Poring over pictures of bullet-riddled bodies and charred villages, peace mediators say Myanmar’s far north is writhing in the grip of a “resource war” with no end in sight.
Fighting in Kachin state has raged since a 17-year ceasefire between Myanmar’s army and ethnic minority rebels crumbled last June, displacing up to 70,000 people in an unwelcome distraction from sweeping political reforms.
A group of four local businessmen led by a prominent jade tycoon have brokered multiple rounds of negotiations since November, seeking an elusive ceasefire, following a presidential order to the army to stop fighting.
But the mediators evince frustration as clashes have continued amid a massive troop buildup in the region — fueling speculation as to whether the reformist president wields full control over the once-omnipotent army.
“The president is like a referee in a boxing match. Once he says ‘time’s up,’ the sparring must stop,” peace mediator and jade tycoon Yup Zau Hkawng told AFP in an interview in late May. “But that has not happened.”
In May the government overhauled its negotiating team, putting President Thein Sein at the helm of the process and eliminating some elements seen by Kachin Independence Army (KIA) rebels as being linked to army hardliners.
The new team led by Railways Minister Aung Min has since held three rounds of talks in an attempt to build trust, but the situation on the ground has yet to show any tangible sign of improvement.
At a recent town hall meeting in the state capital Myitkyina there was a rare and impassioned outpouring of local grievances that observers say are fanning the conflict.
Some asked for the constitution to be amended to provide more legislative and administrative powers to the state, a long-standing demand of the locals who chafe at central government’s stranglehold over the resource-rich region.
“Timber, jade, gold… all of Kachin’s natural resources are used to develop lower Myanmar. Why not spend it on developing Kachin?” asked one local, according to two observers who attended the meeting.
The abundant wealth of resources in Kachin, wedged between India and China, is seen both as an impetus for war and an impediment to halting it.
“Several multi-million-dollar projects are in the conflict zone and each party to the conflict has an economic interest in the outcome of the war. China is the elephant in the room,” said Matthew Smith, a consultant to Human Rights Watch and the author of a recent report on abuses and forced displacement in Kachin.
The building of a twin oil and gas pipeline from western Rakhine state, across rebel-held territory, to China’s Yunnan province is currently in progress.
The government has allegedly sold off rights to timber and other valuable resources such as jade to Chinese companies and local businessmen seen as loyal to the regime.
Kachin is also home to several planned hydropower projects to supply electricity to China.
“This is a resource war — a war to gain control over Kachin’s wealth,” said Yup Zau Hkawng. “The Kachin people have benefited the least and are suffering the most because of this war.”
In a recent report, Amnesty International accused Myanmar’s army of “indiscriminate attacks” against minority civilians that amounted to “war crimes”.
It held the army responsible in Kachin for unlawful destruction of food and property, forced labor, extrajudicial executions and shelling that killed children.
UN supplies have been allowed into conflict-affected areas in recent months, but local aid workers say the army has deliberately restricted access to humanitarian agencies, cutting off aid to tens of thousands of people.
“Women have been raped, men tortured, villages pillaged, schools burned,” Yup Zau Hkawng said, sifting through photographs of such atrocities collected by local aid groups. “Kachin is living in the dark ages.”
Rights groups also accuse the KIA of abuses including the use of child soldiers and landmines.
The peace mediators have pressed for an exit strategy for the army from frontline areas controlled by the rebels, while continuing to advocate the signing of a new ceasefire.
“We’ve told them [the government], ‘Look, you have a stronger, bigger army. You must take the initiative and withdraw’,” said Yup Zau Hkawng. “Peace will be impossible if you have troops and rebels arrayed against each other in the state.”
In December Thein Sein personally assured the mediators that the army would be withdrawn within days, he said.
Several rounds of peace talks held in the Chinese border city of Ruili ended with “positive sounding” statements as both sides showed a willingness to explore a negotiated settlement and agreed to moderate troop movements, Yup Zau Hkawng said, leafing through a hefty file of documents from the negotiations.
But the government continued to send reinforcements and mount offensives on rebel turf — with some such actions taken just days after the talks ended.
“The KIA would call us and ask, ‘Why are they sending more troops? Why are they continuing to launch attacks? They agreed to stop’,” he said. “We told them we are equally clueless.”
Yup Zau Hkawng said the army was engaging in a reckless game of chicken — claiming unrealistically it believes it can militarily win the war even though the Kachin rebels enjoy a groundswell of local support.
“Their thinking is they can finish them [the rebels] off once and for all and set an example for other ethnic groups. But it has been a year since the war erupted and there is still no end in sight,” he said.
“A political solution is the only way out.”