War profiteering in Kachin state
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War profiteering in Kachin state

The latest reports from Kachin state suggest Burmese troops are moving closer to the town of Laiza, where the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) is headquartered. A dispatch in the Independent newspaper two weeks ago said that the town, which straddles the Burma-China border, was for the first time since fighting began a year ago within range of Burmese mortars – “Last week [7-13 May], shells fired by Burmese troops landed less than 1,000 yards upstream from Laiza,” it said.

Other reports have alleged use of air strikes by the Burmese on KIA positions in the northern state. “Russian-made Mi-24 assault helicopter has fired rockets on Jik Loi village and Rit Pan village on May 14 … Frontline sources reported that they see surveillance helicopters flying in circular pattern almost daily over KIA’s 5th Brigade territory,” said the Kachin News Group.

The Kachin Women’s Association Thailand (KWAT) last week received allegations that on 1 May a woman was gang-raped and tortured by Burmese soldiers in a church where she had been sheltering after fleeing her village (see here for a past blog post on the Burma army’s use of rape as a weapon of war). Last year KWAT had documented a spate of similar attacks – in one case that emerged in the weeks following the outbreak of fighting on 9 June, “six women and girls were gang-raped, and seven small children killed” in the town of Bhamo, south of Laiza.

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Refugees take a rest in their camp in Myitkyina, Kachin State, Burma, in December 2011. Pic: AP

But as refugee numbers begin to swell along the China-Burma border, another crisis has reared its head. Democratic Voice of Burma reporter Hanna Hindstrom, who recently returned from the region, wrote today: “A growing number of Kachin women are being trafficked over the Chinese border as criminal networks target vulnerable populations uprooted by the ongoing civil conflict”.

The phenomenon is not new (thousands of Kachin and Shan women have been trafficked to China to be sold as brides), but concern is growing that as more people flee their villages to the perceived safety of the border, instances of kidnapping will rise. Indeed the methods used by trafficking rackets are evolving to overcome the growing awareness among Kachin of the dangers.

“In the past they [agents] used to visit villages and just offer money to the families through an agent,” KWAT told DVB. “Now they have changed strategy. They use our traditions and offer a dowry for their daughters so the parents just think they will be married. But instead they are sold and the family never gets any money.” Moreover, the increasing desperation of the refugees plays into the hands of the traffickers, who offer tantilising amounts of money for the women.

As Hindstrom writes, the problem is almost impossible for NGOs to adequately tackle, given the myriad other crises (perhaps seen as more pressing) that conflict creates – displacement, disease, casualties, chronic food shortages, and so on. Aid to those in need has also been blocked by the Burmese government, which doesn’t want international assistance to be seen going into opposition territory, while the only NGOs on the ground in the conflict zones are forced to work undercover and thus within very tight confines.

For background on why the Kachin are fighting, see my recent piece in Asia Times, “Why ceasefires fail in Myanmar‘. For more in-depth reading on the Kachin conflict, see the Human Rights Watch report, ‘Untold Miseries‘.