Much-needed development programs for Myanmar’s remote, war-torn Kachin state have been hindered by fighting between the national army and an ethnic armed group, the state’s chief minister said Monday.
Myanmar’s northernmost state bordered by China and India has been rocked by a resurgence of conflict since 2011 when a 17-year bilateral cease-fire agreement between the two sides broke down. The clashes have left hundreds dead and more than 100,000 displaced.
The latest round of fighting began early this year when government soldiers launched air strikes in the Tanaing township gold and amber mining region, an area controlled by the KIA which relies on its natural resources as a source of income through the levying of a five-percent tax on mine operators.
State media have reported that that the KIA, which controls large swathes of territory in the state, including its lucrative mining areas, has conducted assaults on the regional military headquarters in Kachin since late January.
The government army has accused the Kachin rebel group of illegally using the area’s natural resources and taking money from mining businesses that should otherwise go to the state.
The KIA, however, has charged that Myanmar forces have attacked territory it controls in hopes of gaining control of it before a national peace conference later this month.
Despite the hostilities, representatives from the Myanmar military held informal talks with KIA leaders on Feb. 1 in southwestern China’s Yunnan province with the support of Chinese government authorities, the online news service Democratic Voice of Burma reported, citing KIA spokesman Colonel Naw Bo.
But on Feb. 3, about 50 Kachin Independence Army (KIA) soldiers used small arms and heavy guns to attack Myanmar army camps in Lwele village in Myitkyina district’s Moe Kaung township, with some injuries reported, Myanmar’s Mizzima news service reported.
While answering questions about the situation in Tanaing, Kachin state Chief Minister Khet Aung told RFA’s Myanmar Service said the recent flare-up in hostilities has stymied development projects that would benefit those whose lives and livelihoods have been disrupted.
“Development programs in Kachin state are really stalled,” he said. “We must work to have peace. We have to work on development projects while we are working to forge peace. We will have the same problems as long as we don’t have peace.”
Myanmar’s Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief, and Resettlement, the Red Cross, and government and civil society organizations are currently trying to help internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the Tanaing mining region, he said.
At least four civilians were killed during the fighting between the Myanmar army and KIA between Jan. 19 and 27, Democratic Voice of Burma reported.
March in Myitkyina
Meanwhile, about 5,000 ethnic Kachins, including local residents, members of religious organizations, and civil society groups, marched in the state capital Myitkyina on Monday, calling for an end to the national army’s offensives and the rescue of people trapped in war zones, the online journal The Irrawaddy reported.
Though more than 3,000 miners and their families were initially prevented from leaving the mining region by the Myanmar army after the current round of fighting started, the Myanmar army recently permitted about 1,000 to leave on foot and go to Tanaing town.
But about 1,000 mine workers and their families are still trapped in the Tanaing region where they face food and water shortages, and about 1,000 others are stuck in Sumprabung township, The Irrawaddy said.
“We have sent a letter to state government and Northern Military Headquarters to rescue people who are trapped in Tanaing and Sumprabung townships,” said Zaw Jut, chairman of the Emergency Relief Committee.
“If the government doesn’t allow us to go into the war zone to rescue people, then we can’t go because it is a government army-controlled area,” he told RFA. “Whenever we have fighting in the region, people become victims and suffer. We want to rescue them, and we want the international community to know that we have these refugees in Kachin.”
The KIA is one of several militias with which the Myanmar government is trying to end decades of ethnic separatist civil wars and forge peace in the country through a series of peace negotiations launched in August 2016 by de facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the KIA’s political wing, has not signed the government’s nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) that eight of the country’s more than 20 ethnic armies inked in October 2015.
Chopper attack on TNLA
Also on Monday, government forces used helicopters to attack another ethnic militia in the Kutkai region of neighboring Shan state in eastern Myanmar, in the first chopper assault of the year, an officer from the rebel army told RFA.
Fighting between the national army and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) occurred in Kyaukme, Namhsan, Namtu, and Kutkai townships, said Colonel Mine Aik Kyaw.
“We engaged in hostilities with the government army at around 7 a.m. in Pharpon Village of Kutkai township,” he said. “Many government troops were injured, although we don’t know the numbers.”
“Around 10 a.m., two helicopters came in and opened fire on us for about 30 minutes each,” he said.
The government army has used choppers to attack TNLA forces in Shan state about 50 times in the past, he said.
Around the beginning of the year, TNLA and KIA soldiers attacked government military headquarters in Kachin state government army base camps and the Lashio-Muse Highway, a main thoroughfare in northern Shan state.
The offensive prompted Myanmar forces to launch counterattacks via aircraft, according to an announcement at the time by the office of Myanmar’s commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
The TNLA has been excluded from signing the government’s NCA because of its ongoing hostilities with Myanmar's armed forces.
The TNLA and KIA are members of the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC), which has called for a political dialogue with the government and for peace talks as a coalition rather than as individual members.
Reported by Aung Theinkha, Wai Mar Tun, and Kyaw Myo Min for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.