Deep in the resource-rich hills of northern Burma’s Kachin state, a civil war grinds on between government forces and Kachin rebels, calling into question the more conciliatory signals emanating from the country. Over the past year, an estimated 75,000 civilians have been driven from their homes.
Shifting front lines have pushed thousands more refugees into China, where aid is scarcely able to reach them.
International rights groups accuse the Burmese army of deliberate attacks against civilians, torture, rape, forced conscription and summary executions. Both sides employ child soldiers and seed the ground with land mines that have claimed the lives of combatants and civilians alike.
The conflict, which reignited when a 17-year cease-fire collapsed last June, persists despite a political thaw in lowland southern Burma that has taken hardened observers by surprise. Since coming to power last year, the nominally civilian government has freed hundreds of prisoners, eased media censorship and reached agreements with other ethnic minority rebel groups in a wide-ranging push to open up the country.
In remote Kachin, however, the fate of ancestral lands has been a sticking point for the mostly Christian Kachin rebels, who have a reputation for fearsome hit-and-run guerrilla tactics that date to World War II. The Kachins are one of more than 100 ethnic minorities in Burma, a strategic crossroads bordering China, India and Thailand.
Western governments that for decades kept their distance from Burma, also known as Myanmar, have responded favorably to the general thaw. After special elections in April in which democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to parliament, the European Union suspended most of its sanctions. The United States, for its part, has removed barriers to investment and appointed its first ambassador in 22 years.
Having traveled to Burma on an official visit in November, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in May urged American businesses to “invest in Burma, and do it responsibly,” with the caveat that broader sanctions would remain in place to prevent “backsliding.”
Foreign analysts say that enduring U.S. concerns over human rights abuses and ethnic conflicts are not lost on Burmese President Thein Sein, a former general, but that his calls for a military cease-fire in Kachin state are being ignored by military leaders.
Indeed, Burmese government forces have ramped up their offensive against the Kachin Independence Army, underscoring the limits of civilian authority and the vast wealth at stake in the hinterlands.
Known as the “Land of Blue and Gold,” Kachin has mountain jungles and river valleys that abound with minerals, jade and timber. Kachin state also has massive hydropower projects that stand to benefit energy-starved China, which has invested billions in the region, at the expense of ethnic Kachin natives.