By Tony Cliff
LAIZA, Myanmar - "At first the Burmese soldiers were looking very confident, they were moving up on the road shouting and shooting towards the jungle. They just did not realize we were hiding around," said Aung Myat, a 27-year-old soldier with the insurgent Kachin Independence Army (KIA)'s 23rd Battalion.
When the government troops arrived, the insurgent soldiers triggered landmines and started to shoot. The clash was the first of a series of confrontations in the area which lasted almost three days, according to Aung Myat. In the evening of July 18, back in the relative safety of Hkaya Bum camp, the battalion's bamboo barrack headquarters, the young insurgents released an excess of adrenaline when telling their war stories.
Their animated conversation was stifled by the roar of a heavy monsoon rain; a thick mist blanketed the whole area. Between sips from beer cans and puffs from cigarettes brought earlier by a supply truck, they traded their stories with an almost childish excitement, mimicking with their arms the handling of machine guns. "We counted at least eight bodies, including four or five incinerated in a vehicle we destroyed with a grenade, but surely there were more," said Aung Myat.
At 27, Aung Myat is one of the eldest in the battalion: most of the other guerrillas are around 20 years of age. For all of them it was their first ever combat experience. Less than 10 kilometers (km) to the east from the battlefield road, across a succession of jungle-covered hills down a narrow valley, lies Laiza, a small city of 10,000 people that houses the headquarters of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the KIA's sister political organization. Laiza is crossed by a stream marking the Chinese border.
Rumors spread by exile media groups of massive Myanmar military reinforcements and of an imminent offensive hardly seem to have reached the city. Schools, shops and hotels remain open while people attend to their business as usual. Yet two new developments are a reminder that the situation is exceptional and potentially grave. As a safety measure, Chinese authorities have closed the border gate in the middle of downtown from 6 pm to 6 am, presumably to avoid a flood of refugees into their territory.
Thousands of people, mostly women and children, can already be seen crammed in a few locations such as the city hall, a cardboard factory warehouse and the "Manau", a vast ground where the ethnic Kachin organize traditional celebrations. These are the civilians who left their villages when armed hostilities first broke out on June 9. On that day, there was a violent clash at the site of the Dapein dam, about 50 km south of Laiza. The exchange of gunfire signaled the end of 17 years of ceasefire between the Myanmar military and the KIA.
From 1989 onwards, some 15 armed ethnic insurgent groups concluded separate ceasefire agreements with Myanmar's ruling junta. The Kachin had always looked like an exception in Myanmar's complex ethnic jigsaw. With a size of 89,000 square km, more than twice the size of Switzerland, their state is one the country's largest administrative entities. But with an estimated population of 1.36 million (based on 2002 official statistics, the latest available), it's also one of the country's least inhabited areas because of the steep mountains that cover nearly half of the state.
The predominantly Christian Kachin ethnic population is estimated at 1.2 million (out of a total national population of 55 million), half of them living in the Kachin State, the other half in other parts of Myanmar. 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, making them arguably one of the most sophisticated ethnic groups in Myanmar.
The agreement with the Kachin, signed in 1994, was the only one formalized on paper. Essentially, it defined a framework for future business deals with and without Myanmar companies and delineated a portion of the Kachin State that would fall under the KIO's control. However, the document was never made public, which made the assessment of its implementation difficult.
Kareng La Nan,*  a teacher from Myitkyina, summarizes many of his ethnic companions' opinions: "Those 17 years have surely brought stability, some social and economic developments and less-human rights violations but we have gained absolutely nothing on the political level."
As with other armed ethnic groups, the Kachin have abandoned their previous claim for independence. Instead, they have demanded a certain degree of autonomy over their own affairs which would guarantee respect for their own rights and culture.
Except for certain Kachin leaders, other politically connected individuals and large private companies who took advantage of business opportunities allowed for in the agreement, many people now view the ceasefire as a fool's bargain. The long list of grievances has fueled the new hostilities. Kachin land, they say, has been systematically looted of its natural resources. The ethnic group has all but lost to the benefit of Burmese companies the lucrative trade in jade which fueled the insurgent organization for decades.
