Since seizing power in Myanmar in a coup six weeks ago, soldiers and police have gunned down more than 200 peaceful protesters and arrested nearly 2,200 people, and beatings and torture are being reported with increasing regularity.
In the country’s borderlands, where armed ethnic groups have been fighting for self-determination for decades, the situation is becoming increasingly unstable.
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On February 10, the military regime’s governing body, the State Administration Council, dissolved the office Aung San Suu Kyi’s deposed civilian government established to negotiate peace with ethnic armed organisations and announced the formation of its own negotiation team.
But many ethnic armed groups, including the 10 signatories to a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, have refused to engage with the SAC; some have even announced their support for the anti-coup protest movement and the people’s right to protest.
Kachin State on Myanmar’s northern border with China, where the Kachin Independence Organization/Army (KIO/A), one of the country’s most prominent armed groups, has been fighting for self-determination since 1961, is rapidly emerging as a new front in the crisis.
Since mid-February, clashes between the KIA and military, known as the Tatmadaw, have occurred on a near-daily basis in northern Shan State, while fighting has erupted in four townships of Kachin State since March 11, forcing hundreds from their homes.
A local leader from San Pya village in Hpakant township, who spoke to Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity, said that he awoke to the sound of explosions and gunfire at about 2am (20:30 GMT) on the morning of March 15. About three hours later, a rocket-propelled grenade fell on the village, destroying one house; locals found a second unexploded device later that day lying in the street.
At least 100 women and children in the village’s mostly-Christian community have taken shelter in nearby churches.
“If fighting continues, it won’t be safe in the churches either,” said the local leader. “We, the people, do not have weapons, so we are afraid.”
Near the confluence of the N’Mai and Mali rivers in an area called Myitsone, a forested area 40 kilometres [25 miles] north of the Kachin State capital, Myitkyina, clashes earlier this week prompted at least 100 people to flee.
One person from the village of Gwi Htau, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Al Jazeera he and others fled the village after hearing gunshots nearby. Some people have since returned, while others are staying in local monasteries and churches.
He says weak phone signals, as well as the military’s move this week to block mobile data across the country, have made it difficult to share news or information about villagers’ humanitarian needs, while no one has visited the affected areas because of the ongoing instability. Al Jazeera spoke to the villager by phone and his voice was faint and difficult to hear due to the weak connection.
On Thursday, clashes appeared to have intensified in Hpakant township, with the KIA attack of a Tatmadaw base and the detonation of an improvised explosive device.
The spike in fighting in Kachin has happened as the military has stepped up its use of lethal force, violence and threats against civilians calling for the restoration of democracy in cities and towns across the country.
Army chief Min Aung Hlaing, who led the coup, said on Tuesday that the protests had “turned into riots and violence,” according to a state media report.
He also said the police force “was assigned duties to subdue the protests according to democratic norms by exercising utmost restraint,” and the Tatmadaw was “helping the police troops as rearguards in required places to solve the difficulties and obstacles”.
The shooting, he said, “had to disperse the protesters, resulting in some security forces and protesters’ casualties.”
In Kachin, on March 8, police and soldiers opened fire into crowds of protesters in front of a Catholic cathedral in Myitkyina, killing two, minutes after a nun pleaded with the officers and troops to show mercy.
Five days later, tensions were further inflamed when 10 military vehicles showed up at the Kachin Theological College and Seminary, an institution at the core of Kachin religion and culture.
According to one faculty member who requested anonymity, police and soldiers raided the dormitories and collected the names and addresses of the school’s 40 boarding students. Authorities have since been patrolling around the building on a nightly basis, said the faculty member.
“We are very confused and have many uncertainties. This incident brings us to discuss how we should continue,” they said.
On March 14, authorities again fired live rounds into crowds of protesters in Kachin State’s jade mining town of Hpakant, killing one.
Shift in allegiances
The KIO/A is one of dozens of ethnic armed groups in the country. More than 100,000 people were forced from their homes after a ceasefire collapsed in 2011, but while the KIO/A and Tatmadaw have been unable to reach a formal ceasefire, the region has seen relatively little fighting since late 2018.
For decades, the Tatmadaw has applied what it calls a “four cuts” strategy to restrict food, funds, intelligence and recruits in areas where ethnic armed groups operate and has earned a reputation for rights abuses including killing, sexual violence, arson and enforced disappearances, on civilian populations.
The most powerful and threatening of ethnic armed groups had been branded as “unlawful associations” or “terrorist groups” by the government, while there were few voices from the Bamar ethnic majority speaking out against rights abuses in ethnic states or supporting ethnic armed struggles for self-determination.
With the whole country forced back under the Tatmadaw, however, public opinion appears to be changing. Apologies to ethnic minorities have proliferated on social media, while calls are growing for the establishment of a federal army to protect the people and overthrow the military regime.
On February 14, the Karen National Union, a prominent ethnic armed group near the border with Thailand, announced its support for the pro-democracy protest movement and that it would help and protect all ethnic people who protested against the coup; it has since provided security by accompanying protesters on the streets.
In Kachin, pro-KIO/A rallies have taken place in at least three townships since March 12, including in the state capital and have been attended by people from diverse ethnic groups, a journalist who was there told Al Jazeera.
Colonel Naw Bu, the head of the KIO Information Department, told Al Jazeera the KIO/A would not retaliate for individual attacks against people in Kachin, and that it wanted to protect everyone in the country.
“Protesters are being killed not only in Kachin State, but also in lower Burma,” he said. “When we say protect the people, we mean the people of our country.”
“If the military shoots, beats, persecutes and tortures the people, we, KIO as an armed group, will find a way to protect the people,” he added, but qualified that “We don’t want to solve this issue using weapons; we prefer peaceful negotiation.”
On March 14, the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), a parallel government set up to carry out the duties of the deposed elected government, issued a statement informing the people of their right to self-defence from violence according to the law.
Three days later, it said ethnic armed organisations would no longer be considered “terrorist” or “unlawful” organisations.
“The Committee sincerely recognises, records and congratulates all ethnic armed revolutionary organisations which are making efforts together in the mindset of brothers and sisters with the strong commitment to the building of [a] federal democratic union,” the CRPH said in a statement.
On Thursday, the CRPH also issued a statement expressing its intent to work with the Kachin Political Interim Coordination Team towards shared goals including the establishment of a federal democratic union.
The military government on March 11 removed the “terrorist” designation of the Rakhine-based Arakan Army, among the country’s most formidable armed groups. But the Unlawful Association Act designation of other ethnic armed organisations, including the KIO/A still remains.
A Kachin youth in Myitkyina told Al Jazeera he believed now was the “right time” for armed resistance for the country, and that it was “the time for the KIO/A to stand with the people.” “If we don’t want to live under military dictatorship, we all have to fight against it,” he said.
For those already living in displacement camps, the renewed fighting leaves them fearing they could have to flee for a second time. “If war breaks out again, there will be almost no more places for us to move; we are already at the border,” said a 23-year-old teacher in Je Yang camp, located near the KIO headquarters of Laiza on Kachin State’s border with China. “We are vigilant and observing the situation.”
She also worries that fighting could block transportation and communication channels, leading to shortages in food aid and other humanitarian assistance.
But chief among her concerns, she said, is the effect that renewed conflict could have on her future and that of her generation. “We are still young and we have many things to do,” she said.
Jaw Tu Hkawng contributed to this report.