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    Southeast Asia
     Aug 3, 2011

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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 obey."

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' mentality."

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 international incident.

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 Brigade commander.

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 help."

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 started".

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 failed."

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 business purposes."

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]

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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