To See if the New Burma Can Be Trusted, Ask the Kachin as They Face Ethnic War
Burma’s parliamentary election, in which Aung San Suu Kyi and other members of her National League for Democracy party won seats, has led to a renewed push among Western nations to relax sanctions against the regime. That would be a serious mistake.
The election, involving a relative handful of seats in a powerless parliament, was little more than a bone thrown by the Burmese government to the opposition and the international community. It was also a distraction, allowing the regime to continue business as usual across the country.
Lately, that business has included an assault on members of the Kachin ethnic minority living in Burma’s northernmost state. On June 9, 2011, the Burmese army began an offensive against the Kachin Independence Organization, which has controlled much of Kachin State for the past 50 years. Badly outnumbered, KIO troops have been forced to retreat to their core area, leaving many Kachin towns exposed.
As an 83-page report issued by Human Rights Watch last month documented, the army has systematically killed and tortured civilians, raped women and burned houses to the ground. Physicians for Human Rights found that “between June and September 2011, the Burmese army looted food from civilians, fired indiscriminately into villages, threatened villages with attacks and used civilians as porters and human minesweepers.” Some 75,000 people have been driven from their homes and are now living in refugee camps, primarily in KIO-controlled territory.
I’ve spent the past three weeks inside Kachin State and have heard similar reports first-hand. I’ve met middle-aged farmers who volunteered for the Kachin military forces after ethnic Burmese troops opened fire on their houses and their livestock, driving their families to the refugee camps. The fighting is intensifying. Each day was marked by the sounds of shelling, smoke from burning houses, wounded Kachin soldiers brought in for treatment and a steady flow of refugees into the camps.
Yet in all the discussion of Burma’s supposed shift toward political freedom, which earned the regime a visit from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, there has been almost no attention paid to the violence in Kachin.
Part of the reason, I believe, is terminology. Most media sources follow the Burmese government’s lead in referring to the KIO as an “insurgency” or an “armed group.” An op-ed article last month in the New York Times by Louise Arbour, of the International Crisis Group, was typical. “The government has abandoned policies of confrontation with the country’s ethnic minorities for a new peace initiative that has seen 11 cease-fire agreements signed with armed groups, leaving out only the resistant Kachin,” Arbour wrote. She argued that: “Using sanctions to force a solution to the outstanding ethnic conflict involving the Kachin armed group is a clumsy tactic that puts pressure only on the government and encourages the other side to fight on for a better deal.”
First, the main thing the Kachin are resisting is the army’s attempt to seize their lands and kill their families. Who wouldn’t resist that? (And the “better deal” that the Kachin are fighting for is that the Burmese army withdraw to the line from a 1994 cease-fire agreement.)
Second, Arbour’s description of the KIO calls to mind images of masked bandits hiding in the jungle with submachine guns and making threats. Nothing could be further from the truth. For 50 years, the KIO has protected parts of Kachin State from the Burmese military, which seized power in a 1962 coup. The regime craves Kachin State’s wealth of minerals, hardwood forests and potential hydropower sites, as well as its access to China. Although the KIO began as an insurgency, years of stability, a flourishing border trade with China and some forward-thinking leaders have allowed the KIO-controlled areas to blossom into a full-fledged micro-state.
During my time among the Kachin “insurgents,” I watched their doctors remove the inflamed appendix from a young Kachin woman in the KIO hospital. I watched their engineers build a radio station, which will be the first to broadcast in the Kachin language. I saw KIO license plates and ID cards issued by the immigration department. I drank clean water from a KIO reverse-osmosis plant. I ran my laptop on clean electricity delivered by a KIO hydropower dam. I sat in cafes savoring traditional cuisine and listening to Li Li, the most famous Kachin singer, play his black guitar and sing about his people’s heritage and uncertain future.
When a fire broke out on a hillside one day, I watched the KIO fire department put it out using their antique red fire truck. I attended Sunday mass — 90 percent of the population is Christian — where the women wore bright Kachin skirts and traditional face paint and plastic flip-flops. I watched the KIO schools hold classes in the Kachin language, which is forbidden by the Burmese regime. In short, I experienced a vibrant and unique culture with its own traditions, but one that is close to the breaking point.
I also stayed in the refugee camps, where I was staggered by the numbers and the horror stories. One woman told me how the Burmese army bound the women of her village in their church, using strings of electrical wires used to light their Virgin Mary, while they led the men of the village away. Many did not return. I listened to an elderly woman tell of hiding in the jungle for days after the army burned her village, and then clinging to the back of a motorcycle for eight hours to make the journey to a refugee camp. There are thousands of such stories in every camp.
To be fair, both sides have violated international human-rights standards with their use of land mines and child soldiers, though in my observations the Kachin used mines very sparingly as a last-ditch defense and assigned soldiers under 18 to positions in their military headquarters and training camps, far from the front lines.
The only reason the humanitarian crisis hasn’t been far worse is because the KIO had been anticipating the current government offensive for years and had already chosen sites for camps and established an executive committee to organize them. This is taking a tremendous financial toll — no doubt part of the government’s strategy — and international relief agencies have mostly been barred by the Burmese government from aiding the camps.
“How do people in America feel about our situation?” is the repeated question I get from refugees. All I could do was look them in the face and tell them that most people in America don’t know they exist.
That ignorance, I’m convinced, is the only thing that has allowed the regime to continue its brutality. The world needs to understand that the Kachin are not a group of rebel insurgents but a self-sufficient society that has governed itself for centuries. Instead of linking Burma’s diplomatic and financial status to a minor election, the United States and its allies should insist that the Burmese regime immediately withdraw its troops from Kachin territory and allow aid groups full access to the refugee camps.
Insurgencies come and insurgencies go, but ethnic cleansing is forever.
Rowan Jacobsen is a 2012 Alicia Patterson foundation fellow writing about conflict in the borderlands between India, Burma and China.