Broadening the Scope: The Need to Take a Holistic Look at Myanmar’s Conflicts
While much attention was on the visit of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to Myanmar and Bangladesh last week, the Myanmar Army was heavily shelling civilian areas in Kachin State, and blocking civilians from seeking refuge. In response, approximately 5,000 people in the Kachin State capital of Myitkyina protested the army’s actions, calling for the rescue of over 3,000 civilians trapped in conflict areas and the delivery of aid to all those displaced by violence. These attacks, although different in some ways from those perpetrated against the Rohingya, need to be on the UNSC’s radar. Conflict in different parts of Myanmar is undeniably linked, and any efforts toward accountability for the army’s crimes must not focus only on one part of the country, but take a holistic view of the entire context, including the systems and institutions that promote impunity and systematic destruction of minorities.
In recent months, the fighting between the Myanmar Army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), resulting mainly from the Myanmar Army’s offensives against the KIA, is some of the most intense fighting Myanmar has seen in decades. The Myanmar Army has used fighter jets and armed helicopters to fire indiscriminately on KIA posts and civilian areas, wounding and killing many civilians, and targeting areas close to IDP camps. Tens of thousands have been displaced, many of whom are still living in internally displaced persons (IDPs) camps and some of whom do not have access to humanitarian aid since the Myanmar Army will not allow humanitarian organizations to cross into KIA-controlled territory. Civil society in the area has also documented many cases of rape and other forms of sexual violence, torture, arbitrary detention, and other horrific crimes committed by the Myanmar Army against Kachin civilians.
Starting on 30 April, 2018, Kachin youth and civil society have held a series of protests and sit-ins demanding an end to conflict, an end to Myanmar Army restrictions on the delivery of humanitarian aid, and the safe passage of civilians who became trapped in conflict areas and were blocked from seeking safe passage when they tried to flee the Myanmar Army’s attacks. After several days and nights of persistency and resiliency by Kachin civil society, particularly youth, these protests have succeeded to some extent in increasing domestic attention on the issue, including inspiring several solidarity protests in Yangon and elsewhere. On May 3 the protesters achieved a meeting with the Kachin State Chief Minister, who then pledged to negotiate to seek the safe passage of the trapped civilians. The Kachin State government has apparently donated funds to assist the thousands of recently displaced civilians, but has succeeded in evacuating only around 130. Meanwhile, the Government in Naypyidaw has been conspicuously silent, and on 27 April letter from the Kachin Baptist Convention to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi urging her to intervene has gone unanswered.
These events have also reinvigorated calls to end the conflict in Kachin State and to allow humanitarian access to and support of all displaced populations. A joint statement between national and international humanitarian organizations expressed alarm about attacks against civilians and denial of humanitarian access. The organizations called on the Myanmar Army to cease all hostilities near IDP camps and other civilian areas, guarantee safe passage, remove restrictions on humanitarian assistance to the displaced, and to abide by international humanitarian and human rights law.
Despite increasing pressure, the Myanmar Army continues to repeat that same denials and excuses that have been used for decades. During the visit of the UNSC, Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing again denied that his troops had committed sexual violence, and said that strong action is being taken against any offenders. However, as several ethnic women’s rights organizations with years of experience documenting human rights violations pointed out, decades of well-documented cases of sexual violence committed by Myanmar Army troops in ethnic nationality areas have gone unpunished. In this context of blanket denials, it is hard to be encouraged by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s suggestion that evidence be shared with Myanmar authorities, and her assurances that they would conduct a proper investigation.
The Myanmar Army poses an existential threat to all minorities, even if the context and rhetoric it uses to justify its attacks is not always the same. While the intensity and scale of violations may vary, the crimes committed against Rohingya are the same crimes that have been committed against other minorities during decades of conflict, and that are still being committed against the Kachin as well as other ethnic minorities. The mentality of the Myanmar Army and its determination to annihilate those who are deemed different from the military’s idealized and politicized version of a Burman identity were on full display in Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing’s recent speech in Putao, Kachin State, where he claimed that the Rohingya “do not have any characteristics or culture in common with the ethnicities of Myanmar. The tensions were fueled because the [Rohingya] demanded citizenship.” The message was clearly heard by the Kachin and other ethnic nationalities – act more like ‘us,’ don’t demand too much, or you will be next.
