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.
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.
Among those released was Zarganar, a popular comedian and outspoken government critic, who remains skeptical about the reforms.
“We have been released, but we are not free,” Zarganar, who uses only one name, said in an interview in Washington last week.
He called on Thein Sein to sign an unconditional release of all political prisoners and said the reforms were nothing more than a “beautiful facade.”
Zarganar said the government needs to have a better plan to end ethnic conflicts and address their causes.
“Just saying, ‘Stop the war,’ is not a resolution,” he added.
None of the reforms announced so far have been institutionalized. The laws used to arrest political prisoners remain on the books. Many civil society groups have not been allowed to legally register.
The Obama administration has responded with caution. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in January that the United States will exchange ambassadors with Myanmar for the first time in three decades.
On Monday, the administration relaxed some sanctions, making it easier for the Asian nation to secure help from the World Bank and other international financial institutions. Most sanctions remain in place.
Hard-liners, including Myanmar First Vice President Tin Aung Myint Oo and some generals, have resisted the reforms.
The military’s intentions have been hard to read, according to the Western official.
“The military is kind of a black box,” he said.
“They view themselves as a protector of the people. The question now is, ‘Are they good nationalists who want to see their country grow and prosper or do they want to protect their privileged place?’ “
David Steinberg, a Myanmar specialist at Georgetown University, said the military will only support reforms that it believes are in the national interest.
“The military has several critical things which they will protect: the autonomy of the military under any government; national unity; and state sovereignty,” he added.
The recent thaw between the West and the Myanmar government is seen by some as an opportunity to encourage the reformers.
“The U.S. must not lose this opportunity to strengthen the hands of those who are trying to bring reform,” Khin Than Myint, a member of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), said in an interview in Washington last week.
Mr. Steinberg warned that the reforms could be doomed if they are seen as instituted on the behalf of foreign states and organizations.
The reforms have to be seen as a Myanmarese solution to the country’s problems in order to succeed, he added.
The first test of the government’s commitment to reforms will come on April 1 in a scheduled election to fill 48 seats in a parliament of more than 600 seats and dominated by the military’s allies. The United States has asked the government to allow international observers to monitor the voting.
Tom Malinowski, Washington director for Human Rights Watch, said the presidential and legislative elections in 2015 will be the real test for the government.
“The situation is more hopeful than it has been in a very long time, but nothing will be settled until the elections in 2015,” he said.
“Until then [Myanmar] has a very, very long way to go.”
Mrs. Suu Kyi’s NLD party won a landslide election in 1990, but the military blocked it from taking office. The military also barred the party from the November 2010 elections, which the United States declared a sham.
Despite the reforms, little has changed for the people of Myanmar.
“The international community thinks there is a lot of change, but we are on the inside. We know true change is still a long way away,” said Khin Than Myint.