The war to come in Myanmar
By Tony Cliff
LAIZA, Myanmar – With her pretty face shaded by camouflage green leaves falling from her kepi and a semi-automatic rifle rested on her shoulder, Labang Hkawng Nyoi could be a perfect poster model for a Kachin Independence Army (KIA) recruitment campaign.
The 19-year-old woman is one of 130 new recruits and volunteers who in recent days were sweating under the late afternoon heat in a KIA training camp in remote northern Myanmar, also know as Burma.
Dressed in khaki, they all wear a white number on a red patch stitched on their left pocket. At turn, they break ranks into small groups, run to a large open field, throw themselves to the ground and, while imitating the sound of a machine gun, crawl with their gun aimed at the imaginary enemy.
“I was summoned by the KIA to leave my village and attend training,” says Labang Hkawng Nyoi with a determined look. “We have not gained our freedom, it’s our responsibility to serve, to fight for our nation.”
For now, the enemy is a red flag on a bamboo post and, to conserve ammunition, the empty guns remain silent, their muzzles obstructed with pieces of wood. But soon the enemy could take the human form of Myanmar military soldiers as this area of the Kachin state braces for new hostilities after a 16-year ceasefire.
The volunteers arrived two weeks earlier in this camp set up on the road to Laiza, a town of 10,000 people in a narrow valley on the Myanmar-China border. They will train for another six weeks under the supervision of KIA officers. Some will join the 6,000-strong KIA (an official but credible number according to independent observers), while others will go back to their village as members of civil defense forces.
After a two-hour drive from Laiza on a rugged road winding along the Chinese border though the jungle and climbing the mountain up to 2,400 meters, Laisin camp, formally the Pajau KIA headquarters, emerges from a range of bare hills. On a hilltop bunker and trench network, Kachin soldiers watch a Myanmar army position dug in on an opposite hill.
Fixed in a hole, an old Chinese made anti-aircraft machine gun points at the government troops. Lahtaw Awng, a KIA Mobile Brigade captain, does not harbor any balance-of-power illusions: “With this weapon, we can target helicopters but probably not the Burmese MIG fighter jets.” He added: “We don’t want to fight, we don’t like war; we just ask for our rights. But if the government starts it, we will respond.”
Strategic documents from the KIA and its political wing, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), have reportedly been moved to safer locations and soldiers dispatched to positions all over Kachin State. Many KIA soldiers carry an unusual type of AK-47 rifle with green or brown parts made of plastic. Soldiers here refer to it as the “AK-81”, a AK-47 type gun fabricated in a secret KIA armory.
Labang Hkawng Nyoi, the young female volunteer, was hardly three years old when in 1994 the KIO/KIA signed a ceasefire with Myanmar’s ruling junta. These types of agreements were initiated by the government from 1989 onwards with the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and other ethnic insurgent groups.
They were the brainchild of General Khin Nyunt, the regime’s former head of intelligence. In exchange for ending their armed struggle, ethnic groups were allowed to keep their names, uniforms, weapons, and parts of their claimed territory and commercial interests. They were also permitted to set up ceasefire areas where armed Myanmar soldiers would not be allowed to enter without the group’s authorization.
From 1989 to 1995, about 15 groups signed ceasefire deals with the government. Some have held up, while others have dissolved back into armed hostility. For the Kachin, the agreement seemingly put an end to more than 30 years of war against government-backed forces.
The Kachin have always been an exception in Myanmar’s complex ethnic jigsaw. Their state, at 89,000 square kilometers, or more than twice the size of Switzerland, is one the country’s largest administrative entities. With an estimated population of just 1.36 million, according to most recent official statistics, it’s also among the least inhabited – the country’s has a population of up to 55 million people. It only takes a quick look at the map to realize that more than half of Kachin is filled with hard-to-navigate mountains.
The predominantly Christian Kachin ethnic population is estimated at 1.2 million, half of whom live in Kachin State and the other half elsewhere in the country. 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, which has made them one of the country’s most sophisticated ethnic groups.
Today, 16 years after its signing, their ceasefire agreement with the government has never looked more fragile. Major General Gam Shawng, KIA’s chief of staff, sitting in his Laiza home, says unequivocally that “these years have been totally negative. The main idea behind the ceasefire, to reach a political solution, was never achieved.”
Major Chyana Zau Awn, commander of KIA Brigade 5, says: “There was never a relation of trust with the Burmese. As soon as we talked about politics, they looked down upon us. We were enemies, we stay enemies.” Contrary to their organization’s name, the KIA, as well as other ethnic insurgent groups (ceasefire and non-ceasefire), no longer strive for total independence but rather the establishment of a federal state with genuine prerogatives for ethnic governance.
The ceasefire has certainly brought some social stability and economic development to Kachin State. “We could develop infrastructure such as roads, schools, clinics,” says Sin Wa, KIO Central Committee joint secretary 1. “About every family could create an income and sustain a livelihood, which we were never able to do during the war because people had to move all the time.”
