Rights groups say Myanmar troops have committed serious rights abuses in a campaign against ethnic Kachin rebels, forcing tens of thousands of civilians to flee their homes since June 2011.
Mark Farmaner is the director of Burma Campaign UK, which works for human rights, democracy and development in Myanmar (also known as Burma).
DW: Could you give some background to the current offensive against the Kachin people in Myanmar?
Mark Farmaner: I recently visited Kachin state in the northeast of Burma, a very remote and difficult to access part of the country, where in June last year, a longstanding ceasefire between the Burmese government and the armed ethnic political party, the Kachin Independence Army, was broken by the Burmese army. They were insisting that, rather than solve the problem through political dialogue, the Kachin political party should disband its army even though it had not achieved their political goals to get some rights and autonomy.
What political goals and rights are the Kachin fighting for?
In Burma, there are eight main ethnic nationalities. Some 40 percent of the population is from a different ethnic minority. The ethnic Kachin are originally from the northern part of the country, as well as parts of India and China. They were never part of Burma proper when Burmese kings held power. They were brought into the country by the British 100 years ago. At the time of Burma's independence, many Kachin said they wanted to go back to being an independent country, but they signed an agreement with the leaders of Burma's independent movement, called the Panglong agreement, saying they would remain part of Burma for 10 years and negotiate a future deal to see whether or not they would remain part of Burma. The central government never honored that agreement. Instead, it tried to impose its own culture and its own rules on all ethnic people. Those who resisted were met with military force.
How are the Kachins different from other groups in Myanmar?
The Kachins have several different languages, they have their ethnic sub-groups. They have a history going back hundreds of years. Many of them were converted to Christianity by American missionaries 150 years ago, so they are not Buddhist like most of the central government and the military. There is the failure of the government to accept the rights of the ethnic minorities. They always seek a military solution to the problem rather than a military dialogue and this is what is happening now. The problem in Kachin state is that the Burmese army is deliberately targeting civilians. When I was there, I visited nine camps for internally displaced people. And I heard the most appalling stories from these refugees.
What kind of stories?
I interviewed a 12-year-old boy who was playing in his garden when the Burmese army soldiers came. He and his friends ran and hid in a field. They heard two shots. When he came back to his house they found his mother's body. She had been shot twice in the chest and her body was hanging over the garden fence. Everyone in the village fled and the neighbors took him away. When he returned to the village, he had to dig his mother's body out of a pit latrine so he could give her a proper burial. I spoke with women whose husbands had been shot in the field when they were farming. Other women had their husbands abducted by the Burmese army. They don't know where they are. They've not been seen. There are thousands and thousands of people in Burma, refugees, who have similar stories.
The government has also been blocking aid from the UN and other agencies...
Yes, the central government is refusing to allow aid into these areas and it does the same in other states as well. What ethnic people say is that the denial of aid is as effective as a bullet. I was in some of the camps and I saw children with malnutrition; there are skin diseases because of the overcrowding, there is no proper sanitation. They are just being given rice and salt to live on. You've got a growing humanitarian crisis there.
Is the government taking any steps to improve the situation?
The government is actively worsening the situation, although the fighting has died down now. In the villages that they have taken over, the Burmese army has taken all the people's property, even tin roofs. They've burnt some of the homes down, so even if there was peace there is nowhere for these people to go back to.
What does the future look like?
There doesn't seem to be sufficient attention being paid to what is going on in Kachin state. The narrative from the international community and the media is very much that there is positive change in Burma. But this seems to be limited to the capital, to Yangon and to central Burma. The international community seems just to be talking about a ceasefire. A ceasefire is like pressing a "pause" button on the conflict. It's not stopping the conflict. Unless there is a political solution and real political dialogue to get to the root causes of the problem, these human rights abuses, which have been going on for 60 years now, are just going to continue.
Interview: Manasi Gopalakrishnan
Editor: Anne Thomas