interests above the rights and needs of the local communities. A KIA spokesman, La Nan, claimed that the projects were carried out without consent from the local stakeholders. The electricity is set to be exported to China, without any benefits to the local communities.

“When we approached the Chinese company officials working at these dams, their response is that they already have agreements with Naypyidaw,” said La Nan. “China wants to get resources from Burma. So it seems that their policy is to secure our country’s resources by any means necessary and, in this case, with the connivance of the Burmese authorities.”

The Burma Army has certainly faced immense pressure from the Chinese government to ensure the implementation of the energy projects, despite resistance from the public. During President Thein Sein’s recent visit to Beijing, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao urged the ex-General to provide “the smooth implementation of infrastructure projects, including oil and gas pipelines, hydroelectric power and transportation.”

The regime has since sent a delegation to negotiate with the KIA, but with a lack of documentation or evidence, the KIA were hard-pressed to believe the agreement to be genuine or sincere. “We told them that we would only consider a ceasefire if they could produce evidence of their sincerity,” argued La Nan.

Given the regime’s track record with ethnic communities, the KIA has maintained their stance in the hopes of having “a say in these projects and [to be able to] make sure that the revenue from these dams benefits Kachin people too,” said La Nan. However, the KIA official noted that the civilians were the “real victims of war,” and maintained that the KIA would conduct military attacks in areas only to “destroy bridges to deter the Burmese army tanks coming in.”

Local civilians have certainly faced the brunt of the conflict, with as many as 10,000 displaced and scores of human rights violations committed by Burma Army troops. Kachin Women’s Association Thailand (KWAT) has documented seven incidents of rape by Burma Army troops, with four of the women subsequently murdered. The incidents of rape all occurred in the last month in or around Bhamo district, Kachin State, where Burma Army battalions have been stationed. KWAT has documented incidents of other human rights violations in the conflict area, including abduction and forced labour. With a lack of assistance coming from Chinese authorities and an absence of non-governmental organizations, a local community group has formed in Kachin State to provide much needed assistance. The Kachin National Organization also mobilized to hold worldwide protests on 24 June in solidarity with the Kachin community back home, as well as other ethnic groups facing conflict in their regions, such as in Shan State and in Three Pagodas Pass.

The growing incidents of conflict-related human rights violations throughout Eastern Burma underscores the need for a UN-led Commission of Inquiry into crimes against humanity and war crimes in Burma. The regime’s “seven-step roadmap to democracy,” including the sham elections in November 2010, has only served to consolidate their power in ethnic areas and throughout the country. Decades of failing to recognize and respect ethnic rights and the concerns of ethnic communities has sparked these recent incidents of conflict and human rights violations, some of which may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes. A Commission of Inquiry would have a significant preventative value, and would serve to deter further human rights violations and conflict. Failure to investigate makes further abuse inevitable and lasting change impossible.

Speaking to her supporters yesterday, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had only one wish, a wish shared by the people of Burma: “If I were asked what I would wish on my birthday, I wish for peace, stability and prosperity in the country.”

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