In a high-stakes battle reflecting political and economic interests, Burmese government troops have stepped up their offensive this week against ethnic Kachin rebels in an area at the heart of Burma’s jade industry.
The fighting in pursuit of territory in the jade-rich Hpakant township underscores a scramble between the Burmese government and the rebel groups as well as neighboring China for the expensive mineral and prime timber in northern Burma's resource-rich Kachin state.
Since Monday, Burmese troops have been pounding rebel positions of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in Hpakant, amid clashes that have raged since a 17-year peace agreement between the two sides was shattered in June last year.
A key stumbling block to renegotiating a peace agreement is the illicit trade in timber and other resources between local Kachin leaders and businesses in China’s bordering Yunnan province, much to the chagrin of the Burmese central government, some officials have said.
Rights groups say civilians are being caught in the middle as their interests are overtaken by the pursuit of wealth driven by the lucrative trade.
“The economic impact of the war has been tremendous,” Human Rights Watch researcher Matthew Smith said. “Both parties to the war stand to gain economically, depending on the outcome.”
Aside from lucrative jade and mineral deposits, the contested areas in are home to vast hydropower potential on Kachin rivers, and lucrative trade routes to Yunnan, Smith said.
“Multibillion dollar projects are being put on hold or are at risk of becoming military targets, to say nothing of the lost livelihoods of miners and traders,” he said.
The fighting intensified Wednesday when Burmese troops ordered the immediate evacuation of miners and ethnic Kachin from 11 villages in Hpakant, the Kachin News Group reported.
In the past two weeks, over 6,000 miners and residents in the area have been forced to flee conflict in the area, it said.
About 100 jade mining companies operate in Hpakant township in western Kachin state, producing some of the highest quality jade in the world.
This week’s clashes prompted a joint statement Wednesday by 11 Kachin organizations calling on the Burmese government to end its offensive against the KIA, the military arm of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) demanding greater autonomy.
The groups said that 90,000 people have been displaced in the fighting since the ceasefire ended last year, resuming a war that has waged since Burma's independence in 1948.
Burma has recently signed peace agreements with 10 other armed ethnic groups in its borderlands, but the three rounds of peace talks held with the KIA since November have yielded little outcome.
Timber, in particular, has played a pivotal role in incentivizing and funding the conflict, according to international watchdog Global Witness.
By taking control of the mostly illegal border trade in timber, ethnic rebel groups in Burma's border areas such as the Kachin organizations have been able to finance their side of the conflict over the past decades, the group says.
The KIO turned to timber after it lost control over the Hpakant jade mines in the peace agreement of 1994, according to the Burma Environmental Working Group.
China and Burma took steps to ban the cross-border trade after Global Witness and other non-governmental groups exposed how illegal logging was funding the conflict six years ago.
But recent reports by NGOs indicate that the illegal logging is continuing, with trucks transporting sought-after Burmese teak into Yunnan.
Between October 2010 and April 2011, more than 40,000 tons of timber, especially hardwood and teak, crossed into China, according to the Kachin News Group.
In August, the news group reported illegal logging occurring near Myitkyina in eastern Kachin state.
The roaring timber trade continues despite Beijing’s efforts to halt it, according to Chinese state media.
Along the border, piles of teak and high quality logs attest to the booming timber trade, China’s state broadcasting network CCTV said in a report in June.
In Yunnan’s Ruili city, just over the border from Kachin, timber mills are flourishing.
“In a single day, dozens of trees come to the mill as logs. They're to become luxurious tables, chairs and furniture, often exported overseas,” the report said.
The recent lifting of EU sanctions on Burmese teak and other forest products could further fuel demand within this already lucrative industry, the Burma Environmental Working Group said.
Fourteen months of fighting have led to an exodus of Kachin refugees across the border to Yunnan.
Human Rights Watch said China recently forced at least 1,000 Kachin to return to the combat zone in Burma and plans to deport 4,000 more.
China refuses to recognize the Kachin fleeing the violence as refugees but has denied that it forcibly returned them.
A senior official in the health department of the KIO confirmed to RFA Tuesday that the refugees had been sent back over the border, expelled from around 12 makeshift camps in Yunnan where they had been living since June 2011.
In Wednesday’s statement, the 11 Kachin groups called on China to support humanitarian aid to those fleeing the violence instead of deporting them and to ensure their safety.
On Thursday, U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell urged China to abide by its international obligations on treatment of refugees.
“The U.S. believes that refugees should only return home by their own choice and in conditions of safety and dignity,” he said.
Reported by Rachel Vandenbrink.