Page 2 of 2 PHOTO ESSAY New-generation war in Myanmar By Tony Cliff
they thought they could repeat the operation they launched in August 2009
against the ethnic Kokang, another armed group who rejected the BGF and was
crushed in a few days of fighting.
Under a banner in the Kachin language reading "Operation Victory Journey" in a
large meeting room at the downtown Laiza Hotel which has been transformed into
a central command post, General Gun Maw, the KIA's 46-year-old deputy chief of
staff, sums up many Kachin officers' opinions, "The Burmese soldiers
don't have the motivation and very little support from their own people."
Interviews with three Myanmar military prisoners of war in Laiza seem to
confirm this assessment. Asked whether he knew the reasons why he was sent
here, Aung Myo Hlat,* a 36- year-old captain with the 21st Infantry Battalion,
paused for a long minute before finally saying: "I am a soldier, I had to
Soe Myint,* a 48-year-old career sergeant, recalls how he fell unconscious in
the bush after a bullet went through his left arm. "I don't know why we are
fighting, I just remember that I lost a lot of blood, I fainted and was left
alone. When I woke up I was into KIA's hands."
Htoo Lay,* a 22-year-old Karen ethnic private attached to an artillery unit,
did not even ask to join the army. "I was forcibly conscripted three years ago
by officers while I was waiting for a train at Mandalay railway station." He
was hit in the back by shrapnel. "I did not know what to do, the injury was not
too bad, I just hid in the bush, KIA soldiers came and shouted 'we won't shoot
you, just come out', I came out, I never used my weapon."
Like his two companions and probably like most Burmese soldiers, he was
experiencing his first combat. Aung Kyaw Zaw, a former soldier with the Burmese
Communist Party who has maintained good relations with ethnic groups along the
Chinese border, makes a stark assessment based on his historical knowledge,
"The quality of the Burmese army rank and file has never been so low."
The KIA claims it has sent a letter to the Myanmar authorities proposing to
deliver the prisoners. "We got no answer," says a KIA officer. "After their
return in their army, the prisoners will probably be court-martialed, they will
be charged with lack of responsibility, loss of weapon and giving intelligence
to the enemy. The officers will get at least seven years of jail."
As the ethnic groups long-time observer says, "The Kachin are feared by many
people for their fighting capabilities. During WWII [World War II], when they
fought alongside the British, they were given strong credit for helping to kick
the Japanese out. They have this 'we can do, we can stand on our own'
The determination of Kachin soldiers is further strengthened by the knowledge
that their enemy's weaponry on the field is not really superior to theirs. In a
Hkaya Bum barrack, the KIA laid their arms catch from the three days of battle.
Mixed with identity documents, mobile phones, money, family pictures and other
personal items, Burmese rifles, machine guns, mortars, grenades and other
landmines are arranged. Much of the weaponry would look more appropriate in a
museum than on a modern battlefield.
While the Kachin will be happy to use these relics against their original
owners, they also manufacture their own weaponry. Copies of the famous AK-47,
mortars, landmines and other items are made by Kachin gunsmiths in secret
armories. The KIA claims to have around 6,000 standing soldiers and can count
on as many as 8,000 more village militias composed of women and men who have
received basic military training and been provided with weapons. (Asia Times
Online could not independently verify the figures.)
The Myanmar military's main comparative strength is its artillery fire power.
Yet any attempt to capture Laiza would represent a stiff test of its
capabilities. Only two roads lead to the city. In the current monsoon season,
rain and mud have made the northern access all but inaccessible while the KIA
claim they can maintain strategic control of the southern road. If the Myanmar
military used heavy artillery to shell Laiza across the hill ranges, they would
inevitably send mortars into Chinese territory, with the risk of provoking an
So far the KIA's strategy has been to defend its territory and positions
against any incursion. Sabotage operations, such as blowing up bridges, have
also been conducted. "Since we are declared outlaw, we have started to lay
landmines to protect our positions," adds Major Kumbu Din, the KIA's 5th
The renewed conflict has brought its share of human misery. At the time of
writing, more than 17,000 villagers had fled their homes to safer areas, mostly
along the Chinese border. The majority of them left in anticipation rather than
in response to fighting. Mali Bawk La, a 70-year-old farmer from Nam San
village, walked some 30 kilometers with his six family members to Laiza. "The
tension was growing, we feared that the Burmese soldiers would capture us and
force us to do things like [act as] porters," he said.
