War in the 'green hell' of Myanmar

President Thein Sein proclaimed before the UN last week that his government places a high priority on ending ethnic conflicts, but that has proved elusive in ruggedly beautiful Kachin state, where the race to exploit abundant natural resources feeds a growing humanitarian crisis

A series of thundering explosions late in the night of June 9 last year woke up Labang Hkwan Tawng, a stout woman in her sixties, and her grandson while they were sleeping in Sang Grang, a tiny village of no more than 60 households in Kachin state.

BATTLE HARDENED: KIA soldiers wait on the top of a truck for their transfer to another place along the front around Laja Yang village on the outskirts of Laiza last month.

Instinctively, she knew what was going on. After a tense ceasefire that had lasted 17 years, the Myanmar military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) had resumed hostilities in the northern region.

Frightened and with no time to collect their belongings, the pair _ along with the rest of the villagers _ fled to the forest. They hid for several days until a group of KIA soldiers told them to head to Nhkawng Pa, a camp for internally displaced people (IDP) located in a remote mountainous area near the Chinese border which shelters more than 1,500 refugees.

Labang Hkwan Tawng was one of the first of an estimated 70-100,000 Kachin people now languishing in several IDP camps, most of them in an area controlled by the political wing of the KIA, the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO). The numbers swelled last month when the Chinese government sent back thousands of refugees to the war-torn region.

The zone along the Chinese border resembles a small and precarious state which no foreign country has ever recognised and has not even declared its independence. The grim situation of the refugees is compounded by the refusal of the Myanmar government to give permission to the UN and international NGOs to deliver aid in the area, with the exception of three occasions over the past 12 months.

Only a handful of local NGOs and donors provide regularly for them, but they do not have the logistical capacity to cope with a humanitarian crisis that worsens by the day and became even more serious when the Chinese began sending back refugees last month.

BETWEEN THE BULLETS: A KIA soldier watches television while on guard duty at a military headquarters station in Laiza village close to the China border in July this year.

The refugees in the part of Kachin state controlled by the Myanmar government are not facing the same kind of shortages, but they live in constant trepidation of the authorities. Myanmar's feared military intelligence and the police have detained dozens of Kachin under article 17 (1) of the penal code, which punishes anyone suspected of having ties to the KIO.

There are other people displaced in Kachin state, but not due to the current conflict. They are the former inhabitants of five villages who were resettled to make way for the now stalled Myitsone dam, a mega-project backed by China which would cover an area the size of Singapore if completed. Myanmar President Thein Sein announced last year the suspension of the works, apparently yielding to growing anger over Beijing's unfettered influence in the country. However, the displaced villagers have not been allowed to go back to their homes.

''The war has had a positive effect on the population here,'' a Catholic priest in Myitkyina who didn't want to be identified told Spectrum with a touch of irony. ''Now the people can make some profits for themselves.''

He was referring to the mines, mostly owned by Chinese interests, that have been abandoned since the outbreak of hostilities.

Now local diggers are scavenging the mines near Myitsone for gold and other resources.

AN OLD CONFLICT

In a speech before the UN General Assembly in New York last week, Thein Sein said the government placed a high priority on ending armed conflicts with ethnic minorities, but made no specific mention of the situation in Kachin state. Later at the Asia Society, Thein Sein said he had ordered government troops to stop fighting with the KIA, adding ''but our Kachin colleagues have not reciprocated''.

Also in New York, speaking to members of the Myanmar community at Queen College last Sunday, Aung San Suu Kyi said, ''There are people who criticised me when I remained silent on this case. They can do so as they are not satisfied with me. But, for me, I do not want to add fire to any side of the conflict.''

When one audience member submitted a question regarding the Kachin conflict, Mrs Suu Kyi replied that her National League for Democracy Party is not in power and it is the government that is running the peace process, so it is not for her party to score political points. She added that if people see bad things happening they must speak out.

The conflict reignited only three months after Thein Sein assumed the role of president, ostensibly under a reformist agenda, but until then it has been largely off the radar of the international media, particularly compared to the coverage afforded to the new ''democratic'' government's efforts to open up the country and its economy.

But developments in remote places like Kachin state are no less important for the future of Myanmar than the decisions taken in the corridors of power of the new capital, Nay Pyi Taw. The Myanmar official charged with negotiating with ethnic minorities, Aung Min, has managed to sign tentative peace agreements with other restive ethnic organisations like the Karen National Union, but so far a similar agreement with the KIO has proved to be far more elusive.

Despite Thein Sein's comments last week in New York that he had ordered his troops to halt attacks on Kachin positions, the reality on the ground suggests that if that were the case, his orders are not being carried out.

Many KIO officials Spectrum spoke with believe that Thein Sein never issued that order. They also claim they are waging a purely defensive war.

The KIO has been fighting against the government since its formation in 1961, at first for independence and then for autonomy within a federal state, but the historical roots of the conflict are deeper.

Like many of the other minorities that form the complex ethnic patchwork of Myanmar, the Kachin had inhabited their own land for centuries with a degree of independence before the unification of the country.

The Kachin are predominantly Baptists and Roman Catholics and have their own language and a distinctive culture that differentiates them from the Buddhist Bamar in the centre of the country. Until the arrival of the British colonial power in the 19th Century, Myanmar (or Burma, as it was called then) did not exist as such, and the Kachin and many other ethnic groups had never been fully subjugated to the Burmese kings.