Still, many others point to the limitations of that stability. “The Burmese did not promote life for local people,” comments Naw Ja, a 42-year old villager attending the military training as a volunteer. “For instance, they open many schools but there was not enough support for teachers. Often there were only two or three teachers for an entire school.”
The Kachin have also lost a great deal of territory and related business during the ceasefire. For instance, control over the world famous Hpakant jade mines was handed to the Myanmar government in 1994, depriving the KIO of a rich source of revenue.
Gam Awng, a jade businessman, says that “95% of the jade extracted from Hpakant is sold in Yangon through private and military auctions. The remaining 5% is smuggled through Laiza.” Out of 164 companies operating in Hpakant, only four are in the hands of Kachin businessmen; all of the others are Myanmar-China joint ventures, he says.
Kachin patience was tested in April 2009 when the government, ahead of elections on November 7, ordered ceasefire groups to transform into so-called Border Guard Forces (BGF), new ethnic battalions that would be under government command. The Kachin, as well as other groups along the Chinese border, such as the UWSA, the New Mon State Party (NMSP) and a faction of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) on the Thai border, rejected the order.
After a series of postponed deadlines and aborted alternative proposals, talks between the junta and the KIO/KIA came to an halt in August. This coincided with the sidelining of Lieutenant-General Ye Myint, the Myanmar army officer in charge of negotiating the BGF with the ethnic groups. To date, Ye Myint has not been replaced.
“In the BGF process, the Burmese only talk about soldiers’ salary and other details but never about development plans and other important subjects,” says Major Kumbu Din La, second in command of KIA Brigade 5. “They try to corner us, to isolate us, they want the end of the KIO,” adds Sin Wa.
Since their rejection of the BGF, the Kachin have been subjected to new restrictions and incidents of intimidation. “Some development projects in remote areas had to be stopped, some of our servicemen cannot go back to their villages, and so on,” said a young KIA officer.
The Kachin’s rejection of the BGF has widened a generation gap between young KIA officers keen to go to war and elder KIO leaders who still believe in compromise. Government authorities’ refusal to allow the registration of a Kachin political party under the leadership of Maham Tu Ja, a former KIO Vice Chairman 2, was a blow to Kachin aspirations and further weakened the more moderate political wing’s position.
“I appreciate that there are more young radicals,” said Major General Gam Shawng. “This shows a willingness to stand for justice, it’s a good sign for us – without justice there cannot be true peace.”
But the government has seemingly underestimated the Kachin’s resolve. “The BGF issue has mobilized the people for the KIO,” says a non-governmental worker with extensive experience in the Kachin State.
“These last years, the KIO had lost a lot of support, particularly because of the loss of revenue from jade. The organization had to find other business activities and gave many logging, mining and hydropower business concessions to the Chinese, causing massive forest depletion in the state, which upset a lot of people.”
KIA preparations for a potential conflict after this weekend’s national elections are visibly ramping up. Officers are well-aware that none of their soldiers has seen combat in at least 16 years. Still, they are confident about their fighting chances.
“Since 2009, after the Kokang incident [in which the Myanmar army routed the Kokang, another cease-fire group who rejected the BGF], we have increased the level of training,” says Major Chyana Zau Awn.
According to KIA officers, the Myanmar army has around 10,000 troops stationed in Kachin State and has not recently reinforced its positions. Echoing some army experts, the KIA also believes that the Myanmar army’s strength, often estimated at 500,000 foot soldiers, is overestimated.
General Gam Shawng remains realistic: “We won’t be able to defeat them but they cannot defeat us either. We can survive, so a return to the guerrilla warfare is the most likely tactic.” Besides the AK-81, the KIA will rely on a variety of homemade grenades, landmines and mortars.
Kachin leaders say that they are prepared to lose the infrastructure built during the ceasefire years, including Laiza, a booming city and the group’s main gateway to China. “These are small investments compared to the cost of a whole nation,” says Hting Nan, KIO Central Committee Secretary 2.
However, the prospect of renewed hostilities is known to worry neighboring China. Kachin leaders are cognizant of the subtle game that Chinese authorities, squeezed between their regional (Yunnan Province) and national (Beijing) interests towards Myanmar, have to play in order to maintain good political and commercial relations with all sides.
“To maintain Chinese business here, the regime must be stable and the regional people must be pleased,” says Sin Wa. “There is a balance between the business and local people’s welfare. It could help to prevent a war.”
Beyond destabilizing the area’s economy, a new war would also likely drive waves of refugees across the border into China, as happened during the Kokang incident in August 2009. According to a KIA leader who is in regular contact with Yunnan-based authorities, “the Chinese have already prepared camps for the refugees”.
It’s believed in Laiza headquarters that an attack from the Myanmar army can only occur between the elections and the formal transfer of power from the military to a new civilian administration, which must take place within three months of this Sunday’s vote. “They have to clean up the situation before a new government starts to work,” predicts one KIA officer at the group’s war ready camp.
Tony Cliff, a pseudonym, is a Bangkok-based freelance photojournalist. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org