Saturday, July 18, 2015

Airstrikes, clashes in Kachin state's Putao district displace civilians

Airstrikes,clashes in Kachin state's Putao district displace civilians
More than 1,000 Kachin civilians have been forced to flee their homes since the Tatmadaw (Burma's armed forces) carried out airstrikes on positions held by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) near the village of Mali Yang in northern Kachin state last Saturday July 11th.

The area where the airstrikes took place is located in Putao District's Sumpra Bum Township east of the Mali Hka river. The airstrikes occurred on Saturday not Monday as incorrectly reported in other media. It appears that no KIA were killed during the airstrikes, although this has yet to be formally confirmed.

The airstrikes which involved two planes targeting KIA positions are just the latest in a series of incidents in which the army has deployed planes this year to target KIA forces, something that was rarely if ever carried out during the KIA's previous period of conflict with the central government.

The airstrikes were both followed and preceded by armed clashes between KIA forces from the group's 7 Battalion (part of Brigade 1) and army forces from a range of units. The army troops involved who also shelled KIA positions were from Infantry Battalions (IB) 46, 137 and 138 based in Putao, IBs 29 and 37 from Myitkyina as well as troops from Light Infantry Division (LID) 33. Other troops affiliated with the Military Operation Command No. 3 based in Mogaung were also involved according to the KIA. During their attack on KIA units Burmese army forces were supported by militia troops from the Rebellion Resistance Force (RRF), a mostly ethnic Rawang militia based in Putao that is led by Tanggu Dang.

Speaking to the Kachin News Group (KNG) last week a senior KIA official based at the group's defacto capital Laiza, Col Zau Tawng said the clashes were clearly an attempt to push the KIA out of the area. "The Burma army has made a fresh offensive against the KIA in order to wipe out the KIA from territory between the Mali Hka river and the Myitkyina to Putao route". Col Zau Tawng warned that the the latest offensive “would harm” ongoing peace talks.

Displaced Kachin Civilians “seriously at risk” in Putao district

Aid workers have informed the Kachin News Group (KNG) that they are very concerned about the fate of the more than 1,000 civilians who have been displaced by the recent wave of fighting who are “seriously at risk”. Army authorities have so far not allowed aid groups to reach the displaced civilians many of whom have fled to an area still controlled by the KIA. While the Kachin State Chief Minister La John Ngan Hsai appears to be somewhat concerned about the situation he is unable to authorize aid groups to travel to the area and only the army and other central government authorities can give approval for this.

A member of the Myitkyina based Peace Creation Group (PCG). a group of prominent Kachin businessman who are supporting the Kachin peace process told Radio Free Asia (RFA) in an interview broadcast on July 16th that more than 1,000 people have been displaced by recent wave of fighting, a figure confirmed by KNG.

“What we heard last is that more than 1,000 villagers have fled to the east bank of the [Mali Hka] river, where the KIO [Kachin Independence Organization] administration is assisting them,” said San Aung of the Peace Creation Group. According to RFA an official with the Kachin State Security and Border Affairs Ministry who declined to be identified claimed that a group called the “Kachin Baptist Council” was assisting villagers displaced by the fighting. An apparent reference to the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC), the largest church group operating in Kachin state who along with other aid groups appear yet to have received government permission to travel to the area where the displaced families are taking shelter.

It remains to be seen if UN agencies operating in Kachin state including United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian, (UNOCHA), the World Food Program (WFP) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) will be allowed to go the area or send supplies there. The area where the latest fighting has taken place is a 2 or 3 day journey south from Putao town and sending aid there will be a difficult task. Shipping aid along the Mali Hka river appears not to be an option at the moment due to recent restrictions imposed by the army on river travel.

Putao district is known for having scenic views and Burma's tallest mountains. Burmese billionaire arms dealer and mountain climbing enthusiast, Tay Za has a high priced resort there the Malikha Lodge which was the focus of a glowing New York Times travel story penned in January by Orville Schell, the current  Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the New York based Asia Society.

Schell, a former  dean at the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, erroneously claimed in his article that Burma was still a British colony in 1949, just one of many errors in his story (independence was in fact achieved in 1948). An article that glossed over the serious environmental damage inflicted on the area by army backed mining and logging which was done in such a way as to suggest that Putao is some kind of “undisturbed” paradise. Schell's distorted characterization of Putao serves to prove his claim that “some of the world’s most retrograde authoritarian states end up being such inadvertent conservators of both their country’s architectural heritage and vast tracts of wild, unspoiled nature.”


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