- The Washington Times - Friday, February 10, 2012

A civil war between Myanmar’s army and Christian rebels in the Asian nation’s northernmost state is threatening the military-backed government’s efforts to normalize relations with the West.

The Obama administration and the European Union have made peace with rebel groups a key condition for lifting sanctions on Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

Myanmar's government has achieved cease-fires with some rebels and promoted political reforms to shed the country’s status as an international pariah.

The fighting in the state of Kachin, however, has escalated since the breakdown of a 17-year truce with the government in June. It has continued despite President Thein Sein’s orders in early December that the army end the war. The Myanmar army and the Kachin Independence Army blame each other for provoking the recent hostilities.

Ethnic Kachin activists and human rights groups accuse the army of raping, torturing and executing civilians. They claim soldiers looted their food and forced some Kachins to walk in front of soldiers to trigger landmines.

** FILE ** Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi (left) meets with President Thein Sein at the presidential office in the capital of Naypyitaw in 2010. (Associated Press)
** FILE ** Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi (left) meets ... more >

Bauk Gyar, a Kachin activist who was in the conflict zone in December, said women, children and the elderly are not spared.

“Everyone has suffered abuses. And after they persecute these people, they kill them,” she told an audience at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington last week.

The rebels have also been accused of killing civilians.

In recent months, tens of thousands of Kachins have fled to refugee camps across the border in China.

Thein Sein, a retired general, has taken a number of steps during the past few months that have resulted in a thaw in his country’s relationship with the West.

Among his most significant reforms was his decision to allow opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent many years in prison and under house arrest, to participate in parliamentary elections on April 1. The government has also released hundreds of political prisoners and signed cease-fire agreements with ethnic rebels throughout the country.

Ending the decades-long ethnic rebellions is proving to the biggest challenge for the government.

“The ethnic issue is the most long-standing and difficult problem to resolve,” said a Western official who asked not to be identified citing the sensitive nature of the matter.

“The government has negotiated cease-fire agreements, but the question now is: Are these agreements going to be enforced?”

Uncertainty also hangs over the fate of more than 500 political prisoners freed as part of a government amnesty since October. The prisoners’ release is conditional. They can be forced to serve out the remaining portion of their prison terms if they are arrested again.

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