Clashes, mistrust overshadow Myanmar peace process
Soldiers from the All Burma Students Democratic Front - Northern Burma, an ally of the Kachin Independence Army, at an outpost on the Laja Yang frontline in Myanmar's Kachin state on September 22, 2012 - by Soe Than Win
Conflict in remote, mountainous Kachin near the border with China has displaced 100,000 people since a 17-year ceasefire collapsed in 2011.
A week of heavy fighting near several displacement camps in southern Kachin caused 2,700 people to flee in mid-April, according to the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), many for the second or third time.
Those clashes have fed mistrust of the military, casting a pall over talks aimed at securing a nationwide end to hostilities, which are entering a crucial phase, observers said.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in April warned the violence had "ominous implications".
"Unless they (both sides) step back from the brink and stop tit-for-tat actions, the prospects of progress towards a comprehensive nationwide ceasefire and political dialogue could be seriously jeopardised," he said.
Rebels have also expressed alarm at the military's refusal to set out a framework towards agreeing a federal political and security system -- a key demand of minority regions.
"The military cannot accept the building of a federal union and ethnic equal rights at the moment," Naing Han Tha, leader of the armed groups' Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team, told AFP.
"But ethnic minorities cannot accept being swallowed by their (the military's) ideology of superiority... Until we can resolve this there will be conflicts," he added.
- Longest-running civil war -
Ethnically diverse Myanmar has suffered the longest-running civil war in the world with multiple insurgencies in its ethnic minority borderlands that flared soon after independence from British colonial rule in 1948.
The former junta saw maintaining the country's unity as a key justification for its grip on the nation.
A quasi-civilian regime that took power in 2011 has signed ceasefires with 14 of the 16 major armed ethnic groups, but deals with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) in Shan state have so far proved elusive.
The government insists political dialogue will only be possible after the end of hostilities is agreed.
Myanmar's army is now "taking a front seat" in the ceasefire negotiations as talks reach the "core substance" of the conflict, said a Western observer with knowledge of the peace process, who asked not to be named.
A recent report from think-tank International Crisis Group said the military's actions in the ongoing conflict in Kachin "have been deeply troubling", but added it was not clear that clashes were an attempt by the army to derail the peace process as a whole.
Despite their concerns, a coalition of ethnic armed groups seem determined to stay at the negotiating table, with the next round of dialogue set for May 19 and 20.
The Kachin rebels' political arm has also proposed a new set of ceasefire talks in their state capital Myitkyina this month.
- Thousands of civilians suffering -
While the peace process reaches a pivotal point, suffering continues for thousands of civilians in Kachin.
In his final report on the country last month, the United Nations' human rights envoy to the country Tomas Ojea Quintana praised progress on the peace talks, but called on the military and armed groups to do more to include human rights issues in the national agreement.
Quintana said he heard allegations of "sexual violence against Kachin women and the arbitrary detention and torture, during detention, of young Kachin men" during a visit to northern Myanmar earlier this year.
The total death toll since fighting began in 2011 is unknown, although a report in an army-owned newspaper said at least eight government soldiers and 14 KIA troops were killed in April alone.
Nearly three years of conflict has brought deep hardship to the tens of thousands of displaced people in the camps.
Many of those made homeless are farmers who have been cut off from their land and livelihoods, while the shelters meant as temporary housing have taken on an air of shabby permanence.
Around half of those displaced are in rebel-held areas and were almost completely cut off from international aid until late last year when authorities began granting limited permission for humanitarian access.
Landmines are also of serious concern in the region as the fighting continues, with both sides accused of using the munitions.
Deacon Maji Naw, 71, has been displaced three times since the ceasefire was broken in June 2011.
First fleeing to the KIA stronghold of Laiza and then to Myitkyina, he was urged by the military to return home in November 2012.
Once there he found government soldiers had occupied much of his village, forcing him to leave again.
"Now we will only go home when the government and the KIA sign an agreement on the ceasefire and when they both say we can go home," he said at the Bethlehem camp near Myitkyina in a government-controlled area.
"Only then we will go back."
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