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A Special Report by ICC
3/30/2013 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – The Burma army has finally allowed the United Nations to provide humanitarian aid to the tens of thousands of displaced people, mostly Christian, in the war-torn Kachin state. It has also held peace talks with Kachin rebels. But one thing the federal government is not willing to do is stop military attacks.
While the attacks have slowed down in the recent weeks, the latest assault on Kachin rebels was reported as recently as on Feb. 24 near the towns of Sawlaw and Chipwe.
Fighting erupted in June 2011, when the Burma army chose to break a 17-year-old ceasefire after the 2010 general election – first in two decades of military rule. Around last Christmas, and in the following weeks, government troops used airstrikes and artillery to launch attacks, confirming fears that their goal is to militarily defeat the rebels in the predominantly-Christian state bordering China instead of devolution.
Kachin people say the war has killed about 400 civilians and displaced over 100,000 people. More than 95 percent of the Kachin people are Christian.
There are seven major ethnic armed groups in Burma, also known as Myanmar, that have been fighting for a greater autonomy from the federal government, which, they say, is dominated by Buddhists from the majority Burman ethnic group. All the major rebel groups, except the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), have signed ceasefires with the Burma army over the last two years. The KIA says they will sign a peace pact only after the federal government comes up with a political solution to the conflict and amends the 2008 constitution, which leaves no room for devolution.
Kachin people – civilians as well as rebels – see their demand for autonomy primarily as a struggle for their cultural and religious rights. They have been able to practice their religion freely thus far only because the KIA hasn’t allowed the Burma army into their areas.
During British rule in Burma, which ended in 1948, the states with majority ethnic minority populations were administered separately, and were called “Excluded Areas” or “Frontier Areas” – as opposed to what was known as “Ministerial Burma” or “Burma Proper,” where mostly the Burman people lived. The British had direct rule in Burma Proper, but indirect in Frontier Areas.
After the British left, the two separate administrative units were joined into one as the Union of Burma through the 1947 Panglong Agreement, which was led by General Aung San – Aung San Suu Kyi’s father and the then head of the interim government. The agreement allowed non-Burman areas real autonomy and the right to secede. However, a few months after the signing of the agreement, Gen. Aung San and several of his cabinet members were assassinated by political rivals, apparently because of his belief in pluralism and federalism.
Beginning with Burman nationalist U Nu in 1948, all successive leaders refused to honor the Panglong Agreement while all non-Burman ethic states were officially considered part of the Union.
The Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) – whose military wing is the KIA – was formed after U Nu’s government passed the State Religion Bill in a joint session of Parliament, making Buddhism the state religion, in 1961.
The current, nominally civilian government may not be targeting the Kachin rebels because they are Christian, but the fear of losing religious freedom is real for the Kachin people. For in other non-Burman ethnic states where the federal government has full control, it is the Burman culture that is officially promoted.
Freedom of religion is the main concern the Kachin civilians have today, as the Burma army is strategically aiming to capture Laiza, the headquarters of the KIA. The use of fighter jets by government troops last December and in January 2013 was mainly to gain control of strategic hilltop positions near Laiza.
KIA’s defeat is important for the Burma army because it is the strongest army in the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), a coalition of 11 ethnic resistance groups – which is seen as the biggest hurdle by the federal government in realizing its goal of having a perfect centrist rule with no autonomous region.
But for the Kachin people, Burma army’s victory over Laiza would mean the beginning of their forced assimilation into the “national culture” and restrictions on religious freedom.