In 1947, Kachin leaders along with three other ethnic groups including the Bamar represented by Aung San, the architect of Myanmar's independence and father of Mrs Suu Kyi, signed the Panglong agreement. The agreement was meant to establish a federal state with self-determination for the minorities and the right to secede after 10 years if they chose to do so. But Aung San was killed a few months later and, after the country's independence in 1948, no government has ever respected the terms of that seminal agreement.

Baptist reverend Ja Gun _ a Kachin historian, linguist and ideologist of the KIO _ explained to Spectrum at his home in Laiza that the KIO was formed in 1961, because U Nu's democratic government tried to establish Buddhism as the state religion and sidelined the ethnic minorities' representatives in the parliament, rendering them powerless.

Control over natural resources also plays an important role in the conflict. Kachin state is rich in timber, jade, gold and water resources that China is eager to exploit. In recent years, the Myanmar government has sold these treasures to Chinese companies, often at prices far below their real value.

But the KIO reaps some benefit from these businesses, for instance taxing the trucks that cross its territory on their way to China, said Hkijn Nawngi, head of the KIO's livestock and forestry department.

The position of China in the conflict is ambivalent. The Chinese government is the main supplier of weapons for the Myanmar army and, until the opening of Myanmar to the West, its main supporter in the UN.

But it also maintains some relations with the KIO. There is a sizeable Kachin population in China's southern Yunnan province and the KIA fought for years alongside the now disappeared Communist Party of Burma, backed by Beijing.

Apart from the business of Chinese companies in KIO-controlled areas, the KIA sends its most seriously injured soldiers to hospitals on the other side of the border. Moreover, to fight the drug trade on the border with Myanmar, the Chinese government has launched a programme of crop substitution in northern Myanmar, including KIO held territory, which has been criticised by some as a mere excuse to introduce Chinese companies in the country.

THE WAR WITHOUT END

In a cavernous room with a large sign which reads ''God is our victory'' in the Kachin language in the KIO headquarters in Laiza, Colonel Zaw Tong, the KIA's 45-year-old chief military strategist, explains that the current conflict had been a while in the making, after the Myanmar army in late 2009 began to send reinforcements to protect the construction works of a dam in the Ta Ping River.

Col Zaw Tong said the area is at the edge of the demarcation line determined under the 1994 ceasefire agreement, so the construction of the dam and subsequent reinforcement of troops amounted to a violation of that agreement.

This was the start of a messy war in an extremely harsh environment of rugged mountains and dense rainforest which the Columban missionaries, who arrived in the region during the 19th century, as well as the British, called the ''green hell''.

The conflict has pitted the 400,000 strong Myanmar military against an army of 10,000 Kachin regular soldiers and even more _ twice this figure, according to KIO sources _ members of the village security forces, volunteer militias who fight alongside the KIA and receive orders from its commanders.

Rather than a regular war, what is going in Kachin state is a series of skirmishes in the jungle. Col Zaw Tong claims that the KIA has lost around 200 of its soldiers and Myanmar five times that number, although both sides tend to exaggerate the casualty figures of their enemy and minimise their own.

Both sides have been accused of committing human rights violations.

In a report released in March, Human Rights Watch denounced the Myanmar army for carrying out mass rapes, extrajudicial killings or using Kachin civilians as human mine sweepers, and accused both sides of recruiting child soldiers and using landmines.

La Nam, the KIO's spokesman and deputy secretary-general, did not deny the accusations when asked about them, but claimed that the KIA does not actively recruit child soldiers and never sends them to combat. He also said that its mines are programmed to be active for only two months. Given the strict control that the KIO keeps on the journalists who visit its territory, it was impossible to independently verify these claims.

Col Zaw Tong said that neither side can win an outright military victory.

The Myanmar army is better equipped and superior in terms of manpower, but the Kachin are better prepared to survive the extreme environment and know well the difficult terrain; many of the Myanmar soldiers and officers, usually from other parts of the country, do not. The Kachin fighters are also adept at guerrilla tactics that made them famous in World War II, when they fought the Japanese alongside the British army.

Col Zaw Tong said that given this military stalemate, the objective of the KIA was to maintain an upper hand in the battlefield to improve their position at the negotiating table.

But those negotiations are at a standstill. After several meetings, both sides seem to be unable to find common ground and now can't even agree to the venue for the next round of talks.

Sumlut Gam, a compact 69 year old, is the chief of the KIO negotiating team. In his office in Laiza he explains that the main stumbling block in the negotiations is that the Myanmar government wants to sign a ceasefire before initiating any kind of political dialogue while the KIO wants the opposite.

Sumlut Gam says that the government cheated the Kachin in 1994, when they accepted the ceasefire in the hope that it would lead to a political dialogue that never took place. ''At that time, they told us that the army, who back then was governing the country, did not have legitimacy to maintain that kind of dialogue,'' he said.

Under these circumstances, the war could drag on indefinitely. There is little that the tens of thousands of refugees in Kachin state can do, except wait and pray.

A 65-year-old Baptist deacon who didn't wish to be identified and now lives in the Nhkawng Pa IDP working as a volunteer to give comfort to the refugees, told me that he often reads the Bible with them to find some hope in its pages.

He is particularly fond of the book ''Exodus'', which contains the story of the Israelites' sufferings under the Egyptian pharaoh and their escape to Canaan, the promise land.

When I asked him what would be the Canaan of the Kachin people, he answered simply: ''Independence.''

READY FOR ACTION: A KIA soldier takes a cigarette break in front of a homemade cannon in Laja Yang village on the outskirts of Laiza.

EYE ON THE ENEMY: A KIA soldier at Naw Hpyu Post uses binoculars to watch nearby government troops.

About the author

Writer: Carlos Sardina Galache