The strains of inconsolable grief echoed across the front yard of Laiza hospital. A man, his skin already showing the greying tinges of death, lay still on a bloodied tarpaulin as medics gently lifted his shredded corpse off the back of a beat-up old Nissan truck, while neighbours and family cried aloud.
Farmer Maji Tu Ja was fixing his car in his front garden when at 10.20 am on December 27 a Burmese Army shell fired from a mountain outpost landed a few feet away from where he worked, making him the latest civilian casualty of a grinding 18 month war between the rebel Kachin Independence Army, or KIA, and the Burmese Army.
The day after Maji Tu Ja was killed, the Burmese airforce sent helicopter gunships and fighter jets to attack Kachin rebel positions on the hills and in foxholes, some just a hundred yards from where the 42 year old farmer died.
With light weapons and around 8000-10000 soldiers, the KIA relies on hit-and-run tactics and local knowledge to fight the 400,000 strong army, but the ongoing airstrikes are driving the rebels back closer to Laiza, their headquarter town which is separated from China only by the 20 yard width of the Jeyang river.
Burma President Thein Sein – a man whispered to have been in the running for the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize for the recent reforms in Burma – made no mention of the fighting in a nationally-broadcast New Year radio address, but later said that the airstrikes were in self-defence, accusing the KIA of attacking infrastructure and of ignoring the government’s proposal of talks.
For her part, Aung San Suu Kyi has rejected suggestions that she try mediate, saying that it is up to the government.
The KIA has fought central government off and on since a military coup in Rangoon in 1962, seeking greater autonomy, and, say cynics, a better handle on Kachin’s lucrative jade and timber and hydropower potential.
The 1 million or so Kachin are one of the larger ethnic groups in Burma, a country of around 50 million people, where perhaps 40% of people are not Burman, the majority ethnic group. A marker of the shabbiness of military rule, Burma hasn’t held a census since 1983, something the government says it will rectify in the coming years.
Mostly Baptist with a Catholic minority, the Kachin are not Bible-thumpers in the caricature southern USA sense, but their hearts-on-sleeve faith is key to their identity and worldview. “God willing, we will succeed in this war,” proclaimed Pastor La Htoi, speaking at a pre-Christmas service on the hills overlooking KIA headquarters.
The Kachin war is drawing in fighters from other parts of Burma, despite ceasefires betwen the government and some of the country’s alphabet soup of ethnic minority militias.
In a case of life imitating art, on the frontline with the Kachin is Min Htay of the All Burma Students Democratic Front, a militia formed by student protestors who went on the run in 1988 after the army crushed protests that saw the first emergence of Aung San Suu Kyi as politician of note.
Now fighting alongside the Kachin in this mountainous region in sight of southwest China, the man who played a sadistic Burmese Army general in Rambo 4 said “I like being a soldier more than being an actor, but this fighting is for real.”
For World Report, this is Simon Roughneen in Laiza, on the Burma-China border.Show