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While most Americans were celebrating the memory of fallen heroes on Memorial Day, some 300 Burmese refugees used the long weekend to gather in Omaha, Nebraska, the heartland of America. They were determined to find a way to let more Americans know about the bloodshed and suffering still going on in Burma.  By Monday, they had put together a new organization – the Kachin Alliance – to bring public attention to the continuing attacks on the ethnic Kachin people of Burma.

The continued atrocities may come as a surprise to Americans who thought things were getting better in Burma.  True, a series of steps have been taken in the last year to relax the military’s grip on the country, including the limited elections that brought the long overdue election of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi to a seat in Parliament.  But at the same time, a massive military offensive has continued against ethnic groups (such as the Kachin, Shan and Chin people) that have resisted military control.

The military campaign in Northern Burma has displaced more than 75,000 refugees, who are suffering from a severe lack of food and medical care in makeshift camps along the Chinese border.  NGOs and the United Nations have tried to deliver aid, but few aid convoys have been allowed into the conflict zone by the Burmese military. The UN hopes to gain access next week.  Kachin leaders are beseeching the UN to also send some of its blue-helmeted observer teams to the conflict areas and refugee camps to witness the suffering.  In the meantime, the weakest of the weak, usually children, are dying on a daily basis from the sicknesses that stalk the pitiful accommodations.

Some of the Kachin-Americans attending the Omaha conference had recently returned from the areas under siege or have been in contact with family members in the region. They said more than 100 Burmese Army battalions have been massed in Kachin lands – troop estimates range from 50,000 to 70,000 soldiers — and were continuing to raze villages and burn churches.

“I have seen more and more soldiers being transported to the Kachin lands,” said one former teacher who came from Burma to attend the meeting.  “At the same time President Thein Sein is talking about making peace with the ethnic groups, the army is trying to wipe them out.”

Another Kachin delegate from Baltimore said the build-up could not be chalked up to a few renegade generals. “It would not be possible to direct thousands of troops from as far away as Rangoon or eastern Burma to the Kachin lands without direction from the top in Naypyidaw (the capital city),” he said.

Why is the military targeting the ethnic areas while the country’s leaders claim to be pursuing peace and outside investment?  There are multiple reasons that can be summed up – rich plunder, a strategic Chinese pipeline, and valuable hydropower.  More specifically:

  • The ethnic groups of Burma are 30 to 40 percent of the population, but their lands are blessed with the vast majority of the extractives – the gold, rubies, teak, oil, gas, and drugs that generate illicit income for many generals, their field commanders, and their business cronies.
  • The 1,100-mile pipeline that is being stretched across Burma to bring coveted oil and gas to the western provinces of China goes through the Kachin territory.  Both Burmese and Chinese leaders have a major financial stake in the pipeline and want to stifle local opposition and potential terrorism. Chinese soldiers who have been brought in to increase security on the pipeline construction recently have been accused of brutalizing Kachins in the vicinity.
  • The controversial construction of the $3.6 million Myitsone dam on the revered Irrawaddy River was supposedly suspended by President Thein Sein because environmental opposition was threatening to spiral out of control throughout the country.  But according to reports filtering out of the region, displaced residents have not been allowed to return to their homes and construction work appears to be continuing. Neighboring Kachins say the Chinese and their Burmese construction partner, Asia World, are too big to cancel out.  The head of Asia World, the largest conglomerate in Burma, is Steven Law, aka Tun Myint Naing.  When his name was added to the list of individuals placed on the U.S. sanctions list by the U.S. Treasury in 2008, President Bush described him as “a regime crony suspected of drug trafficking.”

So is a “double game” of talking peace while waging war being carried out by some Burmese and Chinese interests in order to profit from the ethnic areas?

The Kachins say something even more insidious is going on: an ethnic cleansing aimed at eliminating the national identities of the largely Christian ethnic minorities.  “That is their ultimate goal,” said Gum San, a Kachin spokesman in Omaha.  “They want to ‘Burmanize’ the country so it will be homogenous, all Burman and Buddhist.”

The Kachin point to a reign of terror against the Christian population and Christians houses of worship. “They say there are now only two types of churches left in some Kachin regions — those that have been burned and obliterated and those taken over as shelter for the Burmese forces,” said Gum San.

The violence against Christians has been masked by the ruling military’s broader efforts to subjugate all dissent in the country over the years.  But local news reports confirm the anti-Christian attacks have been widespread, sustained and deliberate:  In recent weeks, a woman was gang-raped in a church.  Earlier in the year, a Christian orphanage was mysteriously bombed, killing ten people, including seven children.  A pastor was arrested by soldiers; his whereabouts are unknown.  A Baptist church was burned the week before Christmas. And soldiers looted donation boxes in an Assemblies of God church and tortured to death the pastor’s assistant.  Some 50 church members were seized as porters.

Human Rights Watch recently issued a 83-page report documenting the violence called, “‘Untold Miseries’: Wartime Abuses and Forced Displacement in Burma’s Kachin State.”  The report contends the Burmese army has cruelly attacked Kachin villages, razed homes, pillaged properties, and forced the displacement of tens of thousands of people. According to the report, the soldiers have tortured civilians during interrogations and raped scores of women. The army has also used antipersonnel mines and conscripted forced laborers, including children as young as 14, on the front lines.

It is an alarming situation that threatens to undermine recent steps toward openness. So what can the United States or anybody do at this point?  Since economic sanctions have been suspended and put on hold, the U.S. must not make new concessions without real progress toward reconciliation with ethnic groups. At a May press conference in Washington following her meeting with Burma’s Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said the Obama administration is “concerned about violence in Kachin State in recent weeks.”  She added “I was very pleased to hear about new mechanisms, both official and non-governmental, to encourage meaningful dialogue. And as I said, the government must do all it can do.”

Yet the heavy battles between the Kachin Independent Army and the Burmese government’s armed forces are continuing.  The violence has continued this spring even while a steady stream of Western officials and diplomats visited the luxurious, surreally empty capital in Naypyidaw, including Sen. John McCain, British Prime Minister David Cameron, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe and UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon.

As Human Rights Watch has documented, the human rights violations by Burmese soldiers in Kachin State are grave breaches of international laws.  Grass roots efforts like the fledgling Kachin Alliance are a cry to the conscience of the international community.   Global leaders should be as interested in stopping the attacks in Northern Burma as they are in developing business in a new market.

Rena Pederson, a former U.S. State Department speechwriter and newspaper editor, is author of the forth-coming book, “The War for the Soul of Burma.”