By: Michele Penna

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.   

Motives unclear

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.