While international attention is focused on Myanmar’s evolving Rakhine State crisis and a government bid to forge national peace after decades of civil strife, the autonomous military is waging a less noticed vicious war in northern Kachin State.
Battles between government troops and ethnic armed organizations are nothing new in frontier areas — the country’s civil war first erupted shortly after achieving independence from Britain in 1948 — but the military’s recent acquisition of helicopter gunships and jet fighters has added a lethal new dimension to the conflict.
Since hostilities resumed in 2011, breaking a 17-year ceasefire, an estimated 100,000 people have fled their homes and are now living in makeshift camps in Kachin State’s remote mountains, mostly in areas controlled by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). In recent military attacks near the Myanmar-Chinese border, Myanmar’s Air Force dropped what appeared to be CS/BBF 250 kilogram parachute-retarded bombs, the Chinese version of a lethal device used extensively by Russia during the siege of Syria’s Aleppo, according to eyewitnesses in the area.
During clashes this month near an internally displaced people (IDP) camp along the Chinese border, an estimated 4,000 people tried to flee the fighting into China. The human wave threatens to rile Beijing, which has complained loudly when past military offensives in neighboring Shan State pushed refugees into Chinese territory. “IDPs from the camp scrambled and ran away,” says Gum Sha Awng from the Joint Strategy Team, a civil society organization that is providing humanitarian assistance to the IDPs. “They have been hearing the sound of airstrikes and seeing the explosions for weeks … They don’t feel safe anymore.”
The Kachin IDPs were intercepted by armed Chinese guards at the border and pushed back into the conflict zone, according to witnesses. (China has denied the claim.) Many of the IDPs are now headed towards Laiza, a KIA-controlled town on the border, the witnesses said.
Earlier this month the government barred United Nations’ special rapporteur Yanghee Lee from visiting Laiza and Hpakan in western Kachin State, where the military and KIA are now engaged in heavy combat. The lack of international assistance has exacerbated an already dire situation for IDPs and other civilians in the area.
From 1994 to 2011, the KIA maintained a ceasefire agreement with the government that stopped hostilities, but never commenced a promised political dialogue on autonomy. That agreement broke down after the Myanmar military launched a surprise offensive in June 2011, just as then president Thein Sein, a former general, launched a “peace process” that was aimed nominally to end decades of civil war. While talks were initiated with certain ethnic armies, others came under heavy attack, including the KIA and the Shan State Army (SSA) in northeastern Shan State.
In October 2015, a month before Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy resoundingly won national elections, Thein Sein and eight ethnic groups signed what his government billed as a “nationwide ceasefire agreement.” The pact was hardly a solution to Myanmar’s ethnic strife as only three of the signatory groups, namely the Karen Nation Union, the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army and the Restoration Council of Shan State, had forces under significant arms. The other five signatories were small activist groups with only token armies.
None of the major ethnic armed groups in the country’s conflict-ridden north and northeast regions, including the KIA, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, a Palaung group, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) in the Shan State’s Kokang region, the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA) in eastern Shan State, and the country’s most powerful ethnic army, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), signed Thein Sein’s ceasefire agreement.
History shows that ineffectual ceasefire agreements are nothing new in Myanmar. The policy was originated by former intelligence chief Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt, who in the late 1980s and early 1990s forged peace with a number of ethnic armies. The aim then was to neutralize as many of the border insurgencies as possible to prevent anti-government links between ethnic armed groups and urban Burman dissidents who had fled Yangon and other cities after the military crushed a nationwide pro-democracy uprising in 1988.
Those ceasefire deals often resulted in lucrative business opportunities for ethnic group leaders in the resource-rich remote areas they controlled. As a result, about two dozen small and major groups accepted the government’s offers, among them the UWSA, MNDAA, NDAA and KIA. The KIA, however, was the only ethnic armed group to insist on a written ceasefire agreement. All of the other groups’ deals were strictly verbal and hence were easily changed or violated.
To guard against more pro-democracy protests and better tackle ethnic insurgencies, Myanmar’s military more than doubled its forces from approximately 190,000 soldiers in 1988 to as many as 400,000 today. Those troops have been supplied with modern weapons, including tanks, field guns, howitzers, helicopter gunships and jet fighters procured from abroad. While stronger, sleeker and more heavily armed than ever before, fighting forces were limited in actual combat due to the ceasefire agreements. Previously, the Myanmar Army was poorly equipped but battle-hardened and recognized as a highly efficient light infantry force.
Now, a whole generation of government soldiers has matured without substantial fighting experience. That became painfully obvious when the military’s high command decided to challenge the KIA in 2011, breaking a 17-year ceasefire in difficult mountainous terrain. Military casualties have been heavy in the subsequent fighting, with independent observers estimating the deaths in the hundreds, if not thousands, since hostilities resumed. The military has not publicly released information about the number of casualties it has suffered.
Military commanders have recently deployed superior firepower, both on the ground and from the air, to support their troops. Howitzers and other heavy artillery acquired from China and North Korea are now trained on KIA positions, firing from a safe distance from their targets. Russian-made Mi-35 helicopter gunships and China-made Hongdu JL-8, also known as Karakorum-8, attack aircraft were first used during a major cold season offensive against the KIA from December 2012 to January 2013. More recently, Chinese-made JF-17 and Yak 130 combat aircraft have been spotted at Kachin State’s Myitkyina airport.
Air strikes have gradually been intensified, resulting in a massive air war that has sparked a widening humanitarian crisis in the region. With even the UN’s special rapporteur banned from traveling to the conflict areas — and the government reportedly preventing emergency supplies from reaching IDP camps — there is little the global community can do to help or shield civilians caught in the crossfire. After a 17-year respite and now under an elected government, Kachin State has arguably never witnessed such debilitating and destructive armed combat.
Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review and the author of several books on Myanmar. He is currently a journalist with Asia Pacific Media Services.