RANGOON — The Burmese government has blamed troops from the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) for an escalation of hostilities that has displaced thousands of civilians this month in Kachin State, amid claims by rebel leaders that government forces have repeatedly been the first to attack.
Ye Htut, the presidential spokesman in Naypyidaw, accused the KIA of violating a ceasefire agreement during the recent surge in fighting, which has left 22 soldiers dead and 5,000 people displaced.
“Ground troops from the KIA need to follow regulations of the ceasefire agreements. There is no fighting from other ethnic armed groups such as the Karen, the Mon, the Kayah and others because they respect their ceasefire agreements,” Ye Htut told The Irrawaddy on Monday.
Unlike almost all other major ethnic armed groups in Burma, the KIA does not currently have a ceasefire agreement with the government. A ceasefire signed by both sides in 1994 broke down three years ago when government forces launched offensives in the state. Earlier this year the KIA and the government agreed to de-escalate hostilities, but a formal ceasefire remains elusive.
“The Tatmadaw only fights to defend itself, and they have been instructed not to attack first,” Ye Htut added, referring to the government’s army. It is important to stop the secret shooting of our troops, which was responsible for the killing of our one of our majors.”
A major from the Tatmadaw was killed by the KIA on April 4 while stationed in a KIA-controlled area of northern Shan State to offer security during the nationwide census. The KIA said he was killed because he had not informed the rebel group that he would be working in their territory.
The political wing of the KIA, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), says the Tatmadaw has gone beyond defense. “They are using strong military offensives to attack us and invade our land,” Daung Khar, a member of the KIO’s technical consultancy team, told The Irrawaddy.
“They have not respected our border line. The troops cross the line without informing us. It’s not only the Kachin who would shoot in this situation. Even the Wa or the Shan would shoot if someone crossed the border line without informing,” he added, referring to two other ethnic armed groups.
Regarding the case of the Burmese major, he said, “Our troops tried to stop his car, but he would not stop, so they fired inside the car. This wasn’t secretive shooting, we did it in public.”
Following the death of the Burmese major, a wave of clashes started on April 10 and appear to be the most serious fighting since early 2013. Fourteen government soldiers and eight rebels have been killed, while more than 5,000 people have been displaced in eastern Kachin and neighboring Shan states. They join about 100,000 others who have fled from their homes since the ceasefire broke down in 2011.
“This is the second time they have started major hostilities,” Daung Khar said, referring to government attacks on KIA headquarters in Laiza in early 2013. “Because of the fighting, our KIA and the Kachin people are losing trust in the Burmese army and the Burmese government.”
The clashes this month seem to be linked to the deployment of more Burmese troops in Kachin State during the census, which ended on April 10. The government said it sent soldiers for security, as the census was controversial among many ethnic groups including the Kachin. The population count was not carried out in KIA territory after the rebel group declined to take part.
The fighting also comes as the government continues to engage more than a dozen ethnic armed groups in peace talks. The government has signed individual ceasefire deals with all but two groups, the KIA and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), which operates mostly in northern Shan State. Officials in Naypyidaw are pushing to consolidate the individual ceasefires into a nationwide ceasefire pact.
“The ongoing peace process will not be set back because of the fighting,” Ye Htut said.
“The clashes are continuing because there is no agreement on a border line between the two sides,” he added. “This is proof for why we need regulations through a ceasefire agreement.”
Last week the KIA deputy chief of staff, Gen. Gun Maw visited Washington, where he reportedly asked US officials to get involved in Burma’s peace process. The popular Kachin leader is his group’s point man in ongoing peace negotiations with the central government and appears to be the most senior KIA official ever to visit the United States.