Fighting is ongoing in Myanmar’s northerly Kachin State after the military began attacks on the powerful Kachin Independence Army (KIA) last month.
The rebel army is over 10,000-strong and one of the numerous insurgent forces that together far outnumber the government forces, known as the Tatmadaw.
An estimated 7,000 Kachin civilians have fled their homes and many remain trapped in forests with few provisions. Kachin State already had around 100,000 displaced civilians before the military relaunched attacks and, despite plentiful natural resources like massive jade mines, the population remains impoverished.
Intermittent insurgencies have dominated Myanmar’s hilly border forests since independence from Britain in 1948. Insurgents demand the meaningful autonomy the minorities felt they were promised at independence but instead received waves of Burmese troops.
The behaviour of the Tatmadaw has been well documented by the media and international NGOs in Bangladesh as Rohingya Muslims have fled Rakhine State after state-controlled campaigns of rape, arson and killing. But these techniques have been employed by the Tatmadaw in numerous other border regions without receiving international media attention.
One factor is the hospitable attitude of Bangladesh towards the international media compared to China, which welcomes few journalists to the refugee camps on its border with Kachin State.
The testimonies of Kachin refugees, and those of numerous other ethnic minority groups elsewhere, go largely unreported.
Eight rebel armies agreed to the former quasi-civilian government’s nationwide ceasefire in October 2015, but the KIA and many of the other major ethnic minority armies did not sign.
State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi promised that she would establish peace as a priority when she came to office. But the progress since April 2016, when her National League for Democracy (NLD) puppet government came to ”power”, has been pitiful.
The generals who still control Myanmar have blamed the KIA for the recent violence but the Tadmadaw often attack rebel positions during the dry season.
At the heart of operations is the region of Tanai. It is rich in gold and amber and helps fund the KIA.
The military-appointed MPs in the Kachin State parliament last year designated parts of Tanai as “restricted areas”, setting out battle lines with the KIA.
The Kachin Women’s Association in Thailand says soldiers use civilians as human shields and to clear mines, as they have for decades.
Kachins protested against the violence in the state capital, Myitkyina, but the army prosecuted the rally organisers for defamation and they now face up to two years in jail. Around 40 people are being prosecuted for taking part in a similar protest in Yangon.
The Tadmadaw controls the police and judiciary through its constitutionally sanctioned grip on the Ministry of Home Affairs. As the world saw in Rakhine State, the military can carry out hideous acts of violence but then decide whether its troops should be prosecuted. Anyone who speaks out is bullied into silence.
The media has been gagged with editors and publishers jailed and humiliated and forced into following the army’s nationalist agenda.
The democratic dawn of November 2015, when the NLD won a landslide victory, seems very remote.
Suu Kyi has organised large-scale ”Panglong” peace conferences, in reference to her father Aung San’s 1948 summit with ethnic minorities in the Shan State town of Panglong to establish a post-independence federation.
But the generals continue to act in exactly the same manner as they have since they took power in the 1962 coup. Suu Kyi clearly has zero control over their behaviour and has made no progress at unpicking the military-drafted 2008 constitution that secures their executive power and legislative representation: 25 per cent of all Myanmar’s national and provincial parliaments seats are set aside for military officers.
Suu Kyi’s principal peace negotiator is Suu Kyi’s former personal doctor and the Kachin chief minister she appointed is a former dentist. A Kachin MP reportedly described him as a nice man, who avoids confronting the army.
Suu Kyi’s preference for supine disciples who do not challenge her dominance has been spotted before.
She has a history of blocking the advancement of young, articulate politicians who might eclipse her.
Nyo Nyo Thin was an impressive regional independent MP in Yangon who was prevented from standing for Suu Kyi’s party and lost her seat in 2015 to an NLD candidate who was less educated and politically experienced.
Suu Kyi also apparently rejected an application from Ko Ko Gyi, a leader from the 1988 student uprising.
The NLD takes its lead from Suu Kyi and she has been flattering to the point of grovelling to the generals since she entered parliament as an MP in 2012.
She has failed to speak up in support of those prosecuted by the military-controlled authorities. While Suu Kyi became legendary for spending years confined to her airy, lakeside house, Myanmar’s activists, who are often young and educated, continue to be incarcerated in wretched dungeons by military jailers. Suu Kyi does nothing to protect them.
The Economist writes: “The civilian government has more authority than it admits. Politicians could intervene in the court cases against peaceful demonstrators and MPs could trim the army’s budget.
“At the very least Ms Suu Kyi could denounce the army and call for an end to the attacks instead of keeping silent. In the past she has even praised the army’s ‘valiant effort’ to stabilise the region. The arrival of the monsoon next month is likely to be more help to anguished Kachins.”
When heavy rain that makes the forested hills of Myanmar impassable for its bloodthirsty soldiers is seen as a more effective constraint than its democratically elected leaders, voters should shift allegiance.
The next general election is due in 2020 and the NLD hardly deserves to retain a single seat.
The view from Aung San Suu Kyi’s house in Yangon where she was held captive for years. Picture credit: Asean Economist