Analysis: Air assaults raise doubts about Myanmar's reformist rulers

Sun Jan 6, 2013 4:08pm EST
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By Martin Petty

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Unprecedented aerial attacks on ethnic Kachin rebels by Myanmar's military have raised doubts about whether the retired generals in a government hailed for its reforms have really changed their harsh old ways.

Assurances by the quasi-civilian government that it wants a peace deal with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and that the military is exercising "maximum restraint" are starting to ring hollow as jets and helicopter gunships take to the air.

The 18-month conflict is back under the spotlight, with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon voicing concern last week about reports of air strikes in Kachin State. The U.S. State Department said they were "extremely troubling".

Western countries that suspended most sanctions as a reward for political, social and economic reforms after the new government took power in March 2011 are now in a tricky spot.

Questions have been raised about the sincerity, or authority, of the former soldiers who had convinced them of their "irreversible" course of liberalization when they ended nearly half a century of military rule.

"Skeptics had warned the international community not to get too caught up in all the excitement of the changes going on," said Christopher Roberts, a Myanmar expert at the Australia National University.

"This escalation is enough to spark a debate on whether sanctions were removed too soon."

The United Nations has repeatedly demanded humanitarian access to an estimated 70,000 people displaced by fighting that resurfaced in June 2011, ending a 17-year truce agreed after decades of bloody battles. The number of casualties is unknown, but they are estimated to be high on both sides.   Continued...

Evacuees react after being received by Kachin's soldiers in Kachin state in this still image taken from a video dated December 28, 2012. REUTERS/Courtesy of Democratic Voice of Burma/Handout