[News] The war to come in Myanmar

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Wed Nov 3 18:58:14 EDT 2010

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 

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 
position dug in on an opposite hill.

Fixed in a hole, an old Chinese made anti-aircraft machine gun points 
at the government 
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 

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 
(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.

Exceptional ethnic

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 
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.

Forced integration
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 
(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 
<http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Southeast_Asia/LK04Ae03.html#>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 tonycliff7 at gmail.com

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights 
reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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