Burma’s Kachin advance may be its own undoing
19 January 2013 (Editorial): At the moment the Burma Army seems to be gaining the upper hand in the ongoing war in Kachin State, with the recent reported takeover of two key strategic positions of the Kachin line of defense.
But this latest military advance may not serve the best strategic interest of a government trying to portray itself as a reformist-minded administration and an army which has already been accused of serious war crimes and crimes against humanity. The use of helicopter gunships and fighter jets against the Kachin Independence Army may have boosted the morale of the ground troops of the Burma Army soldiers, who have suffered heavy casualties in the nearly two-year battles with the much determined and disciplined army of the KIA.
On Friday, Burma’s President Office issued a statement declaring that the Burma Army will stop its attacks against the KIA because the Tatmadaw has already achieved its objective of securing an outpost. But a YouTube video posted on Facebook, which was reportedly filmed on Saturday, shows fighting continue in Kachin State. Some suspect the timing of the order to halt military offensives maybe linked to the soon-to-be-held UN donor conference in Naypyitaw, which could result in a multimillion dollars aid package for Burma, which is ranked one of the poorest countries in the world by the United Nations.
But the emergence in the last few days of horrifying images of Kachin civilian casualties through the direct result of Naypyitaw’s sustained aerial bombardment and heavy artillery fired on Kachin rebel stronghold of Laiza is reopening the debate on Burma Army’s brutalities and alleged war crimes against ethnic civilians.
As the conflict in northern Burma intensifies with the Burma Army indiscriminately shelling on civilian populated areas of Kachin-controlled area, the spotlight is on the country’s pro-democracy icon and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi who has so far shied away from speaking out against the Army’s brutalities. Her failure to be being more vocal against the army’s atrocities has drawn much criticism from the Kachins, as well as activists who have long looked up to her as a champion of human rights.
In a symbolic display of Kachin sentiment towards Suu Kyi’s continuing silence, activists staging a protest in front of the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok last week carried a picture showing the Nobel Laureate with a gagged mouth.
Ironically, the 68 year-old Nobel Laureate is slated to travel soon to the United States and South Korea to receive prestigious peace awards, according to sources from her National League for Democracy party. With the Kachin war rapidly escalating, it is still not too late for Aung San Suu Kyi to use the occasions of the peace award ceremony to speak out sternly against war atrocities in northern Burma. The longer she keeps her silence on the Kachin issue, the grimmer the prospect for long-term peace and national reconciliation in Burma becomes.
Meanwhile, as new disturbing images of civilian casualties emerged, Naypyitaw now opens itself to renewed accusations of war crimes, charges which have been leveled by international and domestic rights groups against the Tatmadaw for years. As the army closes in on the Kachin stronghold with heavy air and ground power, it is almost certain that there will be more Kachin civilian deaths.
In such a scenario, Naypyitaw’s military success in the Kachin war may prove to be its own undoing.
Firstly, fresh atrocities will create new momentum for rights groups in their call for an international investigation into possible commission of war crimes, crimes against humanity and other serious human rights abuses in Burma. President Thein Sein’s government has everything to lose if the army is continued to be allowed to act with impunity. Burma can lose all its international legitimacy just as quickly as it has regained it in the last two years. At stake is the upcoming World Economic Forum on East Asia in June, as well as the Southeast Asia Games in December of 2013. But the biggest stake is the prospect of Burma chairing the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2014. Already described as the problem child of the ten-nation regional bloc, Burma has much to live up to if it is to chair a regional organization that is already struggling to build its credibility and find its place in the global community.
Secondly, any military defeat of the KIA would be seen by other ethnic armed groups, which have otherwise already signed ceasefire agreements, as a direct threat to their own existence. The multi-ethnic armed alliance United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), for example, recently stated that they view the continuing offensive in Kachin State a threat against all ethnic armed groups.
Thirdly, the capture of Laiza would not necessarily mean decisive military defeat of the KIA. Up to this point, the KIA primary war strategy appears to have been to defend resource-rich Kachin territory from incursion by the Tatmadaw. Military occupation of Laiza could dramatically change the war dynamics. There is a danger that the takeover of KIA stronghold could result in a change in the battlefield: From the jungle to urban guerrilla warfare.
Finally, the consequence of Kachin war will be such that all ethnic communities will be so distrustful of any Burman-led government in the heartland that they will start demanding separation from the Union, instead of asking for federalism.
No sides would be a clear winner in any of these scenarios. At the very best, the result would be a serious setback for any hopes for future peace and reconciliation. It is high time for those with the influence to step in and help prevent further unnecessary bloodshed and civilian suffering in Kachin State.
In 2005, the United Nations devised something called the ‘Responsibility to Protect or R2P’ principle. This principle basically suggests the right of the international community to intervene in situations where states have failed to protect their own citizens.
The same moral principle should be applied to hold domestic actors accountable for failing to protect their citizens from harm. Responsible actors in Burma need to make a sobering judgment to prevent the victims from further harm so that the country doesn’t descend further into chaos.
By continuing to carry out aerial bombardment of Laiza, the Burmese government may be undoing its own strategic objectives. By the same token, those who fail to intervene in this crucial period risk undoing their own credibility, if not being accused of complicity in the Tatmadaw’s crimes.