In recent months there has been renewed, escalating warfare in Kachin, Myanmar’s northernmost state. Since April, more than 6800 villagers have been forced to flee the battle between government military forces and the ethnic Kachin rebels, known as the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). The Myanmar armed forces have been complicit in human rights violations, carrying out air strikes and using heavy artillery and weapons in densely populated areas. These indiscriminate attacks against the Kachin are not dissimilar to the Rohingya refugee crisis in the Burmese state of Rakhine, which international attention has been focused upon. The lack of attention to the pressing conflict in Kachin has so been referred to as Myanmar’s “forgotten war.”
The conflict began in 1962 when the aforementioned country’s military seized control of Kachin and as a result, the KIA was established to protect and defend its land. So far it has been one of the world’s long-standing civil wars with conflict resuming in 2011 after the KIA ended a 17-year ceasefire agreement.
The Kachin are predominantly Christian, a religion which comprises only six percent of Myanmar’s population as the majority of the people are Buddhist. Ethnic citizens have been battling against the government to gain greater autonomy and control over the state and its resources. Some communities have even accused the military of trying to “destroy our ethnic identity, destroy our religion, colonise our lands, and steal our resources.”
The Myanmar defense, on the other hand, wants full control of Kachin for its natural resources as there are villages in the region with lucrative amber and jade mines. The illegal jade trade is worth billions with jade often smuggled across the border into China’s Yunnan province. The Burmese authority collects little revenue from this industry and Myanmar’s northernmost state communities receive even less. Military elites and armed groups primarily profit from jade sales. The Kachin conflict is therefore seen to be a struggle over autonomy, ethnic and religious identity, drugs, jade and other natural resources.
Since the beginning of the conflict five decades ago, 130,000 people have been displaced. Kachin lies along the borders of China, but, despite their close proximity, the Chinese government have yet to respond to the situation at hand. China, who has previously accepted displaced civilians in 2017, now had them turned away and sent back to Myanmar. As a result, many people have been stranded in makeshift camps in the jungle or remote mountainous areas near the Chinese border or caught in conflict zones. Aid restrictions have created food and medicine shortages, which further exacerbate the crisis. The Myanmar leadership has placed increasing restrictions to limit humanitarian assistance for displaced Kachin populations and denied access to aid agencies. There are reports that 100 civilians have been trapped in the village of Man Wai for weeks. Due to the blockage of aid, the Myanmar Red Cross were prevented from accessing the village to provide help.
This systematic denial of aid is a violation of international humanitarian law, as stated by UN Special Rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar Yanghee Lee who said, “All parties to the conflict must allow the passage of humanitarian assistance. Any wilful impediment of relief supplies may amount to war crimes under international law.”
The military’s new strategy seeks to eradicate the KIA or force them to sign the ceasefire agreement. However, the KIA has yet to engage in peace talk agreements, even as armed forces continue to bomb its villages. Even if such negotiations are successfully initiated, it may not directly address the conflict. There needs to be a more equitable and accountable management of the nation’s natural resources, including jade and amber. Kachin villagers, rather than the military, should have full control over their own resources.