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Despite Cease-Fire, Fighting Continues in Burma's Kachin State

  • Daniel Schearf

A rebel Kachin Independence Army (KIA) 3rd Brigade soldier stands guard as they secure an area on Hka Ya mountain in Kachin province on January 20, 2013.

A rebel Kachin Independence Army (KIA) 3rd Brigade soldier stands guard as they secure an area on Hka Ya mountain in Kachin province on January 20, 2013.

Sporadic fighting has continued between Burma's army and ethnic Kachin rebels in Burma's north Kachin state, despite a government-declared unilateral cease-fire. An eyewitness tells VOA that Burmese soldiers appeared to use a brief lull in hostilities after the declaration to advance on rebel positions. The close proximity of combatants is complicating efforts for peace talks.

President Thein Sein announced the cease-fire through state television, saying it would take effect on Saturday morning for the La Ja Yang area near the China border.

But, the rebel Kachin Independence Army says Burma soldiers attacked their positions in the days that followed using heavy artillery and machine guns.

Ryan Roco is a freelance photographer working in Kachin state for the past three months. Speaking to VOA from the trenches behind KIA lines, he could see smoke from mortar attacks.

"The situation is tense. We are hearing sporadic shelling now, occasional gunfire. And, heavy fighting is expected at any moment," Roco said.

The photographer says there was a brief lull in fighting Saturday after the declared cease-fire and that airstrikes did appear to have stopped. However, he says shelling quickly resumed in the afternoon and KIA fired on advancing Burma soldiers.

"I think it would be more correct to say that fighting never actually ceased. I think that fighting quieted but I don't think fighting ever ceased from the Burmese side," Roco said. "Yesterday, when fighting began heavily at twelve o'clock, it was initiated as Burmese troops advanced towards KIA lines on Hkaya Bum, which is the last major defense mountaintop post outside of Laiza."

Roco says he is about two kilometers from Hkaya Bum and five kilometers from the rebel capital Laiza.

Min Zaw Oo is director of cease-fire negotiations and implementation at the Myanmar Peace Center in Rangoon. He says the proximity of opposing fighters, some within 300 meters of each other, has made a unilateral cease-fire difficult to enforce.

"Before they can talk about the repositioning, their units, they got to talk about how to effectively start the cease-fire," Min said. "Because, the unilateral cease-fire in realty, when the troops are in very close position, is very hard because if one side shoot the other side gonna shoot back. That will create a tit-for-tat retaliation."

Since taking office, Burma's reform-minded President Thein Sein has overseen peace deals with all ethnic rebel groups except the Kachin.

The KIA wants to maintain a high-level of autonomy while the government is pushing for more federal control.

Fighting between the Burma army and KIA broke out in June 2011, ending a 17-year-old cease-fire and displacing tens of thousands of villagers.

In December Burma warned the KIA to stop disrupting supply routes. Authorities accuse the KIA of bombing trains, roads and police stations. The military backed up its threat with attacks on rebel positions with jet fighters and helicopter gunships.

Min Zaw Oo says despite the intense and ongoing fighting parties on both sides know the conflict cannot be resolved on the battlefield.

"What we're trying to do is we're trying to bring the parties, especially those people responsible for the military from both sides," Min explained, "come to the table, spread the map, look at the positions, and start thinking how they can stop fighting effectively."

President Thein Sein on Saturday invited the political wing of the KIA, the Kachin Independence Organization, to political talks with other ethnic groups.

He told an international donor and humanitarian aid conference his government is serious about efforts at peace.

Min Zaw Oo says if fighting spills into Laiza it could trigger huge refugee flows into China.

Since December several shells have landed along or inside Chinese territory, sparking calls from Beijing for stability along the border.

China in recent days sent a military delegation and a special envoy to Burma to discuss issues including border security.

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