Myanmar’s Forgotten Victims: The Kachin State’s Struggle Against Government Atrocities

As home to the world’s longest running civil war, Myanmar’s history of ethnic conflict and population displacement is as long and tragic as it is complex. However, amid significant media coverage of the atrocities committed against the Rohingya Muslims in the northern state of Rakhine by the Tatmadaw or Burmese military, the equally dire plight of the Kachin State people has gone under-reported. Violent military tactics targeting Kachin civilians have left more than 100,000 living in refugee camps along the Chinese border and aid agencies have alleged that they are being blocked from providing critical aid such as food and medical supplies. This amounts to a direct violation of global humanitarian laws, which may constitute a war under international law, according to United Nations Human Rights expert for Myanmar, Yanghee Lee.

The approximately 1.6 million Kachin people, many of whom are a Christian minority, have lived in the mountainous areas of Myanmar near the Chinese border for centuries. When Myanmar gained independence in 1948, Kachin and many other ethnic minorities people were promised independence, and the ability that they would soon be able to form their own self-governing states. However, after the formation of a military government in 1962, this promise was quickly rescinded, causing the Kachin people to withdraw their support for the government and form the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in order to both protect themselves and further their drive for independence. Ongoing conflict between the KIA and the Burmese military continued for decades until the signing of a ceasefire in 1994. However, this ceasefire broke down in 2011, and fighting has occurred with violent regularity since this time.

While Prime Minister Suu Kyi has repeatedly implored the Kachin people to sign the 2015 National Ceasefire Agreement, the KIA have asserted that they will not sign the agreement while Burmese military bombs continue to fall on their villages and atrocities are levelled at their people. Fighting seen throughout 2018 was described as the fiercest since the 1960’s, with a KIA Captain telling ABC “We will keep fighting for as long as the Burmese keep coming at us.” Zhu Tawng, a senior member of the Kachin Independence Army alleged to Al Jazeera that Burmese military soldiers were blatantly committing atrocities against Kachin civilians including murder, rape and arson of villagers houses. These have haunting similarities to those which have been independently proven to be happening in Rakhine toward the Rohingya Muslims, at the hands of the same army. It is these attacks and atrocities which are causing numbers of the KIA to grow, as an apparent means of protecting their family and livelihood and thereby feeding an endless loop of violence in the region.

Kachin State is rich in resources, including jade, gold, copper, iron ore and gems, which is widely regarded as one clear reason why the Myanmar government are attempting to take control of the state. Amid allegations of a slow genocide and ethnic cleansing, it beggars belief that the plight of the Kachin people does not garner more international media attention. While the world turns its eyes to the atrocities being meted out against the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state, credible testimony of murder, rape and destruction from Kachin State victims makes for equally harrowing reading. Just as concerning, are the allegations that child soldiers form a large part of not only the Burmese military, but also the Kachin Independence Army. Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi promised peace in ethnic minority areas as her utmost priority after coming to power, however her continued acceptance and support of atrocities being carried out by her government’s army against both the Kachin State people and Rohingya people have clearly shown this to be an empty promise. Numerous shallow attempts at ceasefires are also simply paying lip-service to international outrage, with many of the largest ethnic groups, including the KIA refusing to take part. David Baulk, a rights expert from Fortify Rights took a cynical view of the Burmese peace process, saying it is “dictated by the Myanmar military down the barrel of a gun.”

There is no doubt that violence is being committed by both parties, and the problem persists due to a lack of meaningful attempts at peace talks and ceasefires, caused by mistrust and general unwillingness from both parties. While international governments and IGOs have weighed in on the matter, there have been minimal international sanctions to punish the Myanmar government for the actions of their army in either Rakhine or Kachin States. Nor has there been condemnation or even acceptance from anyone in the Myanmar government that the actions of the army are excessive, illegal and unwarranted.

Given how far apart both sides are on a potential peaceful resolution, it should come as no surprise that there is no easy path to peace. A meaningful ceasefire with the backing of international governments would be the first logical step in trying to resolve the conflict. This would, at the very least allow Kachin people to begin moving back to their villages and forging a way of life, and allow aid agencies to tend to the basic human needs of the enormous amount of displaced people. Every citizen should be afforded the right to live in peace, and this is impossible in many parts of the Kachin state due to continued attacks by the Myanmar government.

It is also crucial that the Myanmar government reign in its army and hold to account those who, after a full and impartial investigation have been found to have committed the alleged atrocities. This is important to show the Kachin people that the deaths, suffering and destruction of their communities at the hands of their country’s military has not gone unnoticed or unpunished. It is equally important for Myanmar to show the international community that they will not ignore or justify what potentially amounts to war crimes committed flagrantly by their soldiers, both in Kachin and Rakhine.

Finally, a long term and sustainable solution needs to be agreed upon with regards to either a fully or partially self-governing state which was promised to the Kachin people when Burmese independence was declared in the mid-20th century. This should include equal rights for the Kachin people to share in the lucrative profits of the mining of their precious resources – profits which are currently hoarded amongst a few elite parties and foreign companies, while the Kachin people live in poverty. This would allow the Kachin to bring their communities above the poverty line and benefit from the abundance of resources and employment opportunities which are available in their communities, leading to a very real prospect of long-lasting peace in the region.