MUCH attention has been placed on the human rights record of Burma (Myanmar) in recent months as the military crackdown on Rohingya Muslims rightly dominates the headlines. But while the eyes of the world have been trained on northern Rakhine State, Burma’s other conflicts have been raging almost unnoticed.
The fighting in Burma’s northern borderlands is one of the world’s longest-running civil wars, with the powerful Kachin Independence Army (KIA) rebel group and Burma’s army locked in conflict since the 1960s. Despite making it a flagship of her election campaign, a national peace process led by de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi has stalled.
The conflict in Kachin and northern Shan states feel like a forgotten war. The conflict there is unlikely to create an international refugee crisis and the Kachin, unlike the Rohingya, are among the country’s 135 officially recognised ethnic groups so their citizenship is relatively secure. But the underlying concerns and characteristics of Burma’s military approach are the same – human rights abuses, impunity and blockages of aid.
It’s not just the Rohingya: other ethnic groups in Myanmar also lose faith in Aung San Suu Kyi as army pursues brutal offenses in Kachin and northern Shan States–seemingly more than under formal army rule. https://t.co/2ztZkahDFx pic.twitter.com/I2JOyNHh6k
— Kenneth Roth (@KenRoth) April 27, 2018
“The embattled civilian population in Kachin State should not be forgotten amid the dire humanitarian situation facing the Rohingya,” Human Rights Watch Asia director Brad Adams said in a statement.
“Both the Burmese army and the KIA should do everything possible to ensure that aid reaches civilians in need.”
Escalating civil war
While sporadic fighting has continued in the region since the breakdown of a ceasefire seven years ago, rights groups say the army has stepped up its campaign while global attention focuses on the Rohingya crisis, which has seen almost 700,000 people flee to Bangladesh. The fighting in Kachin escalated significantly in mid-January and has been especially intense in Tanai and Sumprabum townships.
#Kachin #Myanmar: More than 5,000 people newly displaced by clashes between Myanmar Military and Kachin Independence Army (KIA). There are reports of civilians that are unable to leave conflict-affected areas in Tanai, Hpakant and Injingyang townships. https://t.co/Isotfzfo2c pic.twitter.com/1VnBXRfhCo
— OCHA Myanmar (@ochamyanmar) April 30, 2018
The United Nations says more than 5,000 people have fled in the last three weeks and many civilians remain trapped in conflict zones, unable to escape. People fleeing the fighting are now sheltering in local churches, existing displacement sites, or staying with host families where they have received initial humanitarian assistance from the government and local organisations.
More photos of civilians in Kachin State, Myanmar, leaving the Injangyang area today because of fighting pic.twitter.com/Gq2yZ5uWzk
— Mark Cutts (@MarkCutts) April 27, 2018
Those numbers do not include some 15,000 people who have fled since the beginning of the year, and more than 90,000 living in camps in both Kachin and Shan states after being displaced in the years of conflict, which has included the use of heavy weapons and airstrikes by the military.
A statement released last week from an alliance of Kachin communities across the world says the daily lives of Kachin residents have “become dictated by the ebb and flow of armed conflict.”
The group accused the military of human rights violations in their mission to “destroy our ethnic identity, destroy our religion, colonise our lands, and steal our resources.”
The Kachin are predominantly Christian, a religion that makes just six percent of the population in Buddhist-majority Burma, according to latest census figures.
— FreeKachin (@FreeKachin) April 24, 2018
Rights groups agree with the Kachin, warning the conflict carries with it all the hallmarks of “war crimes” and escalating threat to civilians.
Amnesty International warned “appalling violations and abuses” were taking place, fingering both military and armed rebels for abductions, killings, use of civilians as human shields, and recruitment of child soldiers.
A report last month from the UN Human Rights Council fact-finding mission highlighted a “spike in human rights violations and abuses”
“Regarding the Myanmar military, we are receiving credible reports of indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary deprivation of liberty, enforced disappearances, destruction of property and pillage, torture and inhuman treatment, rape and other forms of sexual violence, forced labour, and the recruitment of children into armed forces,” the report said.
As with other regions in conflict, the military has denied access to aid agencies, further exacerbating the humanitarian crisis.
“The blocking of humanitarian aid in Kachin State has put thousands of civilians at greater risk, especially those forced from their homes or trapped in combat areas,” HRW’s Adams said.
Women, children, elderly people forced to flee their homes because of the relentless fighting in Kachin, Myanmar. Photos today from the Injangyang area. Local humanitarian organizations doing outstanding work trying to help. But when will this decades old conflict end? pic.twitter.com/WU72fWrx4E
— Mark Cutts (@MarkCutts) April 26, 2018
The international response to the conflict has been muted. The US embassy in Yangon released a statement Friday saying they were “deeply concerned” by the intensified fighting. They called on the government, including the military, “to protect civilian populations and allow humanitarian assistance to be delivered to those affected by the conflicts.”
After receiving reports of aerial bombings and use of heavy weapons, Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, called for an immediate stop to the hostilities on Tuesday.
But the Kachin people remain doubtful given the international community has thus far “failed in their duty to uphold international law.”
As the UN Security Council visits Burma this week, the Kachin community have called on them to “do their job” and support a resolution referring Burma to the International Criminal Court. Failure to do so would constitute making “an active decision to allow the Burma military to keep killing ethnic civilians.”
“Holding them (the military) to account for their crimes is essential if Burma is ever to be a country with peace, security, genuine democracy and where human rights and ethnic diversity are respected.”