Govt media offensive follows deadly attack on KIA
The government has launched a negative media offensive against the Kachin Independence Army, as tensions remain high following an artillery attack by government forces last month.
A barrage of recent articles in state-controlled media described alleged forced recruitment by the KIA, the use of child soldiers and acts of sexual violence against civilians.
The articles appear to be aimed at discrediting the group, which has garnered increased public sympathy since a November 19 attack on a training facility. The attack killed 23 cadets from four different armed ethnic groups who were training at a compound outside Laiza, a KIA stronghold on the border with China.
The stories have not taken aim at fighting between the two groups or lives lost in recent skirmishes, as was common for state-controlled media in the past. They have instead focussed on civilians caught in the conflict, rather than tactical choices, highlighting issues that could taint the KIA's largely positive reputation.
An article in state-controlled media on December 11 accused the KIA of forcibly recruiting 36 workers from a goldmine in Shan State in July 2010. The article said one of the workers, identified as Sai Aung Thein, had escaped on December 8 after being subjected to torture and forced labour while serving as a soldier with the KIA.
An earlier article on December 8 accused the KIA of forcibly recruiting hundreds of men and women for labour and military support. It said that the group had brought 782 men and 36 women into its ranks against their will. More than 500 had managed to escape, but some women had been molested by KIA troops while in custody, the article alleged.
The article also said that land mines laid by the KIA had killed 10 people between October 2013 and November 2014.
All of the articles were published in the military-controlled Myawady newspaper before being reprinted in the English-language daily Global New Light of Myanmar.
Three days earlier on December 5, the Global New Light struck out at the KIA over the alleged recruitment of child soldiers.
An article said that the group had recruited young ethnic individuals, but that many had then fled training camps, “due to insufficient food, torture and racial discrimination,” adding that “the KIA is trying to capture them again.”
The report cited unnamed youths it said had been forcibly conscripted and said complaints had been filed with the United Nations over the incident, but did not specify which agency.
A story in the same publication on November 25, less than a week after the November 19 artillery attack, accused the KIA of arresting a 26-year-old man and forcing him to join a KIA battalion.
Information Minister and presidential spokesperson U Ye Htut did not respond to requests for comment on recent coverage of the KIA in state-controlled media.
Requests for comment emailed to the Global New Light of Myanmar were also not returned.
The Tatmadaw and KIA have clashed repeatedly since a 17-year ceasefire collapsed in 2011.
Last month's attack was particularly devastating due to the number of casualties and armed ethnic groups affected. The Tatmadaw has claimed the incident
was an accident, but the attack sent trust in the military plummeting at a time when the peace process is fragile.
Throughout the renewed conflict, the KIA and its political wing, the Kachin Independence Organisation, have proved to be far more savvy at handling the media than the Tatmadaw.
The group regularly issues press releases and has allowed many reporters to embed with its forces. The moves have helped the group craft a favourable image with media outlets. The government looks to be bent on stripping this goodwill by publically accusing the KIA of the types of human rights abuses more readily attributed to its own forces.
The Tatmadaw's media policy, in contrast, has remained staunchly opposed to media engagement, with the exception of a few rare interviews by its laconic Commander-in-Chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. U Ye Htut has in the past defended the Tatmadaw's policy of non-engagement with the press saying that it is a matter of state security.
KIA spokesperson La Nan flatly rejected the allegations levelled against the group during the past two weeks.
“We can prove we have no child soldiers and no forced recruitment. Anytime, anyone can come and see that,” La Nan said.
He said the articles were the most recent attempt by the government to brand the KIA as an organisation that is not genuinely interested in peace.
“The government wants to hurt the dignity of the ethnic armed forces. They degrade the ethnic armed forces by calling them terrorists,” he said.
“Ethnic armed forces want dialogue and they [the government] don't want to do it.”
The latest accusations by the government have not been independently verified. However, human rights abuses by the KIA in the past have been documented by non-government groups and the United Nations.
Last year, Tomas Quintana, the UN's then-special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, met representatives of the KIO to express concern over the continued recruitment of child soldiers.
Washington-based Human Rights Watch has also documented the use of child soldiers by the KIA. In a 2013 report the group said the KIA had forcibly recruited underage soldiers and sent them to the front lines for decades.
A KIA official cited in HRW report admitted the group had child soldiers in its ranks but said they had joined voluntarily rather than being recruited and that the group was “trying to find solutions,” to the issue.
A monks lights a candle in Yangon’s Maha Bandoola Park on November 24 in remembrance of the cadets who died during the attack. Photo: Hein Htet