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Burma: The war that won’t stop

Burma: The war that won’t stop

As I write this, Burmese government troops are still staging attacks on the Kachin ethnic rebel group – even as the two sides have been trying to conduct negotiations in the Chinese city of Ruili, just over the border. The new Burmese president Thein Sein, an ex-general, has publicly ordered the army to stop its offensive twice (once in mid-December, and more recently last week). But the army has kept fighting.

Khin Yi, the minister of immigration and population in the government, was recently forced to confess that the president’s orders had not "reached the grassroots level."

In 1994, the Burmese army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) agreed on a ceasefire. It held for 16 years. Then, in June 2010, the ceasefire broke down. The war that has gone on since then has caused over 60,000 people to flee the fighting.

The KIA, which has 10,000 armed troops (see photo above) and operates in northeastern Burma along the border with China, questions the government’s sincerity. Yesterday I managed to call Gen. Sumlut Gun Maw, the vice chief of staff of the KIA and one of its most influential leaders, who spoke to me from his headquarters in the city of Laiza. "The new government tells the international community that it is all for peace, peace, and peace," the general said. "But right now there are still 48,000 soldiers, or 120 battalions, attacking us and trying to encircle us."

Since 2009, the Burmese military has pressured no less than 17 armed ethnic groups to lay down their arms and accept a new status as "border guard forces" under the military’s direct control. But some of the big rebel groups — including the KIA’s political wing, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) — refused to give in to the junta.

After the military succeeded in cracking down on the Kokang ethnic group’s bases along the China-Burma border in mid-2009, the generals were emboldened and launched a major offensive against the Kachin in 2010.

Gun Maw told me that the Kachin regard the ceasefire offers they’re now getting from the government as a warmed-up version of an earlier truce deal that existed before the border guard plan. The new government, which came into power last year, abandoned that plan after it met with massive resistance from the ethnic armies. Gun Maw says that the government is merely attempting to undo the damage it did to the ethnic groups in 2009-2011. He believes the generals simply want to hold the minority groups at bay for a time as they try to improve their international image.

In early January, the Burmese government reached a preliminary ceasefire agreement with another big ethnic rebel force, the Karen National Union, which is based in southeastern Burma near the border with Thailand.

The Burmese government is clearly desperate to give the impression that the country is at peace before it assumes the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and hosts the group’s summit in 2014. The government is also well aware that ending the violence in the ethnic areas is one of the conditions the U.S. administration has set for removing its sanctions against Burma. And when the head of the Burmese military visited Beijing recently, the Chinese also pressured him to find a solution to the continuing instability along the border between the two countries. The Chinese have not been happy with the flow of refugees over the border. They are also worried about the potential disruptions of Chinese economic and strategic interests, including the Sino-Burma gas and oil pipelines that pass through the Kachin state.

The talks between the KIO and the government ended Thursday without a ceasefire being reached.

"The major hurdle in the way of a ceasefire deal was that the Burmese negotiating team did not have a mandate to promise the withdrawal of troops," said Gun Maw. He told me that an enormous number of Burmese troops have pushed into the Kachin region since the start of the offensive in 2010. The Kachin see little point in negotiating unless the government is prepared to reduce that presence.

A brief statement jointly issued by both sides said that negotiations will continue. Still, the general told me, "Kachin resentment against the Burma military is very high because they have committed many abuses against the local population." He said that many Kachin villagers are criticizing their political leaders for entering talks with the Burmese army.

Given the geopolitical pressures and the incentives offered by the West, it seems likely that both sides will eventually be forced to come to terms. But a lasting peace will never take hold unless the government can find a way to respect the autonomy of the ethnic groups in this multi-ethnic country. And the cycle of conflict will drag on and on.