As Kachin conflict escalates, fears rise and trust collapses.
As recent events in Rakhine state draw international attention to fragility in Myanmar, the armed conflict in Kachin state continues to be sidelined, despite approaching its sixth anniversary and a severely deteriorating situation in recent months. Armed clashes are rampant, thousands are being displaced or re-displaced, humanitarian access is extremely restricted – particularly to areas controlled by the Kachin Independence Organisation – and displaced people have minimal safe options for relocation.
Armed clashes in recent months near existing IDP camps causing more than 6,000 IDPs to be re-displaced are increasing the sense of fear and anxiety, as one recently re-displaced person explained.
“Even within the camp, fierce mortar shelling and gun shooting noises were heard for the whole night. Many mortar shells fell around Zai Awng IDP camp. On that very night, the whole camp had a shocked feeling, like the world was coming to an end.”
Despite long-term peace being a stated priority for the government, Tatmadaw and ethnic armed groups, the escalating fighting and displacement are leading many to question the sincerity of peace as a priority.
Interviewing approximately 100 people in January from eight Kachin townships about their experiences and perceptions towards peace, security, trust and other issues, Nyein Foundation’s conflict monitoring seeks to gauge IDP perceptions. Despite a small sample size, January’s survey shows a significant shift in sentiment across the state toward anxiety and despair.
The prevalence of hearing gunshots or explosions increased from 51 percent in October to 80.4 percent in January, while armed conflict reported near camps increased from 36 percent to 48.9 percent. As the conflict spreads, the relative sanctuary of camps is being lost. As one displaced person near Waingmaw town explained: “We hear and see the fighter jets flying over us. We now think they might bomb us and just call it an accident.” This is very unlikely in such close proximity to Waingmaw and Myitkyina towns, but it demonstrates that fear is the new norm.
When respondents were asked whether they had faith that the current peace process could achieve lasting peace, the results are damning: 52 percent expressed at least some confidence in October, plummeting to only 20.6 percent in January. People who felt that “priority community issues are included in current peace processes” also dropped, from 53 percent in October to just 18.5 percent in January.
Anecdotally, these results appear to extend well beyond IDPs, as the Kachin public and civil society are increasingly disenchanted. The overtures of the first 21st Century Panglong peace conference garnered national and international attention, and were even met with cautious optimism in Kachin. This faded quickly when armed conflict and displacements escalated; undermining what little trust existed.
Between October and January, surveyed IDPs indicating some or complete trust in the Tatmadaw dropped from 15 percent to 9.8 percent; trust in the Myanmar government remained stable, rising from 28 percent to 29.4 percent; and trust in the KIO/A declined from 90 percent to 82.7 percent. It is clear that escalating fighting cannot be the way forward, as declining trust reinforces long-term barriers to peace and reconciliation.
At this critical juncture in Kachin State – and Myanmar – uncertainty over the upcoming second round of the 21st Century Panglong talks pervades. Will there be progress or should we ready for a further escalation of fighting and displacement?
Kachin civil society, primarily the Joint Strategy Team have been speaking out, working behind the scenes and calling on armed groups, the Tatmadaw, the government and the international community to put civilians and particular IDPs first, but to what avail?
The silence is deafening, punctuated by airstrikes and heavy artillery. An immediate cessation of hostilities, protection of civilians and guarantees of unfettered humanitarian access are urgently required, but this has been known for a long time, yet the opposite is happening.
National and international actors alike must now acknowledge that we cannot be content with the ways in which we currently operate. Our actions have failed to yield significant progress while a violent and tragic conflict continues.
It is a status quo that we cannot accept, but is there the will to do things differently?
This article is written as part of the Durable Peace Programme in Kachin, a consortium of KBC, KMSS, Metta, Nyein Foundation, Oxfam, SwissAid and Trócaire that is funded through a €7 million grant from the European Union. The views in this article are the sole responsibility of the authors and in no way represent those of the European Union.
This is an updated version of an article that was first published here in Frontier Myanmar.
Currently working as Oxfam’s Research and Communications Adviser, Dustin is passionate about doing things differently to better challenge structures of inequity and injustice, particularly giving primacy to national ownership and the voices of those most affected by injustice. Possessing an academic background in philosophy, politics and development studies, including a Masters from Cambridge, so that he could drop it into bios like this, Dustin has primarily worked in South East Asia, Central Asia and East Africa, across various thematic areas, such as gender equity, displacement and youth development.
Hkinjawng Naw (Laser) is a development practitioner working closely with civil society and communities in Kachin, particularly IDPs, to support peace and development. Through various writing, Hkinjawng Naw (Laser) hopes to raise greater awareness of the challenges people in Kachin face and encourage people to take action for justice in Kachin.