Paul VriezeKachin Independence Army (KIA) cadets follow drills at a
training school in Laiza, on the Burma-China border.
Burma's de facto leader can't control an army with a vested interest in conflict
As the sun slowly sets behind the jungle-covered mountains of northern
Burma’s Kachin state, a dozen or so rebel fighters are preparing for a
night in the trenches at their hilltop post.
Conditions are tough, and the men say they struggle to sleep in their
damp dugouts. The enemy is never far — Burmese army troops can be seen
stationed on another hilltop, some 500 meters away.
Several such posts, manned by around 200 Kachin soldiers, are the only
southern line of defense separating government forces from Laiza, a
nearby town on the Burma-China border and a Kachin Independence Army
(KIA) stronghold. Though this particular area, called Lawa Yang, has
not seen serious clashes for two years, the soldiers are wary as
violence is rising across the region.
“We are worried there could also be fighting here,” says Lt. Col Zhau
Hpan, a burly Kachin veteran who commands Lawa Yang. “We think the
Burma army wants to increase the fighting. In the north, we see they
are building new roads to position their artillery.”
The KIA is one of more than 20 non-state armed groups in Burma, which
is formally known as Myanmar, and it’s one of the biggest rebel armies
in the country. The 10,000-strong militia, made up of soldiers from
the Kachin ethnic group, has been fighting for autonomy from the
Burmese government since the 1960s, making it one of the world’s
longest civil wars. In 2011, a 17-year cease-fire broke down, and
since then fighting has displaced about 100,000 people and killed
The KIA says the Burmese army launched a major offensive in
mid-August, some 30 km north of Laiza, to capture a strategic
mountain, named Gidon by the Kachin. If successful, it would cut the
KIA territory into two. The assault has since intensified and KIA
forces — dug into the mountaintop and armed with basic assault rifles,
machine guns and mortars — have repelled waves of ground attacks,
while taking daily mortar shelling and frequent strikes by artillery,
fighter jets and helicopter gunships.
“The situation is escalating, the Burma army is deploying more and
more troops,” KIA spokesperson Lt. Col Naw Bu told TIME during an
interview in Laiza. He said 15 rebels were killed or injured at Gidon,
while the KIA estimates the Burmese army had sustained 100 casualties
by late October.
U.S. Lifts Sanctions on Burma
President Barack Obama said Wednesday the U.S. is lifting economic
sanctions and restoring trade benefits to former pariah state
Naw Bu said some 3,000 government soldiers had moved into positions
along the roughly 100-km stretch of border area controlled by the
rebels, and clashes have become frequent.
On Sunday, in response to months of growing pressure from the
military, the KIA and three smaller allied armies — the Rakhine,
Ta’ang and Kokang rebels — struck back unexpectedly. Several hundred
fighters jointly attacked army and police stations at three areas in
northern Shan state, including near Muse, Burma’s main border gate
State media said eight people were killed, including three civilians;
29 were injured. The violence caused the border to be closed and
prompted China to put its army on high alert in the area. About 3,000
civilians fled and are reportedly seeking shelter in China.
The offensive and the rebels’ retaliation mark the heaviest fighting
in northern Burma since 2014, and the violence has escalated despite
ongoing efforts by de facto government leader Aung San Suu Kyi to
reach a nationwide cease-fire between the military and 20 ethnic rebel
Government spokesperson Zaw Htay condemned Sunday’s attacks by the
rebels, saying they were “a very big setback for our peace process …
we are very concerned.” He added, “Our key border trade route to
China, our biggest trading partner, has been cut.”
The recent conflict adds to the woes of the young National League for
Democracy (NLD) government, which also faces a deepening crisis in
western Arakan state. There, the army is carrying out lethal
operationsamong stateless Rohingya Muslims while searching for
suspected militants who launched deadly attacks on police outposts
Disillusion is spreading
In early April, the NLD formed Burma’s first democratic government
following half a century of military rule, after it clinched a
historic election win last year. It prioritized a resumption of the
peace process and hopes of a nationwide cease-fire by February 2017.
That truce would then allow for political dialogue to address ethnic
groups’ demands for federal autonomy, as well as reforms to the
Yet shortly after the new government’s first peace conference in late
August, the military ramped up attacks in Kachin, intensified
operations in neighboring Shan state and began a hunt for a rebel
splinter group in southern Karen state, an area that had seen little
fighting for years. Thousands of civilians were displaced anew and
numerous reports emerged of torture, extrajudicial killings and
indiscriminate shelling of villages, for which the army — known
locally as the Tatmadaw — has long been notorious.
