LAJA YANG, Kachin State—The dry daytime heat succumbs to a balmy dusk cool, setting the tree-lined valley in a soft yet vivid glow. Aside from the occasional truck or motorcycle, the verdant landscape rings only to the warbles of birds and lowing of cattle in fields on the valley floor.
It seems almost too picture-perfect for a war-zone, says Capt Naw Mai, commander of a Kachin Independence Army (KIA) post on the main road from Laiza—a town of around 10,000 people sitting right on the Chinese border—to regional capital Myitkina. Kachin State remains a resource rich region of northern Burma neighboring China, but is the site of almost daily battles between the Burmese government army and ethnic militias since a ceasefire agreed in1994 broke down last June.
Pointing across a bridge—a dog-leg left off the main road—to a Burmese army post a mere 100 yards away, Naw Mai claims, “Even though there is fighting elsewhere, we leave them alone, as it is our policy not to attack first.” There is another Burmese army position less than a mile away on the same main route, but both are isolated from the larger military posts elsewhere in Kachin State. Another reason, Naw Mai says, why there is no need for the KIA to attack the enemy here.
That said, later the same night, the Burmese army shelled KIA positions at Loi Je, close to the ethnic armed group’s second main stronghold at Mai Ja Yang, several hours drive from Laiza. There was also gunfire at Nam San Yang, an already burnt-out village less than an hour away from Laja Yang.
Fighting has left both the KIA and government forces in control of an amorphous and criss-crossing patchworks of territory close to the Sino-Burmese border. The KIA believes they have the upper hand in ground-level, small-arms combat in their mountain redoubts. But, faced by a much larger and better-armed adversary, they have been forced to retreat from several areas since fighting began, leaving the Burmese government in control of perhaps 70-75 percent of the northern state.
Two rounds of peace-talks have been held so far, but, in an indication of how little common ground can be found, neither side can even agree where to stage the next parley. Back in Laiza, KIA headquarters for the past seven months, Col Ji Nong of the group’s central committee says he has been involved in every negotiation with the Burmese government since 1994.
Going by his account of recent discussions in Ruili, China, it will be difficult to cut a deal. “We want to talk about political issues first,” he told The Irrawaddy, “but they want to leave that until later.” He says that the Burmese interlocutors mention “equal rights for all civilians,” a formulation that does not sit well with the desire of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO)—The KIA’s civilian wing—for “equal rights for ethnic groups.”
Ji Nong says that even if the KIO and government can make some progress, his organization is bound by a commitment to other ethnic armed groups as part of the United Nationalities Federal Council which will meet on Feb. 28 in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
The KIO says that it wants national-level discussions on Burma’s political future, despite the government’s recent tentative democratic reforms, such as the release of political prisoners. The talks should be expanded to include other political parties, said Ji Nong, “I don’t know how much Aung San Suu Kyi knows about the ethnic groups,” he ponders, “but we want to include [her] National League for Democracy and the [Shan Nationalities League for Democracy] in any bigger negotiations after that.” But, he says, “the government does not want Aung San Suu Kyi and the Kachin [people] united.”
Back at Laja Yang, a billboard commemorating Burma’s 1988 student rebellion and featuring a larger-than-life image of Suu Kyi sits right in the Burmese soldiers’ line of sight, positioned as if to taunt. Standing nearby, and pointing again to the Burmese army post across the bridge where soldiers can be seen looking through binoculars across at the KIA, Naw Mai outlines the uneasy modus vivendi on this sector of the frontline. “We usually had a good relationship with the soldiers stationed here during the ceasefire, but now there is no communication, since they shot two of our soldiers recently.”
It is not just the day-to-day relations between frontline troops that have changed, says the captain. “There is a big difference between the Burmese troops stationed close to KIA-held areas since the now defunct 1994 ceasefire, and those sent from elsewhere to fight this war,” he explains. “They are better armed and better trained, but so are we, so they usually just shell us from distance rather than face us in a fight.”
Another difference, according to Labang Doi Pyi Sa, head of the KIO Relief Committee, is in the battalions deployed to fight in Kachin state. “As far we know some of these are soldiers trained to face foreign enemies, so it seems that the army sees us as a foreign people,” he claims.
Most of the 70,000 Kachin people driven from their homes by fighting fled as Burmese troops approached. The vast majority of those interviewed by The Irrawaddy—at six camps near Laiza and Mai Ja Yang—say that they ran when they heard gunfire in the distance, leaving before the army arrived at their villages. Only two of those interviewed say they saw or know any civilian who was killed or physically-harmed by Burmese troops. Khaitang Marin, a mother-of-two from near Bhamo but now at Seng Mai camp outside Mai Ja Yang, said, “When the army came, we all ran, but they shot one man.”
Many say they left without most of their possessions, and that they heard the army either ransacked or burned their homes. Sitting inside a bamboo hut at Jeyang camp, Lama Bawk Htoi says that most of Nam San Yang—her village 12 miles away on the other side of Laiza—was burned down by Burmese troops. “It is not safe for us to go back, though we want to as we have been here for eight months now.”
The Jeyang camp—a 15 minute drive from Laiza beside the eponymous river that marks the border with China—hosts more than 5,600 people, making it the biggest refuge for those fleeing fighting inside KIA territory. Kareng Naw Awng, mayor of Laiza who helps manage the camp, says “it would be hoping against hope for them to get their property back, as the Tatmadaw [Burmese government troops] take their animals and valuables from their homes.”
Back at the bridge, the downside for civilians living by isolated Burmese army positions on the Laiza-Myitkina road is that soldiers regularly shake down passers-by, as troops cannot be supplied by the army. Maran Naw Bawk and wife Seng Tawng walked for 11 hours with their three cattle by the time they passed the bridge at Laja Yang. “We took a long way around,” said Seng Tawng, “as they [Burmese soldiers] try to take a cow or some money from people who go to Laiza.”
Seng Tawng and her husband are two new names added to Kachin State’s growing number of internal refugees. “There was more fighting last Sunday,” said Maran Naw Bawk. “It was the closest yet to our village, so we think it is not safe any more.” Asked where they will go, he said, “I have relatives in Laiza, we can stay there.” And with a quick goodbye he gives the lead cow a firm crack of his bamboo stick and ushers the animals towards the town.