Myanmar’s military officially acknowledged for the first time Friday that it had opened fire on a rebel training camp in Kachin state which left 23 cadets dead, saying that it was meant to be a “warning” strike, but the rebels maintained the attack was deliberate and posed a threat to peace talks.
The official Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper carried a report admitting to the shelling Wednesday by government troops on the training center on the outskirts of Laiza, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) capital on the border with China.
The military said in the report that it was forced to fire the warning shot as the KIA had staged heavy artillery strikes on government soldiers who were building a road.
The government soldiers retaliated with heavy artillery which hit a KIA camp, causing casualties, the report said, stressing that it was meant to be a “warning.”
The KIA said that the military's explanation was “inconsistent with what actually happened and that the language contained in the statement showed that the military does not have the desire to have [peace] talks.”
“One can see the KIA cadet training school from the top of that hill—the view is very clear and the target can be aimed at any way they want,” KIA spokesman La Nan said.
“With such a clear view of the cadet training school from Khaya hill, the artillery shot must not have been accidental but was made with full intent. So what they are saying—that it was an accident and that there was no intent—is all false."
“Only one shell fell on the cadet training school,” La Nan said. “It fell right in the middle of a platoon of the cadets who were training in the field. They were carefully targeted with the aid of binoculars. This was all carefully carried out. It was done systematically.”
The Irrawaddy online journal on Friday quoted Kachin state Minister of Border Security Colonel Than Aung as saying that the military had launched the barrage to “send a warning” after the KIA allegedly attacked government troops.
He had said a day earlier that the military was unaware that officer training was in session at the academy and that the site was not their intended target.
“We feel very sorry for this loss of life, and we hope the peace process will not be affected,” Than Aung said.
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 President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian administration since taking power from the former military regime in 2011.
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.
According to the KIA, Wednesday’s barrage on the training camp killed 23 cadets—20 of whom died in the initial blast and three others who later succumbed to their injuries. Twenty were wounded in the attack.
Dead trainees not from KIA
KIA spokesman La Nan told the Irrawaddy that the 23 cadets who died were not members of the KIA, but newly-arrived trainees from non-state army allies All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF), Arakan Army (AA), Chin National Front (CNF), and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA).
All of those killed were originally believed to be members of the KIA, whose political group the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) has been in talks with the government to end fighting.
Four of the injured were KIA commanders who were conducting an officers’ training session, and two are in critical condition, La Nan said.
Eleven of the dead were from the TNLA, eight were from the AA, two from the CNF and two from the ABSDF, according to statements from the groups, which also condemned the attack and questioned the government’s commitment to the peace process.
Wednesday’s shelling was the worst single attack suffered by the KIA since the breakdown of a 17-year truce with the Myanmar military in 2011, triggering fighting that has displaced some 100,000 people, according to United Nations estimates.
Myanmar’s military and the KIA have been holding peace negotiations despite ongoing clashes between the two sides.
And the KIA remained hopeful that the talks would continue.
“We have not decided to discard the peace process and take up arms to resume fighting. We would like to have discussions at the table as much as possible,” La Nan said.
“If the government side decides to be hard-lined, warning that they are more powerful and that the armed ethnic nationality organizations must obey their commands, then the talks will change into a different format,” he warned.
“But we on our part, would like to continue with the talks which is something that has been very difficult to achieve. That is the position of the KIO."
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 Tin Aung Khine for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Soe Thinn. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.