A coalition of armed ethnic rebel groups in Myanmar on Thursday condemned a deadly military assault on Kachin rebels, saying the government carried out the “deliberate, premeditated” attack to pressure rebels to wrap up a nationwide cease-fire pact.
The government remained mum a day after the deadly attack, which left 23 dead at a Kachin Independence Army (KIA) training camp near the rebel stronghold of Laiza in Kachin state.
The military indicated in a report that the deaths were caused by a shell which had been fired as a warning shot.
The United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) bloc of 12 ethnic armed groups strongly denounced the bombardment in a statement Thursday, calling it a “huge obstacle” in building trust to achieve peace in the country.
The “deliberate, premeditated, and cowardly” attack was meant to put military pressure on the KIA to join nationwide cease-fire talks, which the government has indicated it wants completed ahead of 2015 national elections, the statement said.
Colonel Khun Okkar, joint-general secretary of the UNFC, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that Myanmar’s military had deliberately used heavy artillery to cause “maximum death and destruction.”
“This was not an accident but an act of intent,” he said.
“That is why we would need to ask whether the military has the desire to continue nationwide negotiations on peace and on political issues.”
Khun Okkar noted that a statement by Myanmar’s parliamentary speaker, Shwe Mann, on Tuesday that the country’s 2008 junta-backed constitution would not be amended until after national elections next year had dampened hopes that the political rights of the ethnic groups would be incorporated in a revamped charter.
He said that the military attack appeared to have been carried out in a “coordinated manner” to force ethnic groups into a cease-fire pact instead of holding talks with them about broader political representation as the country embraces democracy.
“The speaker saying that the constitution will only be amended after the 2015 elections is like putting an obstacle in the path of political progress,” Khun Okkar said.
“But now the army, while conducting talks and building trust with the [rebels], has taken the initiative and staged this attack … That is why we have made the assessment that these political obstacles and military threats were carried out in a coordinated manner.”
Khun Okkar said the attack and sudden change in political strategy meant that negotiations were “moving in the wrong direction,” and said it was clear that little had changed in Myanmar since President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government took power from the former military regime in 2011.
KIA spokesman La Nan told RFA that Wednesday’s barrage on the training camp had left 23 dead, including a soldier who died Thursday, and 20 wounded.
It was the worst single attack suffered by the KIA since fighting erupted with the Myanmar military in 2011 following the breakdown of a 17-year truce, and La Nan warned that it could damage trust between the country’s ethnic rebels and government.
A report by the BBC quoted Kachin state's security minister, Colonel Than Aung, as saying that the military did not deliberately target the training camp and that the shell had been intended as a warning shot.
And a senior military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters news agency that the attack had followed several days of mounting tension between the military and the KIA, which he said had shelled government soldiers building a road near Laiza.
But La Nan told RFA the shelling came “without any provocation from our side.”
“Their objective was to intentionally attack the cadet training camp.”
The KIA spokesman said that the attack “must not disrupt” negotiations between the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT), which represents more than a dozen armed ethnic rebel groups, and the government’s Union Peace Working Committee (UPWC).
He warned that further provocations could cause the peace process to fail.
The central committee of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO)—the political group representing the KIA—issued a statement Thursday demanding government troops pull back from the nearby Khaya Boon mountain range, where Wednesday’s attack is believed to have been launched.
It said that the withdrawal of troops from the area was “crucial to the success of the peace process.”
The statement followed a letter from the KIA to the UPWC a day earlier, detailing the attack and calling for clarification on the status of negotiations with the government. La Nan said the KIA had yet to receive a response.
The government has said that negotiating a nationwide cease-fire with ethnic rebels after decades of civil war is a central pillar of democratic reforms initiated by Thein Sein’s administration.
But Myanmar’s rebel groups have balked at signing the pact amid disagreements on future political rights and ongoing clashes with the country’s military in remote border regions.
Talks in September between the UPWC and the NCCT were stymied by disagreements over military and other issues, though the two sides have agreed to a fourth draft of a pact and negotiations will resume in December.
Myanmar’s military and the KIA have been holding peace negotiations despite ongoing clashes between the two sides.
The government has signed bilateral peace deals with 14 of Myanmar’s 16 major ethnic rebel groups since 2011, but the KIA and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) in eastern Shan state are the lone holdouts.
Reported by Ma Wai Yan Moe Myint and Kyaw Kyaw Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Soe Thinn. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.