Burma: invisible war in Kachin state

Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to the US last week won wide media attention as she met with Hillary Clinton, was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, and addressed the US Institute of Peace. (VOA, Daily Beast, Sept. 18) The world paid little note as, simultaneously, fighting flared in Burma’s northern Kachin state between government troops and the Kachin Independence Army, leaving at least 150 displaced. Villagers fleeing the fighting have taken refuge in the town of Hpakant in the west of the state, with local relief groups struggling to provide assistance to displaced residents. Pastor Naw Ja of a Catholic church in Hpakant said there are about 1,000 displaced persons being sheltered in his parish after fleeing fighting in nearby villages over the past months. “There are many difficulties—there are outbreaks of diseases such as flu, diarrhea, malaria and it’s getting increasingly difficult to continue providing them with food and shelter,” said Naw Ja. (Democratic Voice of Burma, Sept. 25)

While largely invisible to the outside world, the war in the north is not forgotten within Burma. In the largest popular demonstration since the 2007 Saffron Revolution, hundreds of protesters marched through Rangoon on Sept. 21 to mark International Peace Day and to demand an end to the ongoing conflicts in Burma’s ethnic regions. In a defiant move rarely seen in Burma, protesters gathered in front of Rangoon’s City Hall in the morning before marching in procession through the busy street to a popular recreational area, Inya Lake, where a prayer service for national peace was held in the evening. The protest, organized by civic groups including the Kachin Peace Network, was the first public demonstration conducted in Rangoon without government approval since the recent democratic opening.

One of the march organizers, Wai Lu, was recently released from detention after participating in protests against land confiscations in Sagaing division (bordering Kachin state on the west; see map). He said that even though they had applied for permission, the authorities “denied it under the pretext that the protest might cause public disorder or traffic jams.” Speaking to exile-based newspaper The Irrawaddy, he said, “We know it’s risky, but we are all here for national peace. It has nothing to do with politics. Without peace, there can be no development.” (The Irrawaddy, Sept. 21)