Myanmar government troops fired mortars on an ethnic Kachin rebel training center in northern Kachin state Wednesday, killing as many as 22 insurgents and wounding at least 15 others, in the deadliest attack in three years, according to rebel officials.
The attack dealt a fresh blow to efforts by the government to forge a nationwide cease-fire agreement with Myanmar’s rebel groups, which have balked at signing the pact amid disagreements on future political rights and ongoing clashes with the country’s military in remote border regions.
Lamai Gum Ja, a member of a Kachin peace mediation group, said the assault on the Kachin officer training academy near the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) stronghold of Laiza occurred just after noon on Wednesday and originated from nearby Khaya hill, where government troops are based.
“Artillery fell on the meeting place of the KIA military cadet training school killing 20 persons and wounding 16,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
He said the incident had been reported to the government’s Union Peace Working Committee (UPWC), which is leading efforts to negotiate peace with rebel groups, the northern command headquarters of Myanmar’s military, and the Kachin state government.
Laphan San Aung, also a member of the Kachin mediation group, told RFA that the attack had come from a base run by the commanding officer of the Myanmar military’s 33rd Division and left 21 rebels dead.
“It was an attack using 105-millimeter artillery,” he said, giving details of the raid.
“There were 36 cadets attending the training course. Twenty-one were killed, and 15 were wounded.”
Media reports quoted KIA spokesman La Nan as saying that the bombardment left 22 rebels dead and 15 wounded.
The Irrawaddy online journal quoted the spokesman as saying that all of the soldiers killed or injured in the attack were under the age of 30 and that the wounded were being treated at Laiza General Hospital.
La Nan told the journal that at least one Kachin villager died in the attack on the academy, which is located near a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) who have fled fighting between government troops and the KIA since a 17-year truce broke down in 2011.
He said the barrage resulted in the KIA’s heaviest number of casualties from a single attack since fighting restarted three years ago, adding that the KIA had lost about 300 soldiers, with another 400 wounded, since then.
Laphan San Aung confirmed to RFA that the peace mediation group had notified government authorities of the attack, but had received no response.
He said the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO)—the political group representing the KIA—had also sent a letter to the government “asking whether the peace talks have come to an end [and] whether this is the start of a war,” but had not received an answer as yet.
Myanmar’s military and the KIA have been holding peace negotiations despite ongoing clashes between the two sides.
Laphan San Aung said that Wednesday’s attack had seriously damaged the mediation group’s trust in the government and was pushing negotiations “towards a very bad situation.”
“With regard to the future, it depends on whether the government intends to show something constructive,” he said.
"We would like everything to be resolved. We had managed to build trust from an impossible situation … [but] now everything seems to be moving backwards.”
The Irrawaddy quoted a military official representing the northern command of Myanmar’s military in the Kachin state capital Myitkyina as saying that he could not offer any confirmation of the attack or further details as of Wednesday afternoon local time.
“We need to find out what is going on on the ground. We can’t provide any detailed information at the moment,” the officer said on condition of anonymity.
The KIA reported at least two other offensives against its soldiers this week, including clashes which left one dead in northern Shan state and fighting in Kachin state’s Hopin township that caused one casualty.
The United Nations estimates that around 100,000 people have been displaced by fighting between government forces and the KIA since 2011.
President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government has signed bilateral peace deals with 14 of Myanmar’s 16 major ethnic rebel groups since taking power from the former military junta in 2011, but the KIA and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) in eastern Shan state are the lone holdouts.
The government has said that negotiating a historic nationwide cease-fire with ethnic rebels after decades of civil war is a central pillar of reforms that Thein Sein has initiated as part of efforts to bring democracy to the country.
Talks in September between the UPWC and the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT), representing more than a dozen armed ethnic rebel groups, were stymied by disagreements over military and other issues, though the two sides have agreed to a fourth draft of a pact and negotiations are ongoing.
Reported by Kyaw Kyaw Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Soe Thinn. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.