No end in sight amid season of slaughter
Anxiety is increasing among front-line soldiers and refugees in Kachin state as the government's recently revealed use of foreign-sourced heavy artillery suggests that the bloody conflict will only intensify and hopes for the ethnic group's cause may be dwindling
For Kachin huddled into refugee camps in Laiza, the ethnic group's administrative capital, and others who have been driven into the jungle by the bloody conflict engulfing their state, the prevailing mood of this holiday season is one of fear.
INSTRUMENTS OF WAR: These Myanmar army weapons were seized by Kachin forces in December in Laja Yang.
The festivities that the Christian majority ethnic group would under better circumstances be enjoying _ holiday decorations, Christmas carolling, church services _ are either very low key or absent entirely.
"Christmas Eve is a very important night for us because we're Christian, but I don't think I will enjoy it this year because we're all scattered and separated from our families due to the war," said Mary Tawm, one of thousands of Kachin refugees in Laiza.
A sense of dread pervades Kachin communities as refugees and soldiers say that the Myanmar army has increased attacks on the ethnic group in the northern state and introduced heavy artillery into the equation.
Kachin rebels are one of Myanmar's strongest ethnic rebel groups, with about 15,000 fighters.
A report earlier this month by veteran journalist Bertil Lintner revealed that Kachin soldiers found Swedish-made 84mm Carl Gustaf M3 recoilless rifles in the hands of Myanmar soldiers. That report, a violation of an arms embargo on Myanmar, brought international attention to the conflict.
According to Lintner and Kachin on the ground, the government army was also using 105mm howitzers, 120mm mortars and Russian Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunships. The armed attack helicopters were used extensively by Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s and it took Stinger surface-to-air missiles for the mujahideen there to bring them down. Anti-aircraft machine guns would have little or no impact.
''By deploying such a powerful weapon the Burmese [Myanmar] army has raised the conflict in Kachin state to a new stage _ it's now a full-scale civil war,'' Lintner said.
FROM THE FRONT LINES
Speaking from a front-line outpost on a hill in Kachin state's Laja Yang region, about 11km from Laiza on the Chinese-Myanmar border, Min Htay of the All Burma Students' Democratic Front (ABSDF), an armed group fighting alongside the Kachin rebels, said he didn't expect the conflict to end any time soon.
a Carl Gustaf M3 seized from the Myanmar army at a KIA base in Kachin state.
He said that since Dec 12 the government army has been trying to advance on Bunya mountain, which is about five kilometres from Laiza, a high and strategically desirable mountaintop given its proximity to the capital. The Myanmar soldiers have so far been repelled in their efforts to set up heavy artillery on the hill, but if they were to succeed, the threat to the Kachin would be dire.
Min Htay said the government wants to seize control of Laiza, the headquarters of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the military wing of the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO).
''It seems they want to seize Laiza before they hold another round of peace talks. If they take over Laiza, they can tell the KIA what to do,'' he said.
Myanmar watcher Aung Kyaw Zaw agreed that if troops were to set up heavy artillery on Bunya mountain, they would pose a grave threat to the KIA and to the approximately 70,000 refugees who have sought shelter there.
NO LONGER OUT OF SIGHT?
The bloody 18-month conflict in northern Myanmar, which has resulted in 100,000 internally displaced persons in Kachin state, Shan state and on the Chinese-Myanmar border, is escalating, but the international community, including the UN, has largely been ignoring the devastation, Myanmar watchers say.
US ambassador to Myanmar Derek Mitchell travelled to Kachin state on Tuesday and Wednesday where he had an up-close view of the conditions facing refugees at a camp in Wai Maw township.
Mr Mitchell told civil society groups that his delegation had come to Kachin state to assure the people there that they had not been forgotten.
Despite such moves, journalist Lintner is particularly critical of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, whose inactivity he says should be the subject of a UN investigation.
''The entire world community is not paying enough attention to the war in Kachin state,'' Lintner said. ''It's a shame.''
That could be changing, some observers believe, thanks to the spotlight put on the conflict by the controversy surrounding the discovery of the Swedish-made M3 recoilless rifles in the possession of government soldiers.
