[News] The war to come in Myanmar
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
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.
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.
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
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
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