That is why it was disappointing and shortsighted, as the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand pointed out, that the UNSC did not visit or even comment on the attacks in Kachin State that took place on the same day of their visit to Myanmar. The crimes committed in Rakhine State must be seen in the context of the crimes committed by the Myanmar Army in other parts of the country, as they are part of the same violent assimilationist policies. Meanwhile, the continued overarching control that the Myanmar Army has over the Government allows it to block the Government from hearing the voices and understanding the suffering of ethnic nationalities, and from protecting them. This pattern of violations requires a well-formulated, sophisticated system of accountability, international elements of which would include referral to the International Criminal Court along with a global arms embargo and targeted sanctions against military leaders. These international measures should not be limited to the situation in Rakhine State, but should encompass all conflict-affected parts of ethnic regions in the country.
In the short-term, urgent pressure must be brought to bear on the Myanmar Army to allow safe passage to civilians trapped in conflict areas, as well as to remove all restrictions on the delivery of humanitarian aid to displaced populations and to abide by its obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law. The Myanmar Government must also do its best to advance these goals if it hopes to ever regain the trust of ethnic nationalities – which is first and foremost essential to achieving genuine peace and reconciliation.
Sustainable peace will not be possible until the Myanmar Army and the Myanmar Government see ethnic civilians as equal stakeholders of this country, whose equal rights must be recognized and protected, not as threats to be controlled or eliminated.
 One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.
Resources from the past week
Statements and Press Releases
Reuters Reporters Imprisoned in Myanmar Symbolize Worldwide Fight for Free Expression on World Press Freedom Day
By Amnesty International USA
Myanmar: Pattern of Attacks on Press Freedom Must End
By Article 19
Muslims Jailed For Three Months For Street Prayers
By Burma Human Rights Network
Buddhist Ultra Nationalists Group Targeting Religious Premises in Hinthada Township, Irrawaddy
By Burma Human Rights Network
Burma: Renewed Fighting in Kachin State as Community Appeals to UN
By Christian Solidarity Worldwide
Beyond Rakhine, civilians at risk in Northern Shan and Kachin as violence continues in Myanmar
By International Rescue Committee
Letter to President of ADB concerning with GMS East–West Corridor Eindu to Kawkareik Road Project
By International Financial Institutions Watch Myanmar, Karen Environmental and Social Action Network and Thwee Community Development Network
Kachin Public Youth’s Statement for the Rescue of Civilians Trapped in the Conflict
By Kachin Public Youth
UN Security Council Must Act to End Ongoing Crimes Against Humanity in northern Burma
By Kachin Women Association Thailand
Statement on Prohibiting the Rescuing Mission of the Stranded IDPs in Kachin State by the Tatmadaw
By Kachin Youth Demonstration Leading Committee
Myanmar: UN Expert says Civilians Must be Protected as Kachin Violence Mounts
By Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
Urgent Call for Safe Passage of Ethnic Villagers Trapped by Myanmar Tatmadaw Offensives throughout Kachin State and for Provision of Humanitarian Aid
By People’s Action Committee for Humanitarian Aid
ျမန္မာ့တပ္မေတာ္မွ စစ္ဆင္ေရးေၾကာင့္ ကခ်င္ျပည္နယ္အႏွံ႔ ေဒသခံတုိင္းရင္းသားပိတ္မိေနသူမ်ား လြတ္ေျမာက္ေရးႏွင့္ လူသားခ်င္းစာနာေထာက္ထားမႈကူညီေထာက္ပံ့မႈမ်ား အလ်င္အျမန္ရရိွရန္ သေဘာထားထုတ္ျပန္ျခင္း
By People’s Action Committee for Humanitarian Aid
Statement by the United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Myanmar, Knut Ostby, ten years after Cyclone Nargis
By UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Myanmar
Transcript of the Press Conference at the End of the UN Security Council’s Visit to Myanmar
By UN Security Council – Ms. Joanna Wronecka, H.E. Mr. Gustavo Meza-Cuadra, H.E. Mr. Mansour Alotaibi and H.E, Ms. Karen Pierce
Myanmar’s Media Freedom at Risk
By Free Expression Myanmar
Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”