According to the KIO, an estimated 6,500 displaced people have managed to cross
the Chinese border to live with Jinpo relatives. Another 7,500 are taken care
of by the KIO in temporary camps, including more than 6,000 in Laiza. The rest
are scattered in Myitkyina and in western areas of the vast state. Anticipating
a long war, the KIA has already started to build 500 bamboo houses along the
Chayan river down from Laiza which will accommodate 7,000 people.
"So far we could count on the KIO's administration, donations from individuals
and churches and the help of many young Kachin volunteers who came from all
over the country," says La Rip, the relief effort coordinator in Laiza. "Maybe
the situation looks normal but it won't be at all as long as there is no
ceasefire. If the crisis lasts or gets worse we will certainly need outside
There are also credible reports of human-rights abuses committed by Myanmar
army soldiers against Kachin civilians. The Laiza-based Kachin Women
Association has documented at least 18 cases of rape, sometimes aggravated with
murder, between June 10 and 18. More recently, on July 21, a KIA female officer
reported the rape of a nurse in a local clinic. A nurse running a clinic in a
Kachin village, says that she "never heard about rape cases before the fighting
The conflict has had at least two unexpected consequences. First, many Kachins
confirm that support for the KIA is once again on the rise. That has not always
been the case: under the ceasefire it was not rare to hear criticism of the
Kachin leadership, who many felt had sold out the state's land and resources
for their own personal gain.
Second, government pressure to join its BGF scheme and other recent
developments have radicalized a new generation of Kachin youth that was raised
in peace time conditions. "Everyone wants to go to war," shouted a young
businessman coming out from a Sunday mass at the Laiza Baptist church. "It's
time for the Kachin people to free themselves from the Burmese regime. We like
[opposition leader] Aung San Suu Kyi but her appeals for non-violence have
Within the KIA, the conflict has also signaled a changing of the guard. "The
old leaders who still want to compromise without a political agreement have no
say anymore," says a young KIA cadre. Yet even though many Kachin don't see any
other way than armed resistance to push their grievances, nearly everyone
wishes for a negotiated settlement.
La Nan, the KIO's spokesman, said the Kachin are determined to stick to a
three-point proposal. "First we will try to establish a temporary ceasefire in
our area; secondly, we want the same for the whole country; thirdly, we want a
political dialogue where all ethnic armed groups will be represented by the
United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC)." (UNFC is an organization formed
in February with three ceasefire groups and three non-ceasefire groups who
advocate for a federal union.)
A June 30 meeting between government and Kachin delegations failed to reach any
agreement, though contacts are reportedly ongoing. The Kachin side has blamed
the government for sending a team with no real negotiating power and no clear
mandate from Naypyidaw, Myanmar's capital. "The Burmese told us 'let's work
peacefully so let's go for a ceasefire'," said Gun Maw. "But there is no
political agreement, it's just a call to facilitate the life of people for
The mid-July clashes down from Hkaya Bum camp were the most intense of the
nascent conflict. Since then there have been sporadic skirmishes, but
apparently without a concerted strategy from the Myanmar military. The two
sides have reportedly resumed contacts in recent days, without clear results.
Meanwhile, those in Kachin State hold their breath, hoping for real peace and
autonomy, not just another ceasefire.
1. Names marked with an asterisk * have been changed for security reasons.
Tony Cliff, a pseudonym, is a Bangkok-based freelance photojournalist. He
may be reached at[email protected]
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