YANGON, Myanmar – The government and ethnic Kachin rebels blamed each other Monday for an upsurge in fighting in northern Myanmar, with the government denying it carried out an air offensive on rebel-held territory.
President’s office director Maj. Zaw Htay said that helicopters and jets alleged by the Kachin to have carried out attacks in recent days were actually used mainly to supply government units whose access to supplies by road has been cut off by the Kachin Independence Army.
The government said the upsurge in fighting followed the Christmas Eve destruction of a power pylon by the rebels. It came as the government delivered an ultimatum to the Kachin to clear a road by Christmas Day so it could supply an army base.
However, the government base at Lajayang is very close to KIA headquarters at Laiza, which is the rebel group’s last major outpost. The Kachin rejected the ultimatum for fear of a government attack on their base.
KIA spokesman La Nan said by email that the fighting was sparked by a government offensive against the rebels.
The Kachin, like Myanmar’s other ethnic minorities, have long sought greater autonomy from the central government. It is the only major ethnic rebel group not to reach a cease-fire agreement with the elected government of President Thein Sein, which came to power last year.
Fighting erupted in Kachin state in June last year after the KIA refused to abandon a strategic base near a hydropower plant that is a joint venture with a Chinese company. There have been off-and-on skirmishes between the KIA and government troops, often escalating into serious bombardment by government troops.
The tension with ethnic minorities, especially evidenced by the fighting against the Kachin, is considered the major long-term problem for any Myanmar government, and a threat to its nascent democracy after almost five decades of military rule.
The fighting in the north is in a remote area not easily accessible to outsiders. The situation is more complicated by a seeming disconnect between the government and the still-powerful military, which retains much power behind the scenes. An order late last year by President Thein Sein to halt offensive operations was not honored in practice.
The government denials of air attacks were not absolute. The state-owned New Light of Myanmar newspaper reported Monday that “the Myanmar air force has used its planes to deliver food supplies to its troops and local people and also to provide security for the workers who are repairing roads and bridges damaged by the KIA attacks.”
The newspaper said the KIA on Saturday attacked technicians trying to repair the power pylon, and also attacked a government supply convoy a day earlier, wounding one person.
“The military has given assurances that they are not launching an offensive against the KIA headquarters at Laiza,” Zaw Htay told The Associated Press. “The aircraft activities are mainly to send supplies to troops in Lajayang military camp, which has run out of food supplies.”
Lajayang is about 6 miles from Laiza, near the border with China.
Zaw Htay said that the problems can be resolved through dialogue, and the immediate tension can be lifted if the KIA removes its blockade of the army ground supply route.
“The best solution is to hold a dialogue between the government and the Kachin. Government peace committee leaders have asked the KIA for a dialogue but there is no reply yet from them,” said Zaw Htay.
KIA spokesman La Nan said it regarded the government’s Christmas ultimatum as a declaration to solve the struggle between the two sides through military rather than political means.
He said that what the Kachin regarded as a new government offensive was apparently meant to force the Kachin to accept the government’s terms for peace.
He said the electricity pylon was damaged when helicopter gunships launched rocket attacks against a Kachin camp and that engineers there fled because of a heavy artillery bombardment by government troops.
He charged that the supplies being sent to government troops on the front lines include ammunition as well as rice.
“We will obstruct any army convoy that carries arms and ammunition that will be used against us,” he said. “This is the nature of war.”