Laiza, Kachin State, Myanmar - The past few weeks have seen some of the heaviest fighting in Myanmar's decades-long civil war with government forces launching determined attacks against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), an ethnic force in the far north of the country. And for the first time ever, the government has used helicopter gunships and attack aircraft against the country's ethnic rebels. Most of the fighting is taking place around the KIA's headquarters at the border town of Laiza near China, and the government seems determined to crush the Kachin resistance and gain control over the area now administered by the rebels.
The military campaign also sends signals to about a dozen other ethnic armies which have entered into ceasefire agreements with the government. In a statement issued on January 1, the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), an umbrella organisation of 12 such ethnic groups based mainly on the Thai border in the south, said they felt threatened by the offensive as well - and called for unity among Myanmar's multitude of traditionally factious ethnic militias. "If we are not able to act collectively now we will be destroyed individually," said a participant at the meeting that adopted the statement.
Myanmar continues to strike Kachin stronghold
According to the official Burmese version of events - as described by Aung Min, a minister in the president's office, in an interview with US National Public Radio on January 7 - fighting broke out when the KIA refused to remove some "barbed-wire fences" near Laiza to enable government forces to "move in and deliver food". Fanciful statements such as Aung Min's have only added fuel to the fire - as has the fact that the airstrikes began in earnest on Christmas Eve. The vast majority of the Kachins are Christians in a predominantly Buddhist country. "This we will never forget or forgive," said a Kachin community worker.
Attacks in Karen State
Independent observers point out that preparations for the offensive began several months ago, when the government's side moved heavy weapons, including artillery, into the area. Even more tellingly, in November, villagers in Karen State in eastern Myanmar were terrified when airplanes started dropping bombs and machine-gunning their rice fields and other plantations. The Karen National Union (KNU), the ethnic army in the area, has a ceasefire agreement with the government, so the attacks, which did not hurt any locals, came as a complete surprise. The government said the aircraft were "taking part in a military training exercise" - which, in hindsight, seems to have been a rehearsal for what now is happening in Kachin State.
Judging from photographs taken in Kachin State, the planes used appear to be Hongdu JL-8, or Karakorum-8, light attack aircraft that Myanmar acquired from China years ago. The helicopter gunships are Russian-made Mi-35, the export version of the Mi-24 Hind that were used extensively in the Afghan war in the 1980s. Myanmar bought its first Mi-35s in September 2010, when even the KIA had a ceasefire agreement with the government. The Kachins say they waited for 17 years - from 1994, when they actually made peace with the government, until hostilities broke out when government forces entered KIA-held territory in June 2011 - for political discussions about the future status of the frontier areas, but in vain. Several rounds of new talks in 2011 and 2012, which involved foreign interlocutors such as the Switzerland-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, have produced no results.
The crux of the matter is that there are two fundamentally opposing, and seemingly incompatible, views on how Myanmar's decades-long ethnic quagmire should be resolved. The KIA and other ethnic groups want autonomy within a federal union, while the government defends the present, 2008 constitution which lays the foundations for a centralised system. Critics argue that the ceasefire agreements the government has reached with other ethnic armies have merely frozen the underlying problems without providing lasting solutions to what is basically a political issue. Thus, those ceasefires remain fragile, and could end in the same way as the now-collapsed agreement with the Kachins. There are at least 50,000 men and women in arms across the country in various ethnic armies.
Some ethnic groups were hopeful when pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in Myanmar's former capital, Yangon, in November 2010. She then called for a second "Panglong Conference", referring to an agreement that her father, Aung San, who led Myanmar's fight for freedom from colonial Britain, signed with representatives of several of Myanmar's many ethnic minorities in 1947. The agreement paved the way for a federal constitution that came into effect when Myanmar declared its independence in 1948.
Aung San was assassinated by a political rival in 1947, but his Panglong Agreement was honoured in Myanmar's first constitution. However, some ethnic minorities, notably the Karen, resorted to armed struggle anyway, and parts of the country were plunged into civil war. In 1962, Myanmar's experiment with parliamentary democracy and federalism ended abruptly in a military coup. The new government, led by General Ne Win, adopted a strictly centralised power structure - and the insurgencies flared anew, especially in Shan and Kachin states, which until then had been relatively peaceful.
Suu Kyi's silence
The UNFC was initially formed in February 2011 with six ethnic armed groups. It now includes the following 12 groups:
- Kachin Independence Organisation
- Karen National Union
- New Mon State Party
- Shan State Progress Party
- Karenni National Progressive Party
- Chin National Front
- Palaung State Liberation Front
- Lahu Democratic Union
- Arakan National Council
- Wa National Organisation
- Pa-O National Liberation Organisation
- Kachin National Organisation
When Suu Kyi first broached a "Second Panglong", she received the backing of several ethnic leaders and organisations - but the authorities branded her a "traitor" for resurrecting the idea of autonomy for minorities. She has since gone quiet on this idea, and her silence has cost her the support she once enjoyed in ethnic areas. Despite several appeals to the Nobel Peace Prize laureate to act when there is a war in her own country, she has steadfastly refused to do so.
On January 6, she told French news agency AFP that she would not step in to help end the worsening conflict between the army and the Kachins without official approval. "It is up to the government. This case is being handled by the government at the moment," she said - a statement that caused dismay and even anger among many Kachins. At a recent demonstration by Kachins in Australia, one protester carried a portrait of Suu Kyi with tape over her mouth with the text: "Silence is violence." It is widely suspected that she has reached an informal accommodation with the government: she can remain a "Burmese" politician - but not criticise the military, or become involved in the ethnic issue, which is a question of national security and, therefore, the responsibility of the military.
There seems to be no doubt that the new, 2008 constitution remains the main obstacle for solving the ethnic issue, and amending it is almost impossible. Most significant clauses, including those concerning state structure and ultimate military control over the decision-making process, cannot be considered without the approval of more than 75 percent of all parliamentarians in both the Upper and Lower Houses - and even then would need to be approved through a national referendum. In practice, this makes any fundamental constitutional reform impossible, especially as 25 percent of MPs consists of centrally appointed military officers.
Scrapping the 2008 constitution and drafting a new one based on some kind of federal concept would be the only viable way to resolve Myanmar's seemingly endless ethnic problems. But judging from the government's response to such demands, and the ongoing, relentless offensive in Kachin State, that is not likely to happen any time soon.
The offensive may cripple the KIA militarily, but not defeat it. The only outcome will be more intense ethnic hatred, making it even more difficult to establish a lasting peace. And with Suu Kyi seemingly on the side of the military, the gap between the majority Burmans and the ethnics is wider and deeper than ever.