Monhyin, a tiny town in Myanmar’s Kachin State in the northern tip of the country, has long been spared the worst of the conflict between Myanmar’s armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw, and the Kachin Independence Army, an ethnic militia that has been fighting the central government for decades.
That changed earlier this month, however, when the military attacked the KIA’s 8th Brigade, whose headquarters were located just a few miles away, hidden by the lush forests of the upper Irrawaddy Valley.
On Nov. 15, following a buildup of troops, the army deployed artillery, fighter jets and helicopter gunships to storm KIA positions, launching a violent offensive that raged until Nov. 22.
The motivation and timing for the attack are unclear, but some suspect it is part of a larger operation aimed at preserving the army’s central role in politics by creating problems that only the armed forces themselves can solve. The fighting is taking place right after a ceasefire agreement was signed between the government and some rebel groups on Oct. 15.
Advertised as an all-inclusive deal by the central authorities in Naypyidaw, the agreement fell short of expectations. As the government refused to allow three groups – the Arakan Army, the Ta-ang National Liberation Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance – to join the negotiations, only eight rebel armies signed the final document, effectively killing its “national” character.
The others, among them some of the country’s most powerful rebel organizations including the Kachin, decided to stay out due to fears that the government may be attempting to use divide-and-rule tactics to split the ethnic front and crack down on each group separately.
Sources in Kachin State are skeptical about the authorities’ intentions.
“Politics may be behind the attacks in Monhyin,” one source told Asia Sentinel. “The government doesn’t want a ceasefire, they want to show that the army is still important. People do want a ceasefire, but not unless there are strong guarantees for our people."
As the most-cited version of the events goes, skirmishes between the Tatmadaw and the KIA escalated into a full-blown battle that ended only with the capitulation of the latter's local headquarters. According to local media, the Tatmadaw even warned the KIA that it wouldn’t stop short of attacking Laiza, where the rebels' central command is located, if they failed to explain why the fighting broke out in the first place.
Clashes Coincide with Shan Offensive
The clashes in Kachin state broke out just as a large-scale offensive got underway in neighboring Shan State, where the army is battling both the Shan State Army-North and the Shan State Army-South. The conflict there began on Oct. 6 and created as many as 6,000 refugees in the space of just three weeks.
The engagements were so close to Monhyin that the military cordoned off the road next to the local pagoda, an area where people live and farm the fields.
It is hard to reconcile the serenity of the landscape today with the harsh fighting that local residents talk about, and yet only a few days ago this was a no-go zone for anyone wishing to stay alive. A villager displayed empty artillery shells which she picked up close to the shrine itself.
The town center remained safe and so far no casualties among civilians have been reported, but for the villagers who eke a life out of farms on the mountains slopes, the situation became unbearable and an estimated 600 of them were forced to look for shelter in local churches.
"During the clashes, soldiers came with guns around my house,” said Win Myint, an ethnic Kachin farmer who works in a rubber plantation just outside Monhyin. “My children could not sleep at night, we had to move away. The soldiers didn’t tell us to go away, but we had to move anyway, it was too dangerous."
Shelter in Church
Paul La Ring, the local Community Development Coordinator, says 92 people looked for shelter in St. Patrick’s Church, where he works.
"At night the armed forces searched the houses, looking for KIA soldiers and questioning women about the whereabouts of their husbands," he said in an interview.
Since the fighting petered out, people are now returning home, but often only during the day to check on their possessions – thieves are a constant worry – and work their farms, returning at dusk to sleep in town. Where possible, husbands and adult males leave the town to work, while the women and children stay behind.
"She says she will go back home tonight," Ring said, indicating an old woman who sits next to us and smiles at his comment. "But I don't know, she said the same thing yesterday."
Michele Penna is a freelance journalist who journeyed to the scene of the fighting.