Page 1 of 2 PHOTO ESSAY New-generation war in Myanmar By Tony Cliff
LAIZA, Myanmar - "At first the Burmese soldiers were looking very confident,
they were moving up on the road shouting and shooting towards the jungle. They
just did not realize we were hiding around," said Aung Myat, a 27-year-old
soldier with the insurgent Kachin Independence Army (KIA)'s 23rd Battalion.
On July 16, with 40 or so companions, he was crouching in the thick bush on a
hill along the road from Bhamo to Myitkyina, the
Kachin State's remote capital in Myanmar's northern region.
When the government troops arrived, the insurgent soldiers triggered landmines
and started to shoot. The clash was the first of a series of confrontations in
the area which lasted almost three days, according to Aung Myat. In the evening
of July 18, back in the relative safety of Hkaya Bum camp, the battalion's
bamboo barrack headquarters, the young insurgents released an excess of
adrenaline when telling their war stories.
Their animated conversation was stifled by the roar of a heavy monsoon rain; a
thick mist blanketed the whole area. Between sips from beer cans and puffs from
cigarettes brought earlier by a supply truck, they traded their stories with an
almost childish excitement, mimicking with their arms the handling of machine
guns. "We counted at least eight bodies, including four or five incinerated in
a vehicle we destroyed with a grenade, but surely there were more," said Aung
At 27, Aung Myat is one of the eldest in the battalion: most of the other
guerrillas are around 20 years of age. For all of them it was there first ever
combat experience. Less than 10 kilometers (km) to the east from the
battlefield road, across a succession of jungle-covered hills down a narrow
valley, lies Laiza, a small city of 10,000 people that houses the headquarters
of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the KIA's sister political
organization. Laiza is crossed by a stream marking the Chinese border.
Rumors spread by exile media groups of massive Myanmar military reinforcements
and of an imminent offensive hardly seem to have reached the city. Schools,
shops and hotels remain open while people attend to their business as usual.
Yet two new developments are a reminder that the situation is exceptional and
potentially grave. As a safety measure, Chinese authorities have closed the
border gate in the middle of downtown from 6 pm to 6 am, presumably to avoid a
flood of refugees into their territory.
Thousands of people, mostly women and children, can already be seen crammed in
a few locations such as the city hall, a cardboard factory warehouse and the
"Manau", a vast ground where the ethnic Kachin organize traditional
celebrations. These are the civilians who left their villages when armed
hostilities first broke out on June 9. On that day, there was a violent clash
at the site of the Dapein dam, about 50 km south of Laiza. The exchange of
gunfire signaled the end of 17 years of ceasefire between the Myanmar military
and the KIA.
From 1989 onwards, some 15 armed ethnic insurgent groups concluded separate
ceasefire agreements with Myanmar's ruling junta. The Kachin had always looked
like an exception in Myanmar's complex ethnic jigsaw. With a size of 89,000
square km, more than twice the size of Switzerland, their state is one the
country's largest administrative entities. But with an estimated population of
1.36 million (based on 2002 official statistics, the latest available), it's
also one of the country's least inhabited areas because of the steep mountains
that cover nearly half of the state.
The predominantly Christian Kachin ethnic population is estimated at 1.2
million (out of a total national population of 55 million), half of them living
in the Kachin State, the other half in other parts of Myanmar. About 300,000
Kachin also live in neighboring China, where they are known as Jinpo. For
historical reasons, the Kachin have managed to develop a strong social and
educational system, making them arguably one of the most sophisticated ethnic
groups in Myanmar.
The agreement with the Kachin, signed in 1994, was the only one formalized on
paper. Essentially, it defined a framework for future business deals with and
without Myanmar companies and delineated a portion of the Kachin State that
would fall under the KIO's control. However, the document was never made
public, which made the assessment of its implementation difficult.
Kareng La Nan,*  a teacher from Myitkyina, summarizes many of his ethnic
companions' opinions: "Those 17 years have surely brought stability, some
social and economic developments and less-human rights violations but we have
gained absolutely nothing on the political level."
As with other armed ethnic groups, the Kachin have abandoned their previous
claim for independence. Instead, they have demanded a certain degree of
autonomy over their own affairs which would guarantee respect for their own
rights and culture.
Except for certain Kachin leaders, other politically connected individuals and
large private companies who took advantage of business opportunities allowed
for in the agreement, many people now view the ceasefire as a fool's bargain.
The long list of grievances has fueled the new hostilities. Kachin land, they
say, has been systematically looted of its natural resources. The ethnic group
has all but lost to the benefit of Burmese companies the lucrative trade in
jade which fueled the insurgent organization for decades.
Giant business groups affiliated with the military junta, such as Yuzana, Htoo
Trading or Asia World, took up in Kachin State massive production of tapioca
and the exploitation of hydropower, timber and various minerals. Still, the
sharper arrows are aimed at the Chinese companies which have invested heavily
in gold mining, hydropower and other products such as timber with allegedly
very little benefit for the local population.
This perceived "one-way" investment policy has stirring up an anti-Chinese
feeling with many people. "When they develop large plantations of bananas with
export quality standards or gold mining, they bring their own equipment and
workers and they don't share with the locals," complains a KIA cadre.
The current most sensitive Chinese investment is the construction of the
Myitsone dam, 40 kilometers north of Myitkyina at a site considered by Kachin
as a cultural heartland, with a planned capacity of 6,000 megawatts. To many
Kachin, the project is an environmental abomination.
Activists say the water in the planned reservoir will put immense pressure on
the underground soil and water system. Environmental groups also warn about
potential detrimental effects downstream on the lives of millions of people who
depend on the Irrawaddy River's system. It also may be, although this is not
confirmed, that the electricity from the dams will be exported entirely to
The last straw, it seems, was the junta's order in 2009 to various ethnic armed
ceasefire groups to transform into Border Guard Forces (BGF) that must disarm
and submit under government officers' command. "It was nothing less than an
order to surrender," comments one long-time observer of the ethnic groups.
The KIO, as well as other groups such as the Wa and the Mon, rejected the BGF
order and proposed alternative plans which were all flatly rejected by the
junta. Subsequently, the KIO was officially declared an outlaw organization.
The June 9 clash marked the official return to armed conflict. "They created
this incident as an excuse to penetrate into our territory," claims Zau Awn,
the KIO's administrator officer at the central region. However, it looks like
the Myanmar military's strategists underestimated the resolve of the Kachin.