Fri 18 Jan 2013
Filed under: Inside Burma,Military,News
After weeks of intense fighting near the border with China, the Myanmar government on Friday announced what appeared to be a unilateral cease-fire in its offensive against ethnic Kachin rebels. The government also said it would pursue peace talks.
The announcement, which was made on state television during the main evening newscast, came only hours after Parliament approved a resolution calling for an end to a year and a half of fighting and as Myanmar’s actions have come under increased international scrutiny.
The Myanmar military has intensified its campaign against the Kachin rebels since the end of December, and witnesses described frequent shelling in and around Laiza, the rebel base. The rebels had been losing territory almost daily.
Many questions remain about the cease-fire, including whether the military will comply with the order. President Thein Sein — who is not the commander in chief under the country’s new constitution — had suggested several times that the army was not supposed to go on the offensive, but only to act in defense, but it has been unclear how strongly he was pushing the army to stop fighting.
Friday’s announcement was much more detailed, including a precise time (by 6 a.m. Saturday) when the cease-fire was supposed to go into effect.
It was unclear how the Kachin rebels would react. One leading Kachin voice, the Rev. Samson Hkalam, the general secretary of the Kachin Baptist Convention, said by telephone that he was skeptical of the announcement.
“According to our experience, the declarations by the government are one thing,” he said. “What the army does is another.”
He also said the cease-fire was very limited in its scope. “There are many areas that Myanmar troops occupy,” he said. “The cease-fire applies to only one area.”
According to the announcement, the cease-fire applies to the area around the town of Lajayang, the site of the major fighting. It is not known what that means for the rest of Kachin State, where the rebels control numerous pockets of territory.
The statement said the military had “concluded its conditional mission” in the Lajayang offensive and had secured the “safety of troops.”
The government’s statement on Friday said there had been more than a thousand “battles” between Kachin rebels and government troops since Dec. 10. It also said the military had suffered many casualties, but did not give a number. A military officer, however, said 218 government troops have been killed and 764 injured since Nov. 15, according to an official tally. The officer requested anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information, which came from a military report.
The cease-fire announcement came as the commander in chief of Myanmar’s armed forces, Vice Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing, is on an official visit to Singapore and Malaysia.
The fighting has raised concerns that Myanmar, formerly Burma, is backsliding in its efforts at national reconciliation. Myanmar has faced a chorus of international concern, including from its ally China, which issued a sharp rebuke on Thursday after an artillery shell landed on its territory.
Inside Myanmar, there has also been increased tension among other ethnic groups, a point underlined by two documents issued recently by minority groups.
One of those statements was issued by the leaders of the Wa, a heavily armed ethnic group whose territory is also near the Chinese border. The Wa have thousands of men under arms but have a cease-fire agreement with the government.
The Wa statement, which was co-signed by two other groups, warned of a return to civil war in Myanmar. “The country will return backward” if the fighting does not stop, the statement said.
The debates leading up to the cease-fire have been notable for the relative absence of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader and Nobel laureate, who earlier in the week was quoted as saying that she would not take a major role in seeking a halt to the fighting because it was not her purview in Parliament.
Instead, the speaker of the lower house of Parliament, Thura Shwe Mann, commanded the spotlight. He rushed the motion for an immediate halt to hostilities in Kachin State to a vote — without prior discussion — because he said the issue was “vital for the country,” according to Burmese news reports.
Before the Myanmar government’s announcement, official Chinese news organizations reported that people from Myanmar had been fleeing the fighting and entering southwestern China, where many were living in the homes of family members and friends.
The reports, which appeared this week, said the number of those arriving in China was growing, but did not give estimates. An article published online by People’s Daily, the Communist Party mouthpiece, said some hotels near the border between Yunnan Province and Kachin State in Myanmar were fully booked.
Myanmar’s army has been pressing a campaign against the rebel Kachin Independence Army since June 2011, when a 17-year cease-fire collapsed. The rebels controlled a large swath of territory in Kachin State and protected it as an autonomous region. The fighting has disrupted Chinese hydroelectric projects in the region and jade mining, an important part of the border trade in Yunnan.
Thousands of Kachin, who are mostly Christian, entered Yunnan after the breakdown of the 2011 cease-fire, and many took shelter in refugee camps. Chinese Christians showed up at the camps to provide aid, as did ethnic Kachin living in China, who are called Jingpo in Mandarin. Last August, officials in Yunnan forced most of the refugees to leave the camps and return to the war zone. Human Rights Watch and other advocacy groups criticized the forced evictions.
Thomas Fuller reported from Bangkok and Edward Wong from Beijing. Wai Moe contributed reporting from Yangon, Myanmar.