The Burmese government airstrikes on Kachin State over the past week are the latest escalation in a one-sided conflict that drags the country’s reform process further into disrepute and raises fresh questions about how the international community should deal with President Thein Sein.
It was mid-2011 when government troops broke their 17 year ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA); a defensive rebel group which despite its name seeks autonomy and human rights for Kachin State rather than secession from Burma. The precise motivations behind the initial ceasefire violation remain murky, but are widely regarded as stemming from the government’s business interests in exploiting natural resources from Kachin State, and the KIA’s refusal to disarm without a political solution to end the decades-long marginalisation of the Kachin people.
Regardless of the driving force, over the following eighteen months well resourced Burmese troops have relentlessly pounded the ill equipped KIA and their allies in the All Burma Student’s Democratic Front (ABSDF). They have also brutalised Kachin civilians, more than 50 000 of whom have fled to squalid IDP camps to escape the rapes, torture and extrajudicial killings. Reports from human rights groups on the ground reflect the very worst days of Burma’s various military dictatorships, with troops hacking the limbs of suspected rebels, drunkenly abusing women and destroying entire villages seemingly at random.
The attacks by military aircraft and helicopter gunships over the past week added a horrendous new element to the violence, with shocking video footage from the Free Burma Rangers sparking strong international condemnation. However, the offensive has not eased and fears abound that a ‘final assault’ on the KIA headquarters at Laiza may be imminent.
This perhaps provides the biggest blow yet to the reformist credentials of Thein Sein’s administration, which had already been sullied by the army’s apparent role in stoking sectarian violence against Rohingya Muslims, and the violent dispersal of protestors at Letpadaung copper mine. The International Crisis Group - due to present the President with its Pursuit of Peace Award in New York, and the UK government – set to welcome him on an historic state visit, will both now be considering whether such moves were overly premature. After all, heaping such respect upon any other leader so closely associated with pogroms, crackdowns and all-out warfare against ethnic minority groups would be almost unthinkable.
Yet there is another possibility regarding the situation in Kachin State which raises a whole new set of concerns; namely that the President is not actually in control of the situation at all. Whilst his government has now acknowledged the airstrikes, initial reports were met with confusion and denial based upon conflicting messages from the front line. It is all too reminiscent of earlier stages in the conflict when the army seemingly ignored orders from Thein Sein to cease its offensive. An army acting out of government control –one key indicator of a failed state, may present an even larger problem for Burma than a President with a dubious commitment to reform. Whilst international and political pressure can be brought to bear on a head of state, it is far harder to influence faceless military officers who may hold the real power.
Finally as is so often the case in South East Asia, the influence of the Chinese dictatorship must also be taken into account. It is widely recognised that the offensive against Kachin State could not have taken place without approval from Beijing. Burmese ground troops and aircrafts have launched attacks from the Chinese side of the Kachin-China border, whilst the Chinese government has remained uncharacteristically quiet about shells straying into its territory.
This is of course to be expected: the vast majority of natural resources stripped from Kachin State are either directly extracted by Chinese firms or sold to China by Burmese government proxies.The Chinese government would therefore like nothing better than to see the Kachin resistance destroyed; yet it remains unclear whether Beijing is encouraging Thein Sein to crush the KIA, supporting his own ambitions to subdue Kachin State, or undermining his authority by dealing directly with officers in the Burmese army.
When asked last year where Burma’s democratic transition was on a scale of one to ten, Aung San Suu Kyi replied “we’re approaching one”…it is becoming ever more apparent just how right she was.