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    Southeast Asia
     Aug 3, 2011


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 Myat.



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,* [1] 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 China.

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. Perhaps

Continued 1 2

War trumps investment in Myanmar
Jul 26, '11

'New' Myanmar, old challenges
Jun 18, '11

 

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