The Swedish government has launched an investigation following the discovery as it directly contravenes an EU arms embargo on Myanmar.
Sources in Kachin state said government troops used the rifles to attack KIA military bases in Hpakant region in western Kachin state.
Speaking by satellite phone from a KIA military base on a mountain, Myanmar war photojournalist John Sanlin, who was accompanying Kachin troops, said they had found shells from the Swedish-made launchers on Dec 12.
Under the sale agreement between Swedish manufacturer Saab Bofors Dynamics and the Indian government, the weapons were not to be sold or in any way transferred to a third party, he added.
''It is highly unlikely that India 'sold' the Swedish weapons to Burma, but they were probably given to the Burmese army to be used against Assamese and Manipuri rebels from northeastern India who have camps on the Burmese side of the border, beyond reach of the Indian army,'' said Lintner.
In a report published last Monday in the Myanmar-language weekly The Voice, the Myanmar government claimed that the guns were imported into the country from Sweden before the embargo had been put into effect in 1990.
Lintner said that while Myanmar had purchased Carl Gustaf M3s from Sweden in 1982, they were an older model. A quick check of the serial numbers on those found recently belies the government's official stance, he said.
''Judging from the serial numbers they had come from an 84mm Carl Gustaf M3 made in Sweden and part of a major shipment of weapons that Sweden exported to India in 2003, repeat 2003,'' Lintner said.
Sweden's Trade Minister Ewa Bjorling said on the floor of the Swedish parliament on Dec 13: ''The Swedish Agency for Non-Proliferation and Export Controls [ISP] has requested an expedited answer from India and my state secretary has been in touch with India's ambassador.''
ABSDF front-line troops also reported that houses in abandoned villages in Laja Yang were burned down after being hit by recoilless rifle rounds. Villagers have taken their livestock and gone into hiding in neighbouring jungles, while others sought refuge in Laiza.
Min Htay, who starred as a Myanmar general in ‘Rambo 4’, poses for a photo with actor-director Sylvester Stallone during the shooting of the film in 2010.
According to Sanlin, on Dec 12, two government army helicopters opened fire on a KIA base known locally as Border Line No6 in Pangwa region, northeast of the Kachin state capital of Myitkyina. The severe shelling hit a makeshift refugee camp, where about 1,000 were taking shelter. At least three children were injured by the gunfire.
KIA sources also said an estimated 20 government soldiers were killed and others injured on Dec 12 during fighting in the Pangwa region along with two KIA soldiers.
KIO spokesperson La Nan said that fighting continued daily in different parts of Kachin state as more military supplies are being sent to the government army by helicopter.
As fighting escalates, human rights violations such as rape have also been reported in Kachin state, according to the Free Burma Rangers, a humanitarian relief group that operates in ethnic areas, including Kachin state.
The group reported that government soldiers from LIB 321, Infantry Battalions 28 and 37, raped a 58-year-old woman from Hpa Re Village in the Pangwa area, near the border with China on July 8. Government soldiers also stand accused of raping a 39-year-old widowed mother of 12.
STREET KID ARMY
The heavier artillery being deployed by the Myanmar army comes as the majority of the casualties over the course of the bloody conflict have been on the government side.
In a battle in Laja Yang on Dec 14, the KIA and ABSDF seized ammunition and weapons from government soldiers and also captured at least seven of them.
ABSDF soldier Min Htay said that about 60 Myanmar soldiers died or were injured in the battle. The offensive was launched by Light Infantry Battalions 382, 383 and 389, comprising an estimated 400 foot soldiers. Kachin soldiers say they also used Mi-24 helicopter gunships in attacking the KIA base in the region.
One government soldier who was grievously injured in the fighting died after being treated by ABSDF medics at a front-line base.
Aung Kyaw Zaw said many of the government soldiers are children and not well trained. Many of them were pulled off Yangon streets and elsewhere and given a minimum of training before being sent to the front line.
Hla Seng, another ABSDF fighter recalled, ''They [captured government soldiers] said they were forced to fight. When we asked them, all of them said they didn't want to fight.
