Despite plenty of fighting, refugees and bloodshed the international media has largely ignored the ongoing conflict between Burma's army and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), which has now entered its 14 months.
Most of the global coverage about Burma over the past year has focused instead on Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) entering the military dominated parliament and a series of limited reforms that Thein Sein's government has so far implemented.
On the relatively rare occasion that the Kachin conflict is mentioned in global news coverage, far too often the journalists doing the reporting fail to mention that the army chose to end its 17-year ceasefire with the KIO, three months after Thein Sein's nominally civilian government took power. A key indicator that not all of the changes that have occurred during Thein Sein rule have been positive.
Several journalists have even confused the historical background of the KIO with that of the Karen National Union (KNU), Burma's oldest armed ethnic group. While the 50 year-old Kachin fight for autonomy mirrors the Karen struggle in many ways, there are some key differences that must not be overlooked.
Journalists such as Financial Times correspondent Gwen Robinson do their readers a major disservice when claiming as she did on March 21 that the KIO's conflict with the government “began shortly after the country gained independence from Britain in 1948”.
While the KNU's armed insurrection began in 1948 the KIO's armed rebellion did not begin until much later in 1961. One of the reasons there was no immediate uprising by Kachin forces following independence is because senior figures from the Kachin community signed a potentially far reaching agreement with General Aung San on February 12, 1947, after a week-long conference which was boycotted by the Karen leadership.
The Panglong agreement also signed by traditional leaders from the Chin and Shan communities promised these groups a fair amount of autonomy over their own affairs in exchange for their support for Burma's independence. Aung San's death just months later brought an end to the dream of Panglong, his successor U Nu never fully implemented the agreement in particular the promise of local autonomy. In 1953 U Nu did pay superficial homage to the Panglong agreement by making the annual anniversary a national holiday.
Throughout his rule many of U Nu's policies antagonized those ethnic nationalities who took part in Panglong, this includes making a major pillar of his 1960 re-election campaign goal of constitutional amendment declaring Buddhism the state religion. A move that helped fuel the beginning of the KIO's armed rebellion in February 1961. U Nu against the advice of even some of the country's most prominent Buddhists including Burma's first President Sao Shwe Thaike, nevertheless pushed the controversial amendment through parliament in August 1961.
The fact that several of the most important points agreed to Panglong were never put into effect by the U Nu or his military successor Ne Win remains a major point of contention for the KIO, whose leadership have frequently invoked Panglong during the series of negotiations they have had over the past 8 months with Burmese government representatives.
Few if any international journalists who cover the Kachin conflict bother to mention Panglong despite the fact that it is a key talking point for KIO spokespeople. One notable exception was a feature article written by photographer and filmmaker Nic Dunlop that published in June in Britain's Daily Telegraph.
Dunlop's article which went into some depth about the Kachin conflict and importantly detailed how the army has ignored President Thein Sein's public orders that the Kachin offensive be halted, was quite rare. Unlike Dunlop's article more often than not when the Kachin conflict is mentioned at all it is cited as a minor issue of little importance when compared with the much publicized but limited reforms that have occurred so far under Thein Sein's watch.
Western audiences have also been saturated with a steady stream of op-eds heralding the change in Burma which devote less than a line or two to the Kachin conflict. The including an article published last month that was authored by the former head of Amnesty International USA, William F Schulz, in which he suggests that the mere fact he received a visa to go to Burma is a strong indication of the level of change underway.
On wonders however if Schulz receiving a visa had less to do with any changes that have taken place in Burma and more to do with the fact that the human rights organization he currently heads the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, is not on the Burmese government's radar because has not released any statement or reports criticizing Burma's armed forces for committing continued human rights abuses in Kachin state or condemning the alleged collusion between anti-Muslim mobs in Arakan state and the army, as Schulz's former employer Amnesty International has done.
Schulz and others like him who downplay or completely ignore the Kachin conflict in their upbeat analysis on developments in Burma, appear completely unaware that the more than 75,000 people have been forced to flee their homes since the Kachin conflict began last year, triggering the largest upheaval to hit Kachin state since the Second World War.
Meanwhile Financial Times writer Robinson who remains one of the few international correspondents regularly sent to Burma to report on what is going on can't even manage to cover the peace negotiations accurately. In a June 26 article she claimed incorrectly that the just concluded round of peace talks in Mai Ja Yang were the first such talks to take place on Burmese soil. In fact a previous a round of talks were held in Mai Ja Yang a few weeks before, these talks like the follow-up Mai Ja Yang meetings were covered by Burma's exiled media.
One is left to wonder if Robinson is deliberately misrepresenting the Kachin conflict or just incompetent. A blog posting on the Financial Post website from March 13 that co-authored by Robinson suggested that NGO's are to blame for sowing discontent among local people living in the vicinity of the now stalled Myitsone dam. The blog largely dismissed the well founded fears held by local residents that large scale gold mining and harvesting of sand for cement are continuing to ruin the environment at the confluence of the Mali Hka and N’Mai Hka rivers, a site sacred to many Kachin.
Instead of examining these reports in details Robinson and her co-author smugly claimed “It’s quite a stretch from dam-building to gold-panning. No wonder, Chinese state companies find NGOs difficult.” A questionable conclusion when Burma's government continues to refuse to allow more than 2,000 people forcibly displaced from the area to return home and large trucks can be seen moving in and out of the Myitsone area on a regular basis.
But at least Robinson in her reporting does cover the Kachin conflict from time to time. When New York Times Reporter Jane Perlez traveled to the Kachin state capital Myitkyina in April to report on the potential for US Burmese cooperation in the search for the remains of World War Two era US war dead, she omitted any mention of the Kachin conflict. This despite the fact that much of the Kachin countryside where the US airman's bodies lie is now a conflict zone. It is hard to see how Perlez upon arriving in Myitkyina could have missed obvious signs of tension in Myitikyina, including numerous army checkpoints.
In an similarly myopic March 31 article filed by Perlez from the northern Shan State town of Hsipaw, the author claimed that the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) which is building a hugely controversial pipeline that going from Burma's Arakan coast to Yunnan had learned from the unpopular and now officially stalled Myitsone dam and was compensating villagers who would be relocated by the construction of South East Asia's longest pipeline.
Perlez failed to mention that just a quick drive north of Hsipaw fighting between the Burmese army and the KIO has been taking place for months along a long stretch of territory slated to be the route of the pipeline.
The ignorance displayed by Perlez about the pipeline stands in sharp contrast with a May 2009 article written by her New York Time colleague Thomas Fuller which quoted senior KIO leader Major General Gam Shawng warning that the pipeline would be used by Burma's military for its own strategic purposes to crush groups like the KIO. “The pipeline will be a tool and an opportunity for the [Burmese regime] to eliminate the armed groups,” Major General Gam Shawng said, a prediction that has now come true.
That Perlez is unaware of the fact that the Shwe pipeline's projected path heads through a stretch of traditional KIO territory which is currently the location of regular heavy fighting is hardly surprising given her other equally shallow reporting on Burma. Perlez and other foreign journalists who travel to Burma without bothering to learn any background about the ongoing Kachin offensive are sadly all too common these days.