Since Myanmar seized power in a coup six weeks ago, soldiers and police have shot dead more than 200 peaceful protesters and arrested nearly 2,200 people, and beatings and torture have continued. reported more and more regularly.
In the border regions of the country, where armed ethnic groups have been fighting for self-determination for decades, the situation is becoming increasingly volatile.
On February 10, the governing body of the military regime, the State Administrative Council, dissolved the deposed civilian government office of Aung San Suu Kyi established to negotiate peace with armed ethnic organizations and announced the formation of its own negotiating team.
But many ethnic armed groups, including the 10 signatories to a national ceasefire agreement, refused to engage with the SAC; some even announced their support for the anti-coup protest movement and the people’s right to demonstrate.
Kachin State, on Myanmar’s northern border with China, where the Kachin Independence Organization / Army (KIO / A), one of the country’s largest armed groups, is fighting for self-determination since 1961, is rapidly emerging as a new front in the crisis.
Since mid-February, clashes between the KIA and the military, known as Tatmadaw, have occurred almost daily in northern Shan State, while fighting has erupted in four townships in the Kachin state since March 11, forcing hundreds of people from their homes.
A local leader in San Pya village in Hpakant commune, who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, said he woke up to the sound of explosions and gunfire at around 2 a.m. am (8:30 p.m. GMT) on the morning of March 15. three hours later, a rocket-propelled grenade fell on the village, destroying a house; residents found a second unexploded device later that day on the street.
At least 100 women and children from the village’s predominantly Christian community have found refuge in nearby churches.
“If the fighting continues, it will not be safe in the churches either,” said the local leader. “We the people have no weapons, therefore we are afraid.”
Near the confluence of the N’Mai and Mali rivers in an area called Myitsone, a wooded area 40 kilometers away [25 miles] north of Kachin state capital Myitkyina, clashes earlier this week have forced at least 100 people to flee.
A person from Gwi Htau village, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Al Jazeera that he and others fled the village after hearing gunshots nearby. Some people have since returned, while others remain in local monasteries and churches.
He says weak telephone signals, as well as the military’s decision this week to block mobile data across the country, have made it difficult to share news or information about the humanitarian needs of villagers, while no one visited the affected areas due to continued instability. . Al Jazeera spoke to the villager by phone and his voice was weak and difficult to hear due to the weak connection.
On Thursday, clashes appeared to have intensified in Hpakant township, with the KIA attacking a base in Tatmadaw and the detonation of an improvised explosive device.
The peak of the fighting in Kachin came as the military stepped up its use of lethal force, violence and threats against civilians, calling for the restoration of democracy in towns and villages across the country.
Army chief Min Aung Hlaing, who led the coup, said on Tuesday that the protests had “turned into riots and violence,” according to a state media report.
He also said that the police force “was entrusted with the duty of restraining the protests according to democratic standards with the utmost restraint” and that the Tatmadaw “aided the police troops as a rearguard in the places required to resolve difficulties and obstacles ”.
The shooting, he said, “must have dispersed the demonstrators, resulting in some casualties among the security forces and the demonstrators.”
In Kachin on March 8, police and soldiers opened fire on crowds of protesters outside a Catholic cathedral in Myitkyina, killing two minutes after a nun begged officers and soldiers for mercy.
Five days later, tensions escalated further when 10 military vehicles showed up at Kachin Theological College and Seminary, an institution at the heart of Kachin religion and culture.
According to a faculty member who requested anonymity, police and soldiers raided the dormitories and collected the names and addresses of the school’s 40 residents. Authorities have been patrolling around the building every evening, the professor said.
“We are very confused and have a lot of uncertainties. This incident prompts us to discuss how we should continue, ”they said.
On March 14, authorities again fired live ammunition at crowds of protesters in the Kachin state jade mining town of Hpakant, killing one.
Change of allegiances
The KIO / A is one of dozens of ethnic armed groups in the country. More than 100,000 people were forced from their homes after a ceasefire collapsed in 2011, but though the KIO / A and Tatmadaw were unable to reach a ceasefire Formally, the region has seen relatively little fighting since the end of 2018.
For decades, the Tatmadaw has applied what he calls a “four cuts” strategy to restrict food, funds, intelligence and recruits to areas where ethnic armed groups operate and has built a reputation for human rights violations, including killings, sexual violence, arson and enforced disappearances. , on civilian populations.
The most powerful and threatening ethnic armed groups have been labeled “illegal associations” or “terrorist groups” by the government, while few voices from the Bamar ethnic majority have spoken out against rights violations in the country. ethnic states or supported ethnic armed struggles for self-determination.
With the entire country turned back under the Tatmadaw, however, public opinion seems to be shifting. Apologies to ethnic minorities have multiplied on social media, while calls are growing for the creation of a federal army to protect the people and topple the military regime.
On February 14, the Karen National Union, a prominent armed ethnic group near the border with Thailand, announced its support for the pro-democracy protest movement and that it would help and protect all ethnic people who protested. against the coup d’etat; he has since ensured security by accompanying the demonstrators in the streets.
In Kachin, pro-KIO / A rallies have taken place in at least three townships since March 12, including the state capital, and have been attended by people from various ethnic groups, a reporter told Al Jazeera.
Col. Naw Bu, chief of KIO’s information department, told Al Jazeera that the KIO / A would not retaliate for individual attacks on people in Kachin, and that he wanted to protect everyone in the country. .
“Protesters are being killed not only in Kachin State, but also in Lower Burma,” he said. “When we say protect people, we are talking about the people of our country.”
“If the military shoot, beat, persecute and torture people, we, KIO as an armed group, will find a way to protect people,” he added, but clarified that “we don’t want to resolve this. problem using weapons. ; we prefer peaceful negotiation.
On March 14, the Committee representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), a parallel government set up to carry out the functions of the deposed elected government, issued a statement informing the people of their right to self-defense against violence in accordance with the law.
Three days later, he declared that armed ethnic organizations would no longer be considered “terrorist” or “illegal” organizations.
“The Committee sincerely recognizes, registers and congratulates all ethnic armed revolutionary organizations that make efforts together in the mindset of brothers and sisters with a strong commitment to building [a] federal democratic union, ”the CRPH said in a statement.
On Thursday, the CRPH also released a statement expressing its intention to work with the Kachin Interim Political Coordination Team towards common goals, including the establishment of a federal democratic union.
On March 11, the military government withdrew the designation of “terrorist” from the Rakhine-based Arakan army, among the most formidable armed groups in the country. But the legal designation of other ethnic armed organizations, including the KIO / A, remains.
A young Kachin from Myitkyina told Al Jazeera that he believed the time had come for armed resistance for the country, and that it was “the time for the KIO / A to stand with the people”. “If we don’t want to live under a military dictatorship, we must all fight against it,” he said.
For those who are already living in IDP camps, the resumption of fighting makes them fear they will have to flee a second time. “If war breaks out again, there will be hardly any places to go; we are already at the border, ”said a 23-year-old teacher in Je Yang camp, located near the KIO headquarters in Laiza, on the Kachin state border with China. “We are vigilant and are observing the situation.”
She also fears that the fighting could block transport and communication routes, leading to shortages of food and other humanitarian assistance.
But the main concern of her, she said, is the effect that the resumption of conflict may have on her future and that of her generation. “We are still young and we have a lot to do,” she said.
Jaw Tu Hkawng contributed to this report.