Angered by the death of a 2-year-old girl, thousands of protesters marched through Myitkyina, capital of Burma’s Kachin state, last week, demanding an end to Burmese military offensives. Protesters called for the Burmese army to withdraw its troops from the Kachin region, give unhindered access to humanitarian aid and stop human rights abuses.
Two separate protests, on Monday and Thursday, came after months of escalating clashes between the Burmese military and ethnic armed groups, and the death on Oct. 1 of a 2-year-old girl who was hit by mortar fire.
“Because of the reckless offensives of the Burmese military, children are killed and injured,” said Tsa Ji, of the Kachin Development Network Group, one of the organizers of Thursday’s protest.
It was 6:10 Saturday morning, as the children were outside playing, when six mortar grenades landed in Pu Wang village in Mung Koe Township in northeastern Burma, close to the Chinese border, residents recounted. Zung Myaw was hit by shrapnel in her head and neck. Her playmates, two boys, ages 3 and 4, were hit in their stomach and thigh. One mortar round reportedly remains unexploded in the village.
The parents of the children rushed them to hospitals across the border in Yunnan province, China. On her way there, Zung Myaw died from her injuries. She was buried in the village the day after.
After decades of conflict, insecurity, forced displacement and lack of development, public protests have been gathering strength in Burma’s ethnic areas. Tsa Ji said they’ll keep up the demonstrations and continue to demand an end to the fighting.
“We want genuine peace. Children are getting killed, families destroyed, women raped and innocent civilians tortured,” he said. “We have realized we, the public, need to start acting.”
When asked to comment on the shelling of Pu Wang village, Maj. Gen. Aung Ye Win, a spokesman at the Ministry of Defense, said, “The Myanmar armed forces were not involved in any clashes on that day, as far as I know.” He refused to give any further comments on the events.
A spokesman for the Kachin Independence Army said there were no rebel troops stationed in or around Pu Wang village at the time of the shelling.
“It definitely was the Burmese army,” said Lt. Col. Naw Bu of the KIA. “They often use the same type of mortars that we have seen from the incident.”
On Sept. 30, the day before the shelling, the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon released a statement saying it was “deeply concerned by the ongoing fighting” and urged “relevant authorities to adhere strictly to their responsibility to protect civilians.”
The embassy statement also said the “increase in conflict” has “the potential to undermine the progress and goodwill” generated by a recent peace conference that brought together the country’s ethnic armed groups, the military and the government.
Col. Lahpai Zau Raw, the general secretary of the Kachin Independence Council, said the increase in clashes is evidence that the Burmese military, which according to the 2008 constitution is beyond the control of the civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, does not share the Nobel laureate’s ambitions for peace.
“As we met for the first round of peace talks in the beginning of September, the military attacked several of our outposts with heavy artillery and helicopter gunships,” he said. “We’ve seen how they’ve reinforced their presence here in the north, and we expect an even bigger offensive sometime soon.”
Since renewed fighting broke out between the KIA and the Burmese military in 2011, more than 300 villages have reportedly been destroyed. According to the United Nations refugee agency, an additional 100,000 people have been internally displaced in Kachin and Shan states.
Over the past couple of months, the Burmese military has intensified its attacks on rebel groups in north and northeastern Burma. According to rebels, the military has been trying to drive a wedge between the different KIA brigades that protect the rebel headquarters in Laiza. At the same time, in western Kachin state, the Burmese military has focused its forces on the mining town of Hpakant, where the Kachin rebels have their main source of income through the mining and trading of jade.
On Friday, President Obama formally announced the lifting of U.S. sanctions on Burma. The country’s former dictator, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, was removed from the U.S. Treasury’s blacklist along with another 16 senior military officials. A number of businesses with ties to the military also were removed from the list, including Myanmar Economic Holdings, Myawaddy Bank and Burma’s state-owned arms and ordnance manufacturer, the Directorate of Defense Industries.