Not Just Rohingyas, Kachin Minority Too Under Attack in Myanmar

Not Just Rohingyas, Kachin Minority Too Under Attack in Myanmar

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On the front lines, the army is pounding rebels with airstrikes and artillery. In the displacement camps, terrified civilians are building bomb shelters of sandbags and stones. And everywhere in this troubled swath of Myanmar's north, there is a growing sense the conflict will only get worse.

While the world is focused on the plight of Myanmar's Rohingya Muslims, a civil war is raging here, pitting government forces against another of the country's minorities — the Kachins, mostly Christian. It's one of the longest-running wars on earth, and it has intensified dramatically in recent months, with at least 10,000 people displaced since January alone, according to the United Nations.

The crisis, though, is also one of the world's most forgotten, overshadowed even in Myanmar by violence against Rohingya in the west, nearly 700,000 of whom have been driven into exile by the military. While the conflicts differ, they share a tragic theme, said Zau Raw, who heads a rebel committee overseeing humanitarian aid in the mountainous sliver of territory the militants control along the Chinese frontier.

Just like the Rohingya, the Kachin have begun to realize that "the army wants to wipe us out," he said. "This is a war to cleanse us."

The Kachin, who are mostly Christian, have fought for greater autonomy in this predominantly Buddhist nation since 1961. But their campaign is part of a much broader struggle for power pitting the ethnic Burman majority — who control the all-powerful military and top government posts — against dozens of ethnic minorities.

At least 20 of those groups have taken up arms since independence from Britain in 1948, and the government in recent years has signed cease-fires with 10 of them. Six other groups, including the Kachin, are still fighting.

Although military atrocities here do not match the scale of those documented against the Rohingya over the past year, a U.N. fact-finding mission in March reported "marked similarities" between the two conflicts.

Just as in Rakhine, the U.N. has received new reports of grave abuse by security forces, including killings, abductions, pillage, torture, rape and forced labor. And just like Rakhine, the government has restricted humanitarian access to desperate populations who have fled — around 120,000 people in Kachin and neighboring Shan states, according to local officials.

Those restrictions have grown significantly tighter since former opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi took office in 2016, Zau Raw said. The government is now stopping the U.N. and most international organizations from reaching rebel zones altogether, leaving it to local Baptist and Catholic groups to distribute dwindling aid.

Last week, Kachin community leaders called on the government to allow medical aid to reach 2,000 people — including children and pregnant women — who have been trapped in a forest near the front with little food or water for weeks. There has been no response.

Authorities have alleged that some of the aid ends up in the hands of rebel fighters, which rebels and humanitarian organizations staunchly deny. Zau Raw said the government's objective was simple: They're trying "to make life more difficult for civilians" living in rebel areas, he said, adding that malnutrition among children is worsening.

Myanmar's military could not be reached for comment. But presidential spokesman Zaw Htay acknowledged human rights violations have occurred — although he said both sides were to blame.

(With inputs from AP. The story has been edited for length)

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