Thousands of people gathered yesterday at the symbolically important Manaw Park in Myitkyina, the Kachin State capital, calling for a halt to military offensives in Kachin and northern Shan states.
Daw Nang Tu, a women’s rights activist and an organiser of yesterday’s demonstration, said more than 10,000 residents assembled at Manaw Park and then held a prayer service urging an end to recent fighting between the Tatmadaw and the Kachin Independence Army.
“The military tension in Kachin and northern Shan states is too high. We call for the government’s intervention in the Tatmadaw’s aggressive military activities in the states,” she said.
Organisers had originally planned to stage a protest march through the state capital, according to Daw Nang Tu, but police and local administrative authorities later informed them that they needed to submit an official request five days in advance of the planned event, leading to yesterday’s more subdued showing.
Renewed fighting between the KIA and the Tatmadaw flared in mid-August and persisted through last month. Shrapnel from an artillery shell allegedly launched by Tatmadaw forces fighting the KIA in Muse township killed a two-year-old girl from Pu Wang village on October 1. Two other children under 10 were also hospitalised with injuries from the attack.
Tatmadaw representatives could not be reached for comment yesterday.
The shelling has prompted both domestic and international outcry, as well as fresh calls for an end to the fighting.
Women’s organisations in Kachin State sent a letter to State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi over the weekend in hopes that she would wade into the conflict to lower military tensions and to protect women and children in conflict-affected areas.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has called for the warring parties to “respect and abide by their obligations under international law” by ensuring the protection of schools and hospitals from military occupation or assault.
It also called on actors in the conflict to ensure that “children are not subjected to bombings or attacks of any kind, [and for] the end of their use and recruitment in armed forces of any kind”.
“Conflicts take a high toll on children in Myanmar,” Bertrand Bainvel, UNICEF’s representative to Myanmar, said in a statement yesterday. “All parties to the conflict must keep children out of harm’s way.”
For children, Mr Bainvel said, concerns about conflict extend beyond their immediate physical safety as displacement takes its own toll.
“They miss out on schooling and too frequently they experience physical and emotional damage as they grow up in the midst of violence,” he said.
He also said that the sufferings of children living in conflict-affected areas and their future must be of prime concern in ongoing peace talks between the government and ethnic armed groups.
“The need to protect them now cannot wait for a comprehensive agreement to be reached,” said Mr Bainvel.
A 17-year ceasefire agreement between the KIA and government broke down in June 2011, when Tatmadaw fighters attacked KIA positions along the Tarping River in Bhamaw/Bhamo township. Nearly 100,000 civilians have since been displaced by conflict in Kachin and northern Shan states, according to an August update from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
The KIA was among eight ethnic armed groups that were invited to sign last October’s nationwide ceasefire agreement but declined, with abstainers objecting to a Union Solidarity and Development Party-led process that they said was only partially inclusive.
The successor to the USDP government, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, has faced its own criticism, with its 21st-century Panglong Conference proving to be a largely symbolic affair with little discernable impact on Tatmadaw conduct on the ground.
The Tatmadaw is not, however, under the control of her civilian leadership, with the 2008 constitution guaranteeing full autonomy to the nation’s armed forces.
Others have said the civilian administration is not doing enough for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in areas of active or latent conflict.
Jaw San Naw, joint general secretary of the Kachin Democratic Party, said he had never heard of any senior government leaders – at the state or Union level – visiting IDP camps.
“Both the legislative and the executive branches are not saying anything about the fighting, while civilians’ lives are at risk amid the fighting. I think they are too afraid to raise these issues with the Tatmadaw,” he said.
“They should at least visit the camps to encourage the IDPs and give them moral support. They have not done so.”
“They are just too silent,” he added.
U Khun Maung Thaung, chair of the lower house’s Ethnic Affairs and Internal Peace Implementation Committee, said the government should persuade the military to de-escalate military tension in Kachin and Shan states, but that signing the NCA might go some way toward ending the conflict.
Critics of the NCA have said in some cases, however, the accord appears to have actually raised tensions between signatories and non-signatories, such as in northern Shan State, where members of the signatory Restoration Council of Shan State have clashed with the Ta’ang National Liberation Army since the signing.
U Khun Maung Thaung said he has called a committee meeting to discuss the latest fighting between the KIA and the Tatmadaw. When asked whether any members of the committee would raise the issue in parliament, he said the meeting tomorrow would decide.