In the Kachin Independent Army (KIA) stronghold of Laiza, rebel fighters and thousands of residents are preparing for a final push by the Myanmar army, fearful that the capturing of the city could prove a fatal blow to the survival of the ethnic army.
KIA soldiers on the Lawa Yang front line, just 15 minutes’ drive from Laiza town in Kachin State.
Bunkers dug around the town _ which is pincered in a mountainous area between northeast Myanmar and China _ are evidence of the fretful state of the locals who have been subjected to ongoing air strikes and shelling, even though the Myanmar government announced a ceasefire more than a week ago in the village of Lajayang south of Laiza where most of the fighting has taken place.
''The government announced a ceasefire in Lajayang because they wanted to improve their image in the international community but they are actually lying,'' said Major Zaw Khaung who has served in the KIA for 34 years.
''Just before the Myanmar government announced no more attacks in Lajayang, the place had already fallen to the Myanmar military. Although they said they won't take over Laiza, we have no trust in the military government.''
Myanmar's Ministry of Information released a statement saying that ''the commander-in-chief reaffirmed that the Tatmadaw [Myanmar army] will follow the command of the president not to carry out offensive attacks except in self-defence.''
After the fall of Lajayang, Major Zaw Khaung, who is the KIA's strategic commander in the area, and his troops withdrew to the Lawa Yang front line located only eight kilometres from Laiza. He said battalions 381, 382 and 389 of the Myanmar army, comprising more than 300 soldiers, occupied Lajayang on Jan 18.
Pointing out two of the highest mountains, Phon Byan Bon and Ma San Bon, Major Zaw Khaung described the fall of Lajayang.
READY FOR PEACE: Kachin soldier Naw Naw, 33, on the Lawa Yang front line said if the war were to end today, ‘I will go back home tomorrow.’
''The Myanmar military had taken over those two mountains,'' he said. ''It was impossible for us to resist in Lajayang which is situated between two mountains. So we had no option but to withdraw the troops.''
''We found 16 bodies and arrested seven injured Myanmar soldiers after that battle,'' Major Zaw Khaung added.
The KIA now fears that the Myanmar military will capture the strategic position of Kha Ya Bon mountain which is being shelled by 75mm-120mm mortars.
''We have neither launched an offensive nor guerrilla attacks,'' said Major Zaw Khaung. ''We are just defending our land. If Kha Ya Bon falls into their hands, they can control Laiza.''
The reported use of air capabilities _ including Chinese-made jet fighters and Russian helicopters _ has added a new dimension to the conflict with the Myanmar government trying to inflict a ''shock and awe'' campaign on the Kachin fighters, some analysts say. The Myanmar government initially denied the use of air attacks in mid-December, but admitted a month later the air strikes were necessary against KIA outposts.
''The air attacks are not aimed at civilians,'' Deputy Information Minister Ye Htut told The Irrawaddy news site.
''When we shoot, we are not shooting towards Laiza, but behind Laiza. The planes just fly over Laiza so there is less impact on the people there.''
Laiza's mayor, Naw Awn, said 8,000 residents had refused to evacuate despite Myanmar forces closing in on the town.
However, the proximity of Laiza to the neighbouring Chinese province of Yunnan could be its saving grace. Beijing has expressed concern about Myanmar jet-fighters encroaching on its airspace, and on Jan 17, the day before the ceasefire was announced, issued a strong rebuke to Nay Pyi Taw over a bomb landing across the border.
But Guy Horton, a researcher at the School of African and Oriental Studies at the University of London, who is researching refugee camps in Kachin State, said the current situation was ''extremely serious''.
''I'm not talking about guerrilla warfare,'' he told Spectrum.
''I'm talking about massive subtle military killing. The Kachin people, as a whole, are prepared to stand up and fight. There is preparation for a monumental conflict which could see a huge number of civilian casualties and refugees. So I'm really appealing to the world as strongly as possible to help implement the ceasefire then to implement genuine justice.''
On Thursday, the US Embassy in Yangon released a statement opposing ''the ongoing violence in Burma's [Myanmar's] Kachin State''.
a KIA soldier prepares for a camouflage ambush exercise on a base near Laiza.
''Despite the Burmese [Myanmar] government's announcement that a ceasefire was to take effect on Jan 19, media and NGO reports indicate that the Burmese Army continues a military offensive in the vicinity of the Kachin Independence Army headquarters in Laiza,'' the statement read.
President Thein Sein said last weekend his government was seeking to make a ''genuine and lasting peace'' with the Kachin Independence Organisation (the Kachin's political arm) and the KIA.
However, the KIO recommended peace talks be held through the United Nationalities Federal Council while the KIO was ''under serious attack either by air or by land by the Myanmar military''.
The KIA _ which was founded in 1962 _ signed a ceasefire with the Myanmar military junta in 1994 which lasted for 17 years until the Myanmar government demanded they disband and be subsumed into a national Border Guard Force along with other ethnic armies.
Min Htay of the Northern All Burma Student Democratic Front, which is an ally of the KIA, said the conflict was coming at a cost to the Myanmar government.
''The Myanmar military has been using 105mm howitzer shells which cost more than US$9,000 [269,000 baht] per unit. You can imagine how much they have been spending for all attacks.''
Human Rights Watch reported that on Jan 14 the Myanmar army fired several 105mm howitzer shells into Laiza.
Min Htay doesn't think the conflict will be easily resolved. ''If both sides cannot carry out a peace process the country will suffer. The fighting will be going on in one form or another order to defend our frontier,'' he said.
But the 20-month conflict is starting to take its toll on the Kachin fighters.
''I don't want to kill any more as I've been killing alot,'' said Naw Naw, a 33-year-old Kachin soldier. ''If the war ends today, I will return home tomorrow.''
Another injured KIA soldier, who was admitted to Mai Ja Yang Hospital, said he wanted the war to end but would follow orders if required.
He suffered a mortar wound to his right leg a week ago while taking food to the front line where KIA Brigade 3 has based itself.
''If the war is going on, I will have to follow the command of the KIA. If they send me to the front line, I have to accept that duty anyway,'' the soldier said.
But veteran KIA soldiers such as Baran Aung, 58, told Spectrum on the front line that they were more concerned about the Myanmar government honouring the Pinlon Agreement than a ceasefire. Gen Aung San, a national hero and the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, signed the Pinlon Agreement in 1947 before Myanmar gained Independence from British government.
''What we really want is autonomy in a federal union as Gen Aung San promised us in the 1947 Pinlon agreement,'' Baran Aung said.
''We want peace, of course, but the question is would it be an eternal peace?'' Bran Aung added.
The 20 months of fighting has led to more than 165,000 people being displaced, and while all of them are hoping for the conflict to end, they are wary of what they will return to.
''Even though the day may come when we can return home I'm afraid of landmines near our village,'' a 32-year-old Kachin woman at the Man Wing Gyi refugee camp said.
Landmines have been planted by both the KIA and Myanmar military.
La Dan, a KIA captain, admitted that ''we need to use landmines to protect our land because we don't have modern weapons like the Myanmar army is using''.
Three young school boys stepped on a landmine near Man Wing Gyi camp last week, leaving one dead and one injured.
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Writer: Mon Mon Myat