Saturday, December 8, 2012

Global think tank honors Thein Sein, ignores Kachin state war crimes allegations


In recognition of President Thein Sein's “bold and visionary reform initiatives” the International Crisis Group (ICG), dubbed the world's largest think tank, will bestow the ex-general turned civilian politician with its annual Pursuit of Peace Award next April.

The ICG has chosen to celebrate General Than Shwe's hand-picked successor in spite of the fact that the army ostensibly under Thein Sein's control has committed what human rights groups describe as war crimes against civilians in Kachin state. The ICG however has opted to overlook this serious blemish on Thein Sein's record focusing instead on his much heralded peace initiative.

Thein Sein “has made vast strides in ending the decades-long conflict affecting Myanmar,” said the ICG in a brief bio which accompanied last month's press release announcing the award. Since Thein Sein came to office “all but one of the ethnic armed groups have signed preliminary ceasefires with the government, and it is hoped that an agreement will also soon be reached with the Kachin Independence Organization,” said the ICG press release.

What the ICG doesn't say is that the military's conflict with the KIO began in June of last year, less than three months after Thein Sein's nominally civilian government took power.  A bloody conflict that resumed when the army chose to unilaterally attack the KIO ending a 17-year ceasefire.  According to Human Rights Watch since Thein Sein took office the military has carried out serious human rights abuses against Kachin civilians including numerous acts of rape, torture and extrajudicial killing.

The fact that the UN estimates that 75,000 Kachin civilians have been displaced by the army's Kachin offensive appears to be of little concern to the ICG, a group which receives annual funding from US oil giant Chevron, a firm that has extensive operations in Burma including a large stake in the infamous Yadana pipeline. A project built with the assistance of forced labour provided by Karen villagers during the 1990's which was the subject of a landmark lawsuit in US courts.

In awarding Thein Sein a peace prize the ICG also chose to ignore credible reports from human rights group which indicate that government officials may have been complicit in the violence in Arakan state where more than 130,000 people mostly from the stateless Rohingya community have been have displaced since June of this year.

The ICG's deliberate decision to hand a peace prize to Thein Sein in spite of the current situation in Kachin and Arakan states is hardly surprising given the organization's previous coverage of these issues. In a widely circulated op-ed published in the New York Times in March, ICG President Louise Arbour, painted a grossly inaccurate picture of Burma's Kachin conflict.  According to Arbour under Thein Sein's leadership Burma's nominally civilian government “has abandoned policies of confrontation with the country’s ethnic minorities for a new peace initiative that has seen 11 cease-fire agreements signed with armed groups, leaving out only the resistant Kachin.”

Aside from the fact that Arbour chose not to actually name the KIO or its armed wing and thus imply that the entire Kachin people are insurgents, there is a great deal wrong with the aforementioned sentence. The average reader of Arbour's article would likely not know that the entire combined armed forces of the groups that have signed new ceasefires with the government under Thein Sein's direction is less than the current standing force of the KIO's armed wing. Burma's second largest armed rebel group which conservative estimates put at 10,000 strong.

The fighting between Burma's military and the KIO which only resumed after Thein Sein took office has been some of the worst to hit Burma's north since World War II. Clashes between the two sides have been taking place on a near daily basis along long stretches of the China Burma border from north western Shan state's Kutkai region to Pangwa north east of the Myitkyina. Heavy fighting has also spread across to the west of Kachin state to the jade rich Hpakant region and the ecologically sensitive Hukaung (or Hugawng) valley located next to the Indian border.

It was Burma's army presumably operating under the direction of the then newly installed President Thein Sein that arbitrarily chose to end the 17-year ceasefire with the KIO last year by launching a full scale offensive. The Thein Sein government's subsequent ceasefires with the Karen National Union (KNU), the Shan State Army South (SSA-S), the New Mon State Party (NMSP) and several other relatively small armed groups has simply shifted the Burmese military's battlefield from eastern Burma along the Thai-Burma border to Kachin and the north western Shan states. A sleight of hand that is hardly worthy of a peace prize.


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