After a long and heavy rainy season, the skies are clear and roads dry again in northern Myanmar.
As the weather has changed from wet to cold, Myanmar’s military has launched a new offensive against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), an armed ethnic organization that has been fighting on-and-off for decades for self-determination.
“The winter offensive has come,” says a KIA officer at a frontline post.
Since Myanmar achieved independence in 1948, fighting has never fully stopped in its many ethnic states. As signs point to an especially brutal cold season campaign in 2018, many in Kachin state hope the international community will finally come to their aid.
Cold season offensives have intensified as the Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, has ramped up aerial bombardments and long-range shelling, indiscriminate bombings that have driven tens of thousands into internally displaced person (IDP) camps in various areas of Kachin state.
An unknown number of civilians have been killed in assaults that have gone widely unnoticed in the international eye.
In December 2012, five military jet fighters and two helicopter gunships were deployed in a brutal attack on LaJa Yang, a large town in territory administered by the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), a political group aligned with the KIA.
In December 2015, the military overtly targeted civilians, witnessed in the indiscriminate bombing of schools, shooting of innocent civilians and widespread reports of soldiers raping women in northern Shan state. Civil society groups openly accused the military of “war crimes” during that year’s assaults.
In January 2017, the Myanmar military’s massive shelling forced thousands of civilians who had fled previous offensives from their IDP camps in another KIO-controlled area.
Their attempts to cross into neighboring China were blocked by Chinese troops, leaving many would-be refugees without adequate shelter in harsh winter conditions.
The bombardments have helped to solve the strategic problems caused by Myanmar troops’ lack of familiarity with the mountainous terrain at front-line positions. Most rank and file foot soldiers deployed to ethnic state conflicts hail from the country’s central plains region.
The military’s cold season offensives traditionally coincide with two big national celebrations: Independence Day in January and Armed Forces Day in March. Honoring soldiers for their “bravery” in battles against ethnic armies is central to the military institution’s identity and pride.
The celebrations also aim to demonstrate that the Tatmadaw delivers results on the battlefield and is the only institution holding the union together in its long struggle against ethnic insurgents. That rationale is also deployed for maintaining battalions of troops in ethnic areas and the military’s outsized role in national politics.
There are also big economic incentives for its war in Kachin state, which was in abeyance for 17 years before the military unilaterally broke a ceasefire in June 2011. Western Kachin state’s amber mining region of Hugawng is an economically strategic region, as are other jade mining areas that supply most of the world’s jadeite.
Jade sales accounted over US$30 billion in sales in 2014, nearly half of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), according to a report by environmental watchdog group Global Witness.
A military operation to seize Hugawng started in June of 2017, but was halted after several weeks of fighting due to early heavy rains.
The military is expected to try again to seize the area in coming months, in sight of troop buildups in eastern and western Kachin state, according to on-the-ground sources. They say the military has also recently increased its surveillance of strategic KIA posts with drones and helicopters.
With rising international condemnation of the Tatmadaw’s abusive “clearance operations” in western Rakhine state, leading to the flight of over 600,000 ethnic Rohingya refugees, the military’s offensive underway in Kachin state could soon come under tougher scrutiny.
Strategic analysts suggest if the Tatmadaw focuses on seizing strategic KIA outposts, but refrains from attacking Laiza – the KIO’s administrative capital which shelters tens of thousands of IDPs – the international community is likely to look the other way, as it has in the past.
But a double standard is emerging with the rising international condemnation, including at the United Nations, of the military’s operations in Rakhine and muted criticism of the atrocities being committed in Kachin as well as northern Shan state.
A case in point has been the lack of international response to the Myanmar government and military’s ban on the delivery of humanitarian assistance to IDPs in Laiza since May 2016.
State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi visited Kachin state capital Myitkyina earlier this year, a tour that many saw as callous to the region’s widespread human suffering. Yet it seems certain Western nations have taken their cues from the former Nobel laureate’s response.
For example, Norway recently cut its financial support to a Technical Advisory Team to the KIO, a move widely seen as a reprisal for the KIO’s refusal to sign the government’s Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), which many ethnic armed groups view as de facto surrender.
Instead, many Western governments are giving legitimacy to the government and military’s bid to solve ethnic armed conflicts, including in Kachin state, through greater centralization rather than power-sharing and autonomy devolving measures.
China has taken a more sophisticated approach via its support of ethnic armed organizations in the newly formed Federal Political Negotiating and Consultative Committee, which is calling for an alternative peace process, while simultaneously engaging the Tatmadaw, including through heavy arms sales.
That duplicity reflects China’s ‘One Belt One Road’ ambitions for Myanmar, with infrastructure and other big ticket projects envisioned for resource-rich Kachin state.
Some analysts believe that explains the Tatmadaw’s recent attack on Kasung village near the KIA’s Battalion 11, an assault which displaced more than a thousand people in less than two days.
With no outside assistance in sight, those living in conflict areas are now bracing for more attacks by digging bigger and deeper air bunkers.
Until the international community recognizes and condemns the humanitarian crisis in Kachin state on a par with its response to the situation in Rakhine state, the atrocities of war will continue unabated in the cold winter months ahead.