The fierce clashes between Burmese troops and Kachin rebels is a stark reminder of the misguided nature of the decision taken by the United States to lift all remaining sanctions on Burma without meaningful progress on peace efforts. The administration’s response to the escalating conflict has not been commensurate to the worsening crisis. In light of ongoing gross human rights violations overshadowing modest political reforms underway, Washington should threaten to re-impose sanctions to increase pressure on the Burmese government to cease hostility and engage in genuine negotiations.
The Burmese army—also known as the Tatmadaw—is engaged in what appears to be a sustained campaign to capture a Kachin rebel stronghold. The military has used Russian-made helicopter gunships, heavy artillery, and, according to unverified reports, chemical weapons to pound Kachin rebel positions near the border with China. These attacks have occurred within kilometers of bases belonging to the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the political wing of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which has been fighting the Tatmadaw since shattering a 17-year ceasefire in June 2011. The fighting, which has displaced 100,000 people, has been attributed to each side’s desire to control natural resources, such as the timber, jade and hydropower found in Kachin State.
The escalating resource war makes the U.S. government’s decision to remove all remaining sanctions and allow corporations unrestricted investment access to Burma all the more concerning. It increases the risk that American companies could find themselves complicit in fueling the crisis. There is a direct correlation between foreign investment and human rights abuse in Burma, particularly in the resource-rich ethnic minority areas. Without a stronger U.S. regulatory framework to mitigate these risks, companies investing in Burma’s extractive resource sector, which lacks transparency and suffers from pervasive corruption, will be funding military operations in ethnic areas and contributing to the exacerbation of the conflict.
Amid timid responses to the worsening conflict, the U.S.-based Kachin Alliance has urged the U.S. government and Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to intervene and pressure the Burmese army into ending its offensive. Suu Kyi has refused to interfere in the government’s handling of the situation and has largely been silent on the war in Kachin State. The State Department has responded with a statement of concern urging both sides to end the violence and engage in talks, as well as with a visit by the U.S. Ambassador to Burma, Derek Mitchell, to Kachin State. There are concerns that the Burmese government will not heed these calls since President Thein Sein has struggled to assert his authority over the army.
As the ground assault and aerial bombardments continue unabated, displacing over 100,000 local Kachin villagers in the process, the U.S. should reconsider its diplomatic, economic, and planned military ties with the Burmese government. By lifting all the remaining sanctions, Washington lost important leverage in fostering peaceful resolutions to conflicts in ethnic minority areas. The Obama administration should swiftly condemn the Burmese government’s actions and threaten to reintroduce sanctions. As Congress reviews the sanctions regime this summer, a decision to renew these measures would send a powerful message that America will not tolerate Burmese military operations in ethnic areas.