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Politics in Myanmar remain murky

Despite international attention to Myanmar's reforms, some things have not changed and have in fact worsened.
Last modified: 21 Jan 2013 14:16
The Kachin rebels accused the military of launching an attack days after a ceasfire pledge from the Myanmar government [AFP/Getty Images]

The ongoing war in Kachin State is a clear sign that politics in Myanmar remains a murky business, full of deception, conflicting information and self interest.

Sure, I could be talking about many countries in the world, but for the past 2 years we've been bombarded with talk and praise about how Myanmar was a new, open and free land where everybody had kissed and made up after almost 50 years of military rule.

The reality is, some things have not changed and have in fact worsened.

Of course, there have been positive changes like the return of media freedoms, provided you don't directly criticise the president or the military. But there are two major issues that remain.

There are still political prisoners behind bars and peace with all the ethnic minority groups has not been achieved, both of which were conditions the likes of the United States placed on the Myanmar government if economic sanctions were to be lifted or at least eased.

In the case of the US, sanctions have been lifted or suspended yet the conditions haven't been met.

Since late December the war in Kachin State intensified with government forces using airstrikes to hit positions held by the rebel Kachin Independence Army. But this didn't happen according to the government. At least that's what it said initially.

Two days later it acknowledged the airstrikes but said they were only used in self defence. Weeks passed before the President Thein Sein finally issued an order to his army to stop the fighting.

That announcement was made on Friday and just happened to take place as representatives from several countries and the World Bank were gathering in the capital Naypyidaw to discuss ways to fund Myanmar's development in the years ahead.

The following day, the fighting continued. The President's ceasefire order was either ignored or the rebels fired the first shots, forcing government soldiers to retaliate. The K.I.A. says the Myanmar troops broke their own ceasefire.

Either the president doesn't have control over some sections of his military which maybe resistant to the democratic changes that are taking place in Myanmar, or Thein Sein and his generals are playing a game of good cop, bad cop. Whatever the reasons, it proves there are still massive problems to overcome in Myanmar.

The shelling of the town of Laiza should cause particular alarm. It’s where the rebels are based. But it’s also home to many civilians, some of whom were killed in the artillery attack. The government’s soldiers are moving closer to the town, but deny they’re planning to seize it from rebel control.

Given the mixed messages and contradictory statements from the government, no one really knows what to expect and any further assault on Laiza could see a wider humanitarian disaster begin to unfold.

China is clearly worried about refugees fleeing to neighbouring Yunnan Province and boosted security on the border. The Chinese will already be dissatisfied with Myanmar’s apparent political swing towards the west, any fallout from the Kachin war would further strain relations.