THE BLOG
11/03/2014 03:15 pm ET Updated Jan 03, 2015

Old Wars in the 'New Burma'

"It's very crowded here," said Ana, a young mother in a camp for displaced families in Burma's northern Kachin State. "We are afraid of disease, it is very dirty."

Ana is one of more than 100,000 ethnic Kachin who fled their homes when fighting renewed here between the Burmese military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in 2011. Her family now lives in a small room in one of several densely-packed long cabins.

"We want our land back," she says, as she and another woman take turns using a large ladle to mix a batch of thick soap in a wooden pail. "The houses they burned, our livestock they stole. We want them to take away the landmines. We want to go home."

But Ana can't go back. Her village is located near a military checkpoint close to the front line. Few Kachin want to live anywhere near the Burmese military, the Tatmadaw, known for its long history of abuses against civilians, including killing, torture, rape, and extortion and looting. Ana and others told us of how a nearby village was burned to the ground in 2011. They had to flee in a rush, they said, abandoning most of their belongings.

Next week, the world's attention will be focused on Burma's supposed transformation from military rule to democracy, as world leaders convene on November 12 in the capital, Naypyidaw, for a set of regional summits. President Barack Obama will be there, as will Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the new Indonesian president Joko Widodo, and many others.

Assessments of Burma's status will likely center on debates about the reform process, issues of constitutional reform, and whether opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi can stand for election as president under Burma's flawed 2008 constitution (she cannot). The growing power of ultra-nationalist Buddhist groups will also be in the spotlight, along with violence against ethnic Rohingya and other Muslims and the segregation of Rohingya into camps in western Arakan State.

Burma suffers another problem, however, that rivals all others in gravity: persistent armed conflict marked by major rights abuses and violations of the laws of war. Since independence in 1948, the Burmese army has been fighting numerous ethnic armed groups in Kachin, Karen, Shan, Mon, and Chin States, among other places. It's difficult to think of a country in the world beset by more separate insurgencies.

The central Burma heartlands are securely under government control. So too are state capitals like Myitkyina, here in Kachin State. But drive a few miles outside of a state capital and one is soon near a military front line. There are checkpoints, restricted areas that civilians cannot traverse, and military bases ringed by barbed wire and landmines.

Miles of villages to the south of here were evacuated and looted in fighting in 2011 and 2012, and are today comprised of deserted houses, thatch roofs crumbling from lack of maintenance. Most villages on front lines have been burned to the ground. Hundreds of thousands remain displaced from earlier conflicts, not just here in Kachin State but in other ethnic minority areas. Shaky bilateral ceasefires hold in several places, but the fact is that Burma is still a country wracked by a conflict and abuses against ordinary civilians.

There is no evidence anyone is going back anytime soon. Though the government is keen to resettle "example" displaced families to their home villages or "model villages" near state capitals like Myitkyina, everyone here knows that real resettlement cannot occur until families can return safely and voluntarily.

On Obama's last trip to Burma in November 2012, Burma's president Thein Sein pledged to him that the Burmese government would work with ethnic political parties to reach a nationwide ceasefire agreement and press forward with political negotiations. But negotiations have borne little fruit, and nationwide ceasefire negotiations broke down three weeks ago.

In Kachin State recently, the Tatmadaw imposed new and stricter checkpoints and travel restrictions on the three main roads running out of Myitkyina here to the north, east, and west, and soldiers are requiring large bribes to allow people to transit. One community leader told us it now cost about $50 -- a small fortune here -- to travel from Myitkyina to Laiza in KIA territory, a distance of only 65 miles. Tensions and fighting have also increased in Karen and Mon States, in Burma's southeast.

There is unease especially to the west of here, in the Kachin town of Hpakant: community leaders report an increase in Burma army units, and the Tatmadaw in October gave the KIA ultimatums to pull back from established positions. Both sides appear to be using civilians in the area as pawns, in line with their military interests, ordering families to stay in frontline homes, almost as civilian shields -- if confirmed, a serious violation of the laws of war.

Hpakant is a potential hotspot for economic reasons -- an underlying factor in many of Burma's conflicts. The government recently gave permission for jade mining operations in the area to resume, and it appears that Tatmadaw commanders, who hold economic stakes in such operations, want to push the KIA as far as possible from these concessions, and may be taking advantage of the recent breakdown in the ceasefire negotiations to achieve this gain.

When President Obama and other world leaders arrive here in Burma, they need to press the government on a slew of human rights issues, ranging from constitutional issues to the Rohingya crisis. But they also need to raise the issue of human rights abuses in the context of Burma's armed conflicts. Visiting leaders should make clear that, whatever the status of negotiations, people like Ana should be able to return to their homes in safety and dignity.

World leaders -- having already relaxed many of Burma's sanctions -- may think that they don't have a lot of cards to play. But they still have a few. Obama can tell Burma's leaders that he won't be able to lift remaining sanctions without progress on rights issues, nor improve military-to-military relationships. He can point out that US companies will remain reluctant to invest in a country where widespread rights violations and war crimes continue to occur. He can mention that Congress may demand that the US vote against World Bank and other international bank lending to Burma.

I asked Ana and the other women what they would tell President Obama and other leaders if they could speak to them during his visit. They said the leaders should tell the Burmese government to help them. As Ana said, "We can't go home unless people start to care."

John Sifton is Human Rights Watch's Asia Advocacy Director