An ethnic armed group in northern Myanmar’s Kachin state has abducted about 40 villagers from Waingmaw township in Myitkyina district, the latest incident in the multiethnic country’s ongoing struggles with rebel militias over control of territory and people.
The Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which has been fighting the Myanmar military in the state, abducted residents of Laisaw and Kaungkham villages as forced recruits, said San Aung from the Peace-talk Creation Group (PCG), an organization of Kachin businessmen who have assisted in peace talks between the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the KIA’s political wing, and the government.
“We heard that about 40 people, including six Shan ethnics, were taken,” San Aung said.
“We have informed the KIA and requested that they be released because it is an important religious occasion,” he said, referring to the Full Moon day of Thidinkyut, also known as the Lighting Festival of Myanmar, which celebrates the descent of Buddha from heaven.
A local Shan man who spoke on condition of anonymity said about 30 KIA soldiers enetered one of the villages and forcibly took the six Shan villagers.
“We didn’t want them to do it by force,” he said. “They shouldn’t have done it because we are celebrating the important Thidinkyut religious festival.”
Other estimates put the number of those taken away at 60, but RFA’s Myanmar Service could not confirm the figure because it was unable to reach a KIA colonel by phone.
On May 22, about 2,000 ethnic Lisu protested against KIA for forcibly recruiting other Lisu and trying to extort money from the minority group.
Rights groups have accused both government troops and ethnic rebel soldiers of human rights violations in Myanmar’s conflict zones, including kidnapping, torturing, and killing civilians, and forcing them to work as laborers.
Hostilities between the Myanmar military and the KIA have forced thousands of locals to flee to safety in other parts of the state this year.
In June, fighting between government soldiers and the KIA forced thousands of people to flee the seven wards that comprise the Tanaing gold and amber mining region in Kachin’s Tanaing township.
A month later, government troops clashed again with KIA soldiers in the state’s Indawgyi region, though no casualties were reported at the time.
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 last August by de facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
The KIA was invited as an observer rather than a participant to the second and most recent peace conference in May, because the group, along with six other militias, has not signed the government’s nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA).
The KIA was one of four ethnic armed groups belonging to an umbrella organization for militias which have not signed the NCA that recently split from the body over a disagreement about the pact.
IDP camps in eastern Shan state
The Myanmar government is also contending with ongoing ethnic strife in tumultuous eastern Shan state where aid workers say that internally displaced persons (IDP) camps along the Thai border are running out of food.
International nongovernmental organizations that have been providing food to six camps, which together house more than 6,200 refugees, ended their assistance on Oct. 1, said Lone Si Lin, a member of the Shan State Refugee Committee (SSRC).
“We are in a difficult situation,” he said. “Although we still have food for a few more days, it will be very hard to keep going in the long term. I can’t even think of how long we can go in the future. We are trying to contact donors to help the IDPs.”
He added that the refugees cannot make ends meet on their own because they do not have permission to work in Thailand.
The SSRC issued an urgent appeal to the international community on Aug. 30 to continue providing food aid to refugees and IDPs in six camps — Kong Moong Murng, Loi Tai Laeng, Loi Lam, Koung Jor, Loi Sam Sip, and Loi Kaw Wan — which have been operating since 1999.
The refugees and IDPs, more than two-thirds of whom are women and children, fled from civil war in the region and from persecution by the Myanmar army, the statement said.
Many fled during a mass forced relocation in central Shan in 1996-1998 state when about 300,000 people from more than 1,400 villages were forced at gunpoint from their homes, and hundreds were killed, tortured, and raped by the government military, it said.
Most of the forcibly relocated villagers fled to Thailand, but have not been formally recognized as refugees by the United Nations' refugee agency (UNHCR).
Some settled along the border area to remain close to their communities in Shan state, but they have been unable to grow crops because the camps are located on mountaintops. They have to rely instead on international donations of rice, the statement said.
“We cannot yet return to our homes because our villages are now derelict or have been occupied by the Burma Army, their militia, or the United Wa State Army [UWSA],” the statement said.
“Despite the peace process, the Burma Army has expanded its troops, and is continuing to carry out military operations and attacks around our villages,” it said. “Villagers continue to be arrested, tortured and killed.”
“We appeal for our rights as refugees to be respected, the right to receive adequate humanitarian aid, and to be given protection until we can return in safety and dignity to our homes once there is a political settlement and genuine peace in Shan state,” the statement said.
The UWSA — the largest nonstate army in Myanmar with an estimated 25,000-30,000 troops — controls its own autonomous territories on the borders with Thailand and China and is believed to be one of the largest drug traffickers in Southeast Asia.
It was among the armed ethnic groups that refused to sign the NCA brokered by the Myanmar government in October 2015, arguing that the pact should be all-inclusive.
The China-backed UWSA leads a group of seven ethnic militias called the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC), which earlier this year said it would only meet with the government for peace talks as a coalition rather than as individual members.
The six other members are the KIO, National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA), Shan State Progress Party, Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), Arakan Army (AA), and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA).
The seven armed groups did not attend the second day of the government’s last round of key peace talks in May.
Peace Commission meetings
In a related development, the Myanmar government’s Peace Commission said on Friday that it will meet representatives from the UWSA and NDAA, also known as the Eastern Shan State Army and the Mongla Army, this month in Pangkham, the administrative capital of the Wa militia’s territory, and in the small border town of Minela in eastern Shan state.
The Wa and Mongla armed groups mostly comprised the China-backed Communist Party of Burma before it collapsed in 1989 and splintered into various ethnic armies that signed cease-fire agreements with Myanmar’s former junta, which granted them a degree of autonomy.
Aung Soe, a member of the commission, said leaders are still discussing the date of the meeting — another bid get the NCA nonsignatories to change their minds.
“We will try to get more groups to sign the NCA by meeting and talking with each group or two, but we will not meet all seven [nonsignatory] groups at the same time,” he said.
He also said Thain Zaw, the commission’s vice chairman, would likely take the place of chief negotiator Tin Myo Win, who is dealing with a health-related issue, at the meetings.
Reported by Kyaw Myo Min, Zarni Htun, and Kyaw Thu for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.