AFTER fighting flared in April between the Burmese army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), an insurgent force controlling much of Myanmar’s northern extremes, thousands of civilians fled into the jungle. Some trekked for weeks before reaching Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin state, where they have taken refuge in a local church. Plenty more are still trapped in the hills. According to the Red Cross, almost 7,000 civilians have been forced to flee their homes since the beginning of April, to add to 100,000 already displaced.
Violence is nothing new in this part of Myanmar. The war in Kachin state has rumbled on since a ceasefire broke down between the Burmese army and the KIA in 2011. Dozens of similar guerrilla groups representing downtrodden ethnic minorities have been fighting the central government for decades, demanding greater autonomy. Many agreed to a nationwide ceasefire in 2015, but the KIA, with at least 10,000 troops, has not.
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It is hard to identify the trigger for the latest violence. The generals, naturally, put the blame on the rebels. But the army routinely attacks rebel outposts during the dry season. (Things usually calm down when monsoon rains make the hilly jungle impassable.) Control over resources may play a part. The region of Tanai, where the clashes erupted, is rich in gold and amber, two important sources of income for the KIA. In June last year government soldiers attacked mines which, they said, were operating illegally. Two months later, under the pretence of protecting the environment, soldiers who sit in Kachin’s state assembly proposed making parts of Tanai “restricted areas”. Sometimes, conflict flares up as a result of a dispute between local warlords. An ethnic armed group allied with the KIA in neighbouring Shan state recently staged a bloody attack on a casino run by militiamen close to the army.
Civilians caught in the crossfire bear the brunt of it all. The Kachin Women’s Association Thailand, a charity, says that soldiers use civilians as human shields and minesweepers. The Burmese army refuses to create new camps for displaced people, even though that would make it far easier to help them.
Outraged by the army’s belligerence, a group of Kachin youths held protests in Myitkyina. The army sued the organisers for defamation—a crime punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment. Anti-war demonstrations spread to other cities including Yangon, the commercial capital, attracting young, urban Burmese from the Bamar majority as well as ethnic minorities. “We’ve been suffering from civil war for too long,” says one participant. Police have broken up these protests; some 40 people are being prosecuted for taking part.
Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader since 2016, says peace is her priority. She has organised grand conferences and delivered speeches about unity. But little has changed on the front lines. That is mainly the army’s fault. Under the constitution drafted by the generals, the civilian authorities do not control the armed forces or the police. But her government still looks hapless. Khon Ja, a Kachin activist, points out that the country’s peace negotiator is Ms Suu Kyi’s former personal doctor, and that the chief minister she put in charge of Kachin state is a former dentist. A local MP describes him as a nice man, but says he avoids confronting the army.
The civilian government has more authority than it admits. Politicians could intervene in the court cases against peaceful demonstrators and MPs could trim the army’s budget. At the very least Ms Suu Kyi could denounce the army and call for an end to the attacks instead of keeping silent. In the past she has even praised the army’s “valiant effort” to stabilise the region. The arrival of the monsoon next month is likely to be more help to anguished Kachins.