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A bombing on Wednesday in Lashio, the largest city in the Shan State of Northern Myanmar, killed two women and wounded 22 civilians. While no one has claimed responsibility for the bombing, these events are not uncommon in the North. The attack calls attention to the historic civil war between government forces and a number of ethnic separatist groups that has been overshadowed by the ongoing Rohingya crisis. The government often ties such attacks to various ethnic militias, who in turn deny the charges, claiming that the Myanmar military is looking for justification to attack ethnic populations. The “pocket wars” between Myanmar’s military and ethnic militias are concentrated in the northern states of Shan and Kachin.
The start of the dry season earlier this year marks the launch of a fresh government offensive. This yearly cycle has been going on since the end of the ceasefire between rebel held regions and the government in 2011. In addition to this seasonal influx of armed confrontations, fighting has escalated overall in the past two years.
This conflict has led to over 98,000 internally displaced people (IDP). Besides the immediate danger of getting caught in the crossfire, civilians also face direct threats from the government if they stay in their villages. The government has dropped leaflets over mining towns warning that residents who remain will be considered insurgents, and will face the same fate as the ethnic rebels during military operations.
Unfortunately, this displacement has been paired with lack of support for relief and charity organizations to accommodate IDPs. Moreover, in an attempt to impair each other’s military operations, both rebel and government forces have blocked or destroyed many roads and bridges in the region. Certain ethnic groups have also been barred from traveling along key routes. This has trapped thousands of civilians in dangerous regions. Further straining the situation, the government restricts aid, food, and fuel to the war-torn region, in hopes of weakening rebel forces.
Perhaps most distressing is the fact that Yanghee Lee, a U.N. human rights investigator for Myanmar, has been prevented from visiting Kachin and Shan states by the government. She attributes this to the Myanmar’s dislike of her 2017 report on the human rights crisis in the nation. The lack of a watchdog body in the midst of a civil war means that atrocities and crimes perpetrated by both sides of the conflict go unverified and unreported. Not surprisingly, the news that does come out of the region is sometimes inconsistent, vague, and difficult to follow.
Lee also stated that “Representatives from different ethnic groups [that I met] expressed their concern that as the world’s attention is focused on the atrocities in Rakhine State, potential war crimes are being committed in Shan and Kachin State without so much as a murmur of disapproval from the international community.”
The crimes committed by the Myanmar military forces include systematic rape, abductions, torture, extrajudicial executions, shelling civilian villages, using civilians as human shields and mine sweepers and restrictions on movement and humanitarian access. Ethnic militias have been reported to forcibly enlist men, women and children as soldiers, and to abduct and tax impoverished civilians.
Lee also called for international pressure on military commanders and China (who borders these states) to secure respect for human rights during the conflict.
It is clear that Myanmar is in a complex, dynamic, and frightening situation. Although peace in the near future seems unlikely, it is critical that the international community stay aware of the Rohingya crisis and the civil war in the northern states of Shan and Kachin. They are both dictated by the current government and likely to be used as a precedent to justify future crises.