Myanmar launches airstrikes on Kachin rebels

The Myanmar government has carried out airstrikes this week against ethnic rebels in northern Kachin state, raising fresh concerns about reforms and a fragile peace process.

Heavy fighting between the Myanmar Army and the rebel Kachin Independence Army (KIA), is raising concern that a major escalation of violence is under way in the region, casting a shadow over Myanmar's much-touted reforms.

The Myanmar Army offensive – which includes the use of helicopter gunships and fighter jets – comes after weeks of heavy fighting at outposts about 10 miles outside the KIA headquarters on the Myanmar-China frontier. 

The government of Myanmar (also known as Burma) and the KIA signed a cease-fire in 1994, but that came apart in June 2011, even as the government embarked on reforms that include tentative cease-fires with some of the myriad other ethnic minority armed groups that have long fought in the border regions. 

With peace talks between the government and KIA stalled, President Thein Sein has told the Army only to fight in self-defense in Kachin, but the latest violence could signal that this request has been rescinded, or that the reformist president is being ignored by the Army.

“The situation is very tense. The bombers are bombing just about four or five miles from the town here,” says Joseph Nbwi Naw, a Kachin Catholic priest in the KIA headquarters in Laiza, a valley town separated from Yunnan, China, only by the 1 ft. deep, 20-yard-wide Jeyang River.

“People are digging trenches and foxholes in the town,” says La Nan, KIA spokesperson.

Ethnic groups in the northern part of the country have long accused the government of repression, and have been fighting for greater autonomy.

The Kachin – supported by a smaller militia known as the All Burma Students Democratic Front – countered a Myanmar Army attempt to resupply soldiers near the front line Dec. 14 by overrunning an Army position near a Buddhist temple on the main road from Laiza to Myitkina, the government-held state capital of the Kachin region – upping the ante in a grueling 18-month war.

Since the fighting ramped up in mid-December, at least one civilian and an unverifiable number of soldier militia members have died.

La Nan told the Monitor Wednesday that “our people in Pangwa say that the Burmese jets flew one kilometer into China yesterday before attacking us,” echoing claims posted online alongside numerous video clips of Myanmar helicopters and jets attacking KIA positions and flying over camps set up for some of the nearly 100,000 civilians made homeless by the fighting.

The Myanmar government first denied and then acknowledged that the Army is carrying out the airstrikes, after accusing the KIA of attacking power stations during the Christmas holidays. All told, the KIA carried out “101 mine attacks in Kachin State and from 18 May 2011 to 21 December 2012,” according to the government mouthpiece The New Light of Myanmar, implying that the government considers the airstrikes a reaction to rebel attacks.

Questions about the latest fighting sent to the Myanmar president's office had gone unanswered at time of writing, but a report on the government's Myawaddy news said that the Army seized a rebel outpost on Dec. 30 "with the help of airstrikes in the region."

Kachin is the northernmost state in Myanmar and is a mountainous and resource-rich region known for its jade. There has been fighting around lucrative mines near the town of Hpakant in recent months.

The KIA was set up in 1961 after the government reneged on promises to devolve powers to the Kachin and other ethnic groups, as a military junta seized power at the start of what turned out to be five decades of Army rule.

The estimated 1 million Kachin are mostly Baptist Christian, in a country of almost 60 million where close to 90 percent of people are thought to be Buddhist and an estimated 65 percent are Burman, the majority ethnic group. 

The KIA, once accused of partly funding operations through opium cultivation, has an estimated 10,000 soldiers but is mostly armed with light weaponry, while the 400,000 Myanmar Army is among the best-equipped in Southeast Asia, with a long history of brutality in the hill and jungle ethnic minority borderlands.

Nlam Bok Mai, a Kachin mother who is among more than 7,000 people living in cramped shacks in Jeyang camp outside Laiza, told the Monitor that she fled with her family in June 2011 as the Myanmar Army approached their village, 25 miles away: “We did not wait there for the Army to come, we did not want to get caught in any fighting.”

Follow Simon Roughneen on Twitter @simonroughneen

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