''When we treated them, they said they were moved by our actions. Before they thought we were rebels and would kill them,'' Hla Seng said. ''But afterwards they said we treated them better than their own officers would have.''
HISTORY OF VIOLENCE
The government's main peace negotiator with ethnic groups, Aung Min, holds to a line of reconciliation in discussing the conflict. The Myanmar government also denies that its soldiers are gunning down the Kachin from armoured helicopters.
Zaw Htay, director of the Myanmar President's Office, said, ''The [government army] didn't use helicopters to shoot the KIA. It's not their nature to use helicopter gunships in a civil war.'' Those that have been spotted, he said, were delivering relief supplies and aid.
La Nan doubts the sincerity of the government peace negotiating team. ''U Aung Min told us that there will be no further military offensives against the KIA,'' La Nan said. ''The international community and the media believe what he says, but it's totally different on the ground.''
Founded in 1961, and in conflict with the central government ever since, the KIO signed a ceasefire agreement with the former military regime in 1994, but the group's calls for autonomy and respect for their fundamental rights were largely ignored.
Following the 1994 ceasefire, the KIO was offered business opportunities in logging, jade mining and other trades. However, these were seen by the KIO as an attempt by Myanmar cronies and officials, Chinese businessmen and even some KIA officers to exploit Kachin state's rich forests and natural resources.
Some well-respected Kachin leaders, however, thought the former junta was sincere in bringing about a political solution to the conflict. In that spirit, KIO representatives joined the National Convention, which was part of the ''Seven-step roadmap'' written by former Prime Minister Khin Nyunt.
However, tensions mounted in 2010 after the government asked all ethnic rebels to serve as part of a ''Border Guard Force'' under the command of the Myanmar army. The KIO did not accede to the demand.
Relations totally broke down on June 19, 2011, when the government launched attacks on the KIA.
Due to their experiences following the 1994 ceasefire, many observers now say the KIO will only accept a political solution that takes into account their demands for autonomy and respect for their rights, not merely a ceasefire.
The KIO have been in intermittent reconciliation talks with the government's peace delegation since early 2012, but so far none have borne fruit.
Zaw Htay, the director of the President's Office in Nay Pyi Taw, said the government peace team wants to sit down with the KIO in January for another round of peace talks, headed by Aung Min.
Aung Min informally agreed to enter into a political dialogue, as KIO leaders had requested during their last meeting in Ruili on Oct 30.
The government peace team, however, insisted on holding the talks in Myanmar, not in a third country, as the KIO had proposed.
He said he learned from media reports that government soldiers had suffered high casualties in the offensives in Kachin state last week. He said he didn't want either side to suffer, urging bilateral dialogue between the KIA and the government peace delegation.
''We need to build trust. There will be disagreements, but it's necessary to negotiate,'' Zaw Htay said.
However, Min Htay of the ABSDF was not hopeful about prospects for a quick peace agreement, saying he believed the government would continue launching more offensives against KIA headquarters.
James Lun Dau, deputy foreign affairs chief for the KIO, said the government's peace talk offer is just for show. The KIO has met with the government peace team several times, but reached no tangible agreement.
KIO spokesperson La Nan said that despite President Thein Sein's order for his army not to attack the KIA, several strategic bases as close as 6-10km from the KIA's headquarters in Laiza have come under fire from both air and ground forces.
''We have now told all our troops in strategic bases to be on high alert as we worry that they [the government army] will open more fronts in the war,'' La Nan said.
For the refugees, the New Year holds little promise of being any less menacing than the one that will soon pass.
''We want peace on Christmas Eve. I don't understand why they [the government army] have so severely increased their war against us, even during the holidays,'' refugee Mary Tawm said.
Saw Yan Naing is an ethnic Karen journalist from Myanmar who is now working as a senior reporter for the Thailand-based 'Irrawaddy Magazine'.
FEEDING AN ARMY: ABSDF soldiers prepare a meal to celebrate Full Moon day in March.
DIGGING IN: ABSDF and KIA soldiers enjoy a meal at a military camp in Laja Yang.
AIDING THE ENEMY: An ABSDF medic treats injured government soldiers.
About the author
Writer: Saw Yan Naing