While world watches Rohingya crisis, Burma Christian minority faces 'cleansing'

Rohingya refugees

Burma's campaign against Rohingya Muslims has taken the spotlight off a protracted offensive against another minority, this time one that is predominantly Christian.

In the north of the country, the government is also intensifying operations against the Kachin.

One of the longest-running wars in the world, it has intensified dramatically in recent months, with at least 10,000 people displaced since January alone, according to the United Nations.

While attention has been dominated by the conflict that has seen 700,000 Rohingya forced into exile, the two disputes share a tragic theme, said Zau Raw.

Zau Raw heads a rebel committee overseeing humanitarian aid in the mountainous sliver of territory the militants control along the Chinese frontier.

Just like the Rohingya, the Kachin have begun to realise that "the army wants to wipe us out", he said.

"This is a war to cleanse us."

The Kachin, have fought for greater autonomy in this predominantly Buddhist nation since 1961.

But their campaign is part of a much broader struggle for power pitting the ethnic Burman majority, who control the all-powerful military and top government posts, against dozens of ethnic minorities.

At least 20 of those groups have taken up arms since independence from Britain in 1948, and the government in recent years has signed ceasefires with 10 of them.

Six other groups, including the Kachin, are still fighting.

Although military atrocities do not match the scale of those documented against the Rohingya over the past year, a UN fact-finding mission in March reported "marked similarities" between the two conflicts.

Just as in Rakhine, the UN has received new reports of grave abuse by security forces, including killings, abductions, pillage, torture, rape and forced labour.

And just like Rakhine, the government has restricted humanitarian access to desperate populations who have fled, around 120,000 people in Kachin and neighbouring Shan states, according to local officials.

Those restrictions have grown significantly tighter since former opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi took office in 2016, Zau Raw said.

The government is now stopping the UN and most international organisations from reaching rebel zones altogether, leaving it to local Baptist and Catholic groups to distribute dwindling aid.

Last week, Kachin community leaders called on the government to allow medical aid to reach 2,000 people, including children and pregnant women, who have been trapped in a forest near the front with little food or water for weeks.

There has been no response.

Authorities have alleged that some of the aid ends up in the hands of rebel fighters, which rebels and humanitarian organisations staunchly deny.

Zau Raw said the government's objective was simple.

They are trying "to make life more difficult for civilians" living in rebel areas, he said, adding that malnutrition among children is worsening.

Burma's military could not be reached for comment.

But presidential spokesman Zaw Htay acknowledged human rights violations have occurred although he said both sides were to blame.

"Whenever there is fighting, there is collateral damage," he said, adding that the government, for its part, is keen to end the war.

"This is why we are urging the ethnic armed groups to sign a nationwide ceasefire."

Rebels of the Kachin Independence Army have met the military repeatedly for peace talks, but they have refused to sign a truce because the government does not recognise several insurgent groups they are allied with.

The Kachin have also refused to recognise the 2008 constitution, which endows the military with tremendous power.

Like most other minorities, they view their struggle as an existential fight for survival and equal rights.

The military, by contrast, sees the rebels as a "terrorist" force bent on destabilising the nation, according to rebel Brigadier General Maran Zaw Tawng.

While both sides blame each other for reigniting hostilities in Kachin State in 2011 after a 17-year truce, there has only been one military victor since then: the vastly better equipped government army.

It has seized more than 200 rebel outposts in the jade-rich state.

The latest blow came in March when an entire rebel battalion retreated from Tanai, a region whose gold and amber mines brought in vital tax revenues for the militants.

A wounded guerrilla who survived the battle, Dee La, said government forces pounded their positions for months with fighter jets, helicopter gunships and artillery.

On the final day of fighting, he described being shelled in a non-stop bombardment so fierce, he and other rebels could not even carry away the bodies of five dead comrades.

"They were using drones to locate our positions, then they would hit us with airstrikes," he said from a hospital bed in Laiza, the small town that served as rebel headquarters.

"We lost everything ... it was a failure."

The 39-year-old guerrilla was blinded in one eye and wounded in his arm when a land mine he was planting during their withdrawal detonated by accident.


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