The rising bloodshed highlights a fundamental challenge for the NLD:
how to build trust and guide peace talks between ethnic groups and the
military, while the army, in accordance with the constitution,
continues to run all security operations under the ministries of
defense, home affairs and border affairs, as it sees fit.
“Expectations were high just two months ago … but the Tatmadaw now
appears to be pursuing its own policies once again, without
explanation or apparent regard for the political and humanitarian
cost,” Tom Kramer, an expert on Burma’s conflict with the
Transnational Institute, a Netherlands-based policy organization,
“Disillusion is spreading in [ethnic] communities that voted for the
party in large numbers,” he said. “It is not too late, but the NLD
needs to take urgent steps to assert its authority on the nationwide
So far, the government has tried to establish a working relationship
with the army and avoided criticizing its expanding operations, while
encouraging regular peace talks between all sides.
The recent upsurge in fighting has dimmed hopes among Kachin soldiers
and civilians living in Laiza, that the NLD government can take
control of the peace process and prevent the military from launching
“Peace will remain distant. The NLD cannot do anything because the
Tatmadaw controls everything under the constitution,” said Lt. Col
Zhau Hpan, the frontline commander at Lawa Yang Post in the mountains
Paul VriezeA Kachin Independence Army (KIA) soldier seen at Lawa Yang
frontline post. The Burma Army is stationed on the hills in the
Some 5,000 residents, thousands of KIA soldiers, and around 20,000
displaced civilians live in this narrow valley hemmed in by mountains
on one side, and a small river on the other that demarcates the border
with China. Many in Laiza are weary; the conflict is entering its
sixth year. Kachin leaders said during interviews in late October that
they continued to support the peace process despite the army
offensive, but trust in the process was being eroded.
“The KIA’s position is that a political discussion is the only
solution to end the conflict,” KIA spokesperson Naw Bu said. “Like the
NLD, we want to establish a democratic and federal union. If that
happens, it would reduce the powers of the army — that’s why the army
wants to keep fighting.”
The military, which only shares its views through official statements,
has continued to express support for the peace process and a political
dialogue. It has not yet responded publicly to Sunday’s rebel attacks.
The continued fighting has required the KIA to expand its forces and
it is recruiting hundreds of young Kachin from rebel and government
areas to its “National Service.” The draft is voluntary and many are
motivated by a sense of duty, though the KIA’s unofficial “one recruit
per family” rule has led to allegations of forced, and sometimes
underage, recruitment in rural areas.
At a training school located on a hill outside Laiza, about 100 cadets
— some of them barely out of their teens, including a few girls — were
being drilled by a sergeant in the midday heat. The four-month program
was preparing them for combat, or in the case of female recruits,
deployment behind the front line.
While returning to their barracks, two cadets, aged 26 and 28, said
they had both left their jobs in Mandalay, central Burma, to join the
KIA. “We are ready to fight. We want to defend against the Myanmar
army,” said one of them, who asked not to be named.
Military blocks aid
A few kilometers outside of town, 20,000 displaced Kachin villagers
have been languishing for five years in crowded, dilapidated
U.N.-built camps. Jobs are scarce and most here depend on aid. Another
30,000 displaced people live in camps in other areas under control of
the Kachin rebels. Some 50,000 reside in camps in
government-controlled areas in Kachin and Shan states.
The recent increase in fighting has lowered spirits among the
displaced, who are simultaneously being affected by cuts in
international aid and an army blockade that has prevented aid convoys
from crossing the frontline since May, ostensibly for security
The U.N., which recently was forced to cut about 20% of its aid to
most displaced Kachin due to a donor funding shortfall, has called for
the easing of the restrictions. Local aid groups accused the army of
politicizing humanitarian aid.
“Aid blockades have been used by the military as a political tool
since the conflict began, but in recent months it’s worse,” said La
Rip, director of Kachin Development Group, an NGO based in Laiza. “The
army now has the intention to create a chaotic situation in the
La Rip said that for many people in KIA areas the democratic
transition to an NLD government had yielded nothing so far. “They say
Myanmar is a different country now, but the people here see no
difference — they are actually suffering more than before there was an
elected government,” he said.
La Phai Hkawn Shang, a mother of two who has lived in Je Yang
displacement camp since 2011, said she could accept the aid
reductions, but was disheartened by the rise in fighting after the NLD
“I can’t complain about food, I’ll receive what I’m given,” she said.
“But we cannot believe Aung San Suu Kyi. We thought she would stop the
army, yet now the fighting is increasing.”
Read More: Inside the Kachin War Against Burma
Read More: Burma’s Transition to Civilian Rule Hasn’t Stopped the
Abuses of Its Ethnic Wars
Read More: 5 Challenges Facing Burma’s New Civilian Government
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