Fighting Escalates Between Myanmar And Rebel Group

Escalating violence between ethnic insurgents and the government in Myanmar has foreign governments concerned. The insurgents have been fighting a little-known civil war for autonomy for more than six decades. The current escalation makes some observers question whether Myanmar's new civilian government is in full control of the military, and whether Western countries were too hasty in lifting economic sanctions imposed on the former ruling military junta.

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The government of Myanmar, also known as Burma, has won international praise for signing cease-fire deals with all of the country's ethnic insurgent groups - except one. Fighting between the army and ethnic Kachin rebels has escalated in recent days. That has some observers questioning whether the new civilian government is in full control of the military, and whether its commitment to national reconciliation is real. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Yangon.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: The Kachin Independence Army, or KIA, claims that over the weekend, government troops bombarded Laiza, the city in northeastern Kachin State where they're headquartered. The government's chief negotiator with the rebels is former Major General Aung Min. He claims the shelling was not aimed at Laiza, but at relieving a nearby army outpost that the rebels had cut off and ringed with barbed wire.

MAJ. GEN. AUNG MIN: (Through translator) The military requested KIA to remove the barbed wires so that they could move in and deliver the food. But the KIA refused to remove them. So the shelling was mainly directed at those barbed wires, to make the supply of food ration possible.

KUHN: Aung Min repeats his government's pledges not to attack the KIA, or capture Laiza. Last week, the government at first denied launching air assaults at the KIA. It later admitted them, but said they were just warding off attacks on their supply lines. Aung Min says he's ready to resume peace talks with the KIA anytime. But the Kachin want assurances that a cease-fire will lead to real autonomy, and more revenue from local resources.

Min Zaw Oo, director of cease-fire negotiations and implementation at the Myanmar Peace Center, says the Kachin leaders don't want to be seen as selling out to a military regime that brutalized them for decades.

MIN ZAW OO: The Kachin leader has to play a very delicate role even if they are trying to come back to the table. They have to balance between some of their followers, who see the fighting as the only means.

KUHN: But Aung Min insists that the current administration is different from the military junta that preceded it. And when President Thein Sein orders the army not to attack the rebels, he says, the army will obey.

AUNG MIN: (Through translator) Our country now has a new political system. Under this system, the president is the chief executive and the most powerful government officer in the country, and the commander in chief will have to follow his order.

KUHN: Lashi Labya Hkawn Htoi is an activist with the Kachin Peace Network. She notes that it was this very administration that broke a 17-year-old cease-fire with the Kachin in 2011. She says that's why few Kachin are convinced that the former generals have done much more than exchange their uniforms for business suits.

LASHI LABYA HKAWN HTOI: Because, you know, everybody knows that they are just changing their clothes, and they are not actually changing. So we all are hoping that there will be a real change.

KUHN: For now, she is just worried about the tens of thousands of Kachin refugees huddled in camps. They're without adequate food or shelter, she says, and when bombs fall, they have nowhere to hide.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Yangon.

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