Many in the international community are aware of the persecution of the Myanmar ethnic group known as the Rohingya. The Myanmar government’s war against the Muslim minority received international attention 2017 when over 600,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh to escape conditions akin to ethnic cleansing, according to a top United Nations official.
For more than 50 years, however, the predominately Buddhist Myanmar military has waged separate wars against many ethnic minorities native to the country. More than 100 ethnic minorities are native to the Southeast Asian nation formerly known as Burma. Many have experienced similar levels of state violence as the Rohingya.
Now, the country’s Baptist-Christian minority known as the Kachin find themselves in the unfortunate, yet familiar, position of being targeted by the Myanmar military. According to a United Nations report, in April more than 5,000 Kachin were displaced after the military launched a campaign against them in traditional Kachin lands in the country’s mountainous north near the Chinese border.
Nsang Gum San, a Kachin activist and leader in the global Kachin Alliance now living in the United States, said the recent escalation in violence shows nothing has changed for his people since Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi became State Counsellor (a position akin to a prime minister) in 2016. Despite transitioning to a quasi-democracy in 2011, the Myanmar government and military are still dominated by the Burmese, a Buddhist ethnic group that represents roughly two-thirds of the country’s population.
“There are all of these multinational companies in Burma,” said Gum San from his Maryland home. “However, if we measure reform by having Starbucks … then we are definitely wrong. Because real reform doesn’t mean carrying out things that were witnessed in the 19th century. These are crimes against humanity.”
Little international attention
Despite accounts of the military targeting civilians and using rape as a weapon, the plight of the Kachin, like other ethnic minorities in Myanmar, hasn’t received the same level of international media attention as the Rohingya crisis (Sky News).
Why haven’t international news organizations devoted as much attention to reporting on the Kachin as they have the Rohingya? Part of the reason may be due to the scale of the military operations. Rohingya refugees displaced by government actions outnumber Kachin refugees by more than 100 times. The Kachin are typically located in a remote, difficult to access part of the country. The Rohingya have also been denied citizenship, which blocks the group from receiving an education or moving freely about the country.
Gum San attributes the lack of media attention to official control of media access. Adjacent to communist China, the jungle region of northern Myanmar is prone to government-sponsored media blackouts.
“Journalists can report from Bangladesh, they can take photos and talk to refugees,” he says. “You cannot do reporting through the China border.”
Different histories of resistance
After decades without a military, the Rohingya have recently developed an armed rebel group to fight for the Rohingya to be recognized as an ethnic group. The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacked police outposts in August 2017, killing 12 people.
However, Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army operations have mostly ended in failure. In 2017, the Myanmar military was able to displace more than 600,000 Rohingya in a span of three months. The ARSA currently controls no territory.
In contrast, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) is considered one of the most formidable rebel armies in the country, and has secured territory and a high level of political leverage through violent resistance (Radio Free Asia).
Both the Rohingya and Kachin have been branded as “terrorists” by the Myanmar military for their respective armed groups (Democratic Voice of Burma). But the concept of Rohingya violent resistance has attracted more animosity from the Burmese ethnic majority compared with the Kachin, even though the Kachin are better armed.
Anti-Muslim sentiment is strong in predominately Buddhist Myanmar. Buddhist nationalists who promote a homogenous society cite Muslims as an existential threat, claiming a Muslim plan to become the majority in Myanmar (CNN).
Pressure to avoid dissent is palpable. Even Pope Francis avoided directly speaking on the Rohingya issue, presumably out of fear of a backlash when he visited the city of Yangon.
Four cuts: Same strategy
The Kachin Independence Army poses one of the largest obstacles for the Burmese military campaign for national control, yet the military has no specialized strategy for defeating them. The military has so far employed the same strategy against the Kachin as it has in other ethnic conflicts.
Known as “four cuts,” the strategy calls for cutting off food, funds, intelligence, and recruits in areas where ethnic rebel groups operate. This almost always means targeting civilian populations, especially in rural areas, such as the recent incident in Kachin State (Burma Link). A “scorched earth” tactic there was widely cited as the reason the Myanmar military was able to reclaim ethnic-controlled territories in Southern Myanmar (Asia Times).
While the KIA is far from defeated, the Myanmar military’s strategy is slowly producing results.
George Washington University professor Christina Fink said the military’s focus on cutting off funds is a particularly effective way of degrading the KIA. Radio Free Asia reported in January 2018 the military has prioritized controlling mining operations in Kachin State, specifically targeting jade, an essential source of revenue for the rebel army.
As fighting continues, prospects for diplomacy appear slim. The KIA agreed to a ceasefire in 1994, breaking alliances with other ethnic militias to make the deal. The Christian minority was outraged when the military broke the agreement in 2011 (Foreign Policy).
“The KIA is really bitter about what happened … so they want more significant terms negotiated in the peace process if they are going to be part it,” said Fink. “And the (military) hasn’t been willing to agree to those.”
This WikiTribune story is dedicated to reporting on ethnic conflict in Myanmar.
- Who are the Kachin? How long have they been Christian?
- Why haven’t international media covered the plight of the Kachin to the same degree as the Rohingya crisis?
- Explain why some ethnic minorities in Myanmar have mixed feelings about media attention given to the Rohingya.
- Why do some pro-democracy Burmese people hold hostile views toward ethnic minorities?
- Why do the Kachin have a large army and the Rohingya do not?
- Who are the other ethnic minorities in Myanmar? Why is their situation similar or dissimilar to the Kachin?