Even as the Burmese government initiates political reforms in much of the country, it has intensified an ethnic civil war here in the hills of northern Myanmar, a conflict that at once threatens to jeopardize its warming trend with the US and to alienate Chinese officials concerned about stability on the border.
This month scores of mortar rounds fired by the Myanmar’s military landed within kilometers of this town near the mountainous Chinese border. International human rights groups and soldiers and officials of the Kachin ethnic group say that Burmese soldiers have burned and looted homes, planted mines, forcibly recruited men as porters and guides, and raped, tortured and executed civilians. Several thousand villagers have fled to China. Tens of thousands more who have been displaced could follow if the Burmese army continues its offensive, local relief workers say.
Lazum Bulu will not be fleeing. She died Jan. 10 in a bare concrete room in a camp for the displaced. People said she was 107. Her body lay on blankets on the floor.
“I regret that my mother can’t be buried with my father,” said her daughter, Hkang Je Mayun. “The Burmese army was coming, and we didn’t want to live in the village anymore. We were afraid they would kill all the Kachin people.”
The fighting has raised questions about the limits of the reform agenda pushed by President Thein Sein, Myanmar’s first civilian president in nearly 50 years, who has led the opening to the West. But some analysts in Myanmar say Thein Sein has been unable or unwilling to control the generals pressing the war.
Myanmar, formerly Burma, is riddled with ethnic civil conflicts, but this is the largest, with the greatest at stake. Right on the Chinese border, Kachin State is rich in jade, gold and timber and has rivers that are being exploited by Chinese hydropower projects. Part of the state has long been controlled by the Kachin Independence Army and its political wing, which levies taxes on all commerce. The army allowed a reporter and a photographer recently to visit an area rarely seen by Western reporters for one week.
Both the US and China would like to see the war resolved: the Chinese to ensure stability on the border and access to resources and important power projects; the US to forestall the kinds of abuses by the Burmese military that present one of the biggest obstacles as US President Barack Obama considers lifting economic sanctions. At the same time, some Chinese officials and executives might welcome Burmese military control of the resource-rich areas, preferring to cut deals with the government rather than the Kachin, foreign analysts say.
Some Kachin commanders say one factor that rekindled the war last June after a 17-year cease-fire may have been a desire by the Burmese military to widen its control of the areas with Chinese energy projects.
Such projects are a source of tension. After protests last year by ordinary Kachin, Thein Sein suspended the planned Myitsone Dam, which was being built by a Chinese company in a part of the state controlled by the government. That angered Chinese officials and executives, some of whom suspect Thein Sein of trying to wean Myanmar off its overreliance on China to encourage investment from the West.
Despite the war against the Kachin, Thein Sein, a former general, has tried to quell other ethnic conflicts and push reforms, like his release of 651 political prisoners earlier this month. After the release, the Obama administration upgraded relations by agreeing to exchange ambassadors.