Horror in the land of blue and gold
Kachin state could be the most beautiful region in Burma: its forests grow on the knuckles of the south-meandering Himalayas as they sweep in from India toward China, shadowing the long valleys that bow to the Irrawaddy River with its attendant wealth of natural life. The sparsely-populated region is rich in resources ranging from precious metals to rice, sugarcane and coal- and more recently, the lucrative potential for massive hydropower projects, poised to boost to the Burmese economy.
Yet, in the province known by the beguilingly serene name of “the land of blue and gold” a brutal ethnic civil war has been intensifying between the Burmese armed forces and rebel militias since the collapse of a tentative truce in June last year, causing an estimated 60,000 civilians to flee their homes so far.
At present the war is peaking in brutality despite public calls for a cease-fire from the President, who appears unable to control his own troops as they continue to pursue rebel militias in the region with devastating consequences for local civilians.
The reports from Kachin are blood-chilling: a pregnant woman shot dead, massacres of civilians sheltering refugees, torture, extra-judicial killings, mines being laid across civilian land, homes burnt and looted by the army, with civilians bearing the brunt of the venality of government forces.
The upsurge in violence in the north has been obscured by the news that Burma, and its new civilian government headed by its enigmatic President, Thein Sein, is a nation posed to enact progressive political reforms as its government undergoes a period of improved relations with Washington and the west.
Many have been impressed by an apparent swing toward democracy recently: Sein has, in a matter of weeks, released political prisoners, signed a ceasefire with a long-standing enemy rebel group that represent the Karin ethnic minority, and given the green light for Nobel laureate Aung Sang Suu Kyi to run for office in April.
Accordingly, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have been talking up the prospects of a rejuvenated Burmese economy, liberated from the multilateral sanctions imposed by the United States and the EU over the country’s appalling human rights record. Burma is becoming, like Libya last year, a big development prospect for western companies, encouraged by the benefits of a prospective rapprochement and Sein’s pro-west gestures.
However, human rights groups remain extremely concerned about the welfare of civilians in Kachin state, caught in a bitter war far from the capital, virtually without any form of international monitoring.
A powerful article by Edward Wong in the New York Times contributed to a murmur of high-level media interest in the issue; whereas, the Irrawady newspaper, effectively Burma’s free-press-in-exile operating from Thailand, have provided important coverage.
Amnesty International’s Benjamin Zawacki, also writing from neighbouring Thailand, said: “reports of ongoing human rights violations in Kachin state are credible and consistent…these violations target civilians and contradict the otherwise prevailing narrative of reform”. He added that it was Amnesty’s position that “the EU and US should be demanding an end to these [abuses].”
Human Rights Watch wrote in October last year that the suspension of a controversial Chinese-backed hydropower project in Kachin state appeared to have been “one of several factors in the renewed hostilities”, which had already led at that stage to multiple alleged atrocities. Local opposition to the dam had been crucial in stalling the project.
Whatever the reasons for the present state of affairs, the people of Kachin need immediate succour. Virtual silence from the International news media coupled with a lack of political will may yet enable a preventable human tragedy, to the shame of us all.
It wouldn’t be the first failure of this kind in recent years – yet it needn’t be the next.Tagged in: Benjamin Zawacki, burma, civil war, Edward Wong, human rights watch, Kachin, Thein Sein
Recent Posts on The Foreign Desk
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter