A Ceasefire Destroyed: A Brief Guide to Understanding Ethnic Conflict in Burma

The history and current situation of ethnic conflict in Burma is a complicated issue. Want to begin to understand what is happening in the renewed conflict in Northern Burma? You can read below for an update and/or also keep on reading for a brief background on ethnic conflict in Burma. 

A Kachin Refugee Family at Mai Ja Yang

The Recent Outbreak of Fighting in the Kachin Areas

Conflict has broken out in Northern Burma, for the first time since a ceasefire agreement was signed in 1994 between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Tatmadaw (the central army of Burma’s military regime). This renewed fighting near the China-Burma border has been building over the past year, ever since the military regime declared that all ethnic armed groups must come under full control of the central military regime. The KIA and other Kachin leaders have repeatedly declared that what they demand is ethnic equality, and will not give up their arms until ethnic peoples are respected. Here is a video from December 2010 that gives a good overview of the Kachin situation.

The Tatmadaw has been steadily building up troop presence in and around Kachin State, and the tension reached a tipping point just a few days ago. Shooting began on June 9th when 500 regime troops marched into Sang Gang, a KIA post, and started shooting KIA troops. The KIA shot back and fighting lasted several hours.

On June 11th, the military regime demanded that the KIA remove all their troops from the Sang Gang Post. The area is right next to two Chinese-run hydropower projects. The military regime wanted to ensure that the electricity could be transported to China. The KIA refused to move, as this area is very strategic for them.

On June 12th, the Kachin asked for a resolution through peaceful means and asked to talk in order to come to a resolution. However, the regime never responded to this plea for peace. A senior KIA figure has said that they have now “issued an order to all of its forces to launch full-scale resistance war against the attack made by the Burmese military regime’s troops.” The KIA decided to leave the Sang Gang post, but not without destroying key bridges to inhibit the military regime from bringing more troops into Kachin areas.

Map of the Area Where Bridges Destroyed (by Kachin News Group)

This has led to fighting and artillery shelling in the Mamauk and Bhamo regions of northern Shan State. There have been casualties on both sides. The KIA is now mobilizing along the front-lines. Apparently, the latest armed conflict between the regime and ethnic troops is spreading to other parts of Kachin State and Shan State. The regime also has closed roads from Bhamo and Myitkyina to Chinese border. The military regime is mobilizing more of their troops for likely a larger attack. The KIA only has roughly 10,000 troops, which is meager in comparison with the regime’s over 400,000 troops. However, the Kachin seem ready to defend their land.

Several thousand people have been displaced, though it is difficult to calculate for sure. Some people have fled to China and have been allowed in, but there are no official refugee camps.  Local community-based organization and women’s groups have formed a relief committee for supporting those refugees. The committee said they are in dire need for food, medical supplies and other items. Some people have not been allowed inside China and are hiding along the border.

See more photos of the current situation here.

Read US Campaign for Burma’s recent Press Release here

A Brief Background on Ethnic Conflict in Burma

Map of Ethnic Groups in Burma

In order to understand the current clashes in Kachin areas in Northern Shan State, it is essential to have at least some idea of the conflict’s historical foundations. For decades, Burma’s various ethnic groups (accounting for roughly a third of the nation’s population) have been struggling for basic rights and protection from unjust attacks. Every major ethnic group in Burma has their own armed group. Burma’s military regime, which is composed predominantly of the Burman ethnic group, has consistently responded to the demands of other ethnic groups with violence and aggression, targeting not just armed resistance but civilian populations. Almost all ethnic groups are not calling for separation from Burma, but just a federal system where the rights of ethnic peoples are respected.

Political rights, race, religion, and control of natural resources all play a heavy role in the situation. Burma’s ethnic areas are rich with gems, timber, natural gas, and rivers for hydropower projects. All these natural resources are valuable sources of revenue for the top military leaders and their cronies.

There are roughly 30 ethnic armed groups in Burma, representing various ethnic communities. The media likes to refer to them as “rebels”, but that doesn’t present the full situation. Many ethnic armed groups see themselves more as protectors of their people, rather than just rebels fighting against the military regime. Some are weak with few soldiers and some are very strong with lots of resources. Lots of the ethnic armed groups signed ceasefire agreements with the military regime in the early 1990s. Active fighting stopped, but true resolutions were never reached and ethnic persecution continued in those areas. There are several ethnic armed groups that never signed ceasefire agreements, and there has been ongoing conflict in those areas. In some cases, such as the Karen struggle, conflict has been lasting for over 60 years. The military regime’s focus on wiping out any resistance has created one of the worst humanitarian disasters in Asia. The military regime has systematically used horrific measures such as forced labor, forced displacement, sexual violence, and executions. Millions of people have been displaced from their homes. Click here to see a map of all the displaced villages in Eastern Burma. They has done so without having to face any degree of justice. Click here to learn more about crimes against humanity in Burma. 

In the past year, the tension has severely increased. Before the elections, the military regime told all ceasefire groups that they needed to come under complete control of the central army and become what they termed “Border Guard Forces” (BGF). Most ethnic armed groups were appalled by this option. They did not want to give up their arms and the small amount of autonomy they had, and especially did not want to come under the authority of the military regime who for so long had abused their people. Some groups did decide to join the Border Guard Force. Most of these were smaller, weaker armies. See a list of all current active non-state armed groups in Burma

The military regime gave deadlines for ethnic armed groups to join the Border Guard Force, but most refused to comply.

 What Has Been Happening Since the Election?

Ever since the election, renewed conflict has been popping up in various parts of Burma. The military regime has increased militarization in almost all ethnic areas, putting pressure on ethnic armed groups, as well as perpetrating violence against communities. This has furthered human rights violations as well as trafficking, poverty, and other serious problems.

On the day of the election in November 2010, a group of Karen soldiers who belonged to the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), one of the Border Guard Forces, were unhappy with being under the control of the military regime and broke away and started fighting the Burmese army. The fighting sent roughly 30,000 people fleeing into Thailand. Read more about what happened here. Fighting along the Thai-Burma border has not ceased and more and more DKBA soldiers are joining the Karen non-ceasefire army – the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA).

Conflict and building BGF tensions is also rising in Shan, Karenni, and Mon State. Since last month the military regime has begun attacking other Shan groups in Shan State. We will give more updates on these situations soon. This situation will not be resolved soon as long as the military regime and their new puppet parliament pay no attention to the demands of ethnic peoples. The military regime’s focus is not finding resolutions that will bring lasting peace. What they want is to wipe out all opposition to their total rule.

Kachin Refugees at Mai Ja Yang

2 thoughts on “A Ceasefire Destroyed: A Brief Guide to Understanding Ethnic Conflict in Burma

  1. Very Sad situation going on in Burma. I just met a girl that attends WKU who’s family is in peril. Only 1 family member can come to the U.S. so if her 18 year old sister isn’t able to attend college in Thailand she will be forced into joining the military regime.

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