Giant business groups affiliated with the military junta, such as Yuzana, Htoo Trading or Asia World, took up in Kachin State massive production of tapioca and the exploitation of hydropower, timber and various minerals. Still, the sharper arrows are aimed at the Chinese companies which have invested heavily in gold mining, hydropower and other products such as timber with allegedly very little benefit for the local population.
This perceived "one-way" investment policy has stirring up an anti-Chinese feeling with many people. "When they develop large plantations of bananas with export quality standards or gold mining, they bring their own equipment and workers and they don't share with the locals," complains a KIA cadre.
The current most sensitive Chinese investment is the construction of the Myitsone dam, 40 kilometers north of Myitkyina at a site considered by Kachin as a cultural heartland, with a planned capacity of 6,000 megawatts. To many Kachin, the project is an environmental abomination.
Activists say the water in the planned reservoir will put immense pressure on the underground soil and water system. Environmental groups also warn about potential detrimental effects downstream on the lives of millions of people who depend on the Irrawaddy River's system. It also may be, although this is not confirmed, that the electricity from the dams will be exported entirely to China.
The last straw, it seems, was the junta's order in 2009 to various ethnic armed ceasefire groups to transform into Border Guard Forces (BGF) that must disarm and submit under government officers' command. "It was nothing less than an order to surrender," comments one long-time observer of the ethnic groups.
The KIO, as well as other groups such as the Wa and the Mon, rejected the BGF order and proposed alternative plans which were all flatly rejected by the junta. Subsequently, the KIO was officially declared an outlaw organization.
The June 9 clash marked the official return to armed conflict. "They created this incident as an excuse to penetrate into our territory," claims Zau Awn, the KIO's administrator officer at the central region. However, it looks like the Myanmar military's strategists underestimated the resolve of the Kachin. Perhaps they thought they could repeat the operation they launched in August 2009 against the ethnic Kokang, another armed group who rejected the BGF and was crushed in a few days of fighting.
Under a banner in the Kachin language reading "Operation Victory Journey" in a large meeting room at the downtown Laiza Hotel which has been transformed into a central command post, General Gun Maw, the KIA's 46-year-old deputy chief of staff, sums up many Kachin officers' opinions, "The Burmese soldiers don't have the motivation and very little support from their own people."
Interviews with three Myanmar military prisoners of war in Laiza seem to confirm this assessment. Asked whether he knew the reasons why he was sent here, Aung Myo Hlat,* a 36- year-old captain with the 21st Infantry Battalion, paused for a long minute before finally saying: "I am a soldier, I had to obey."
Soe Myint,* a 48-year-old career sergeant, recalls how he fell unconscious in the bush after a bullet went through his left arm. "I don't know why we are fighting, I just remember that I lost a lot of blood, I fainted and was left alone. When I woke up I was into KIA's hands."
Htoo Lay,* a 22-year-old Karen ethnic private attached to an artillery unit, did not even ask to join the army. "I was forcibly conscripted three years ago by officers while I was waiting for a train at Mandalay railway station." He was hit in the back by shrapnel. "I did not know what to do, the injury was not too bad, I just hid in the bush, KIA soldiers came and shouted 'we won't shoot you, just come out', I came out, I never used my weapon."
Like his two companions and probably like most Burmese soldiers, he was experiencing his first combat. Aung Kyaw Zaw, a former soldier with the Burmese Communist Party who has maintained good relations with ethnic groups along the Chinese border, makes a stark assessment based on his historical knowledge, "The quality of the Burmese army rank and file has never been so low."
The KIA claims it has sent a letter to the Myanmar authorities proposing to deliver the prisoners. "We got no answer," says a KIA officer. "After their return in their army, the prisoners will probably be court-martialed, they will be charged with lack of responsibility, loss of weapon and giving intelligence to the enemy. The officers will get at least seven years of jail."
As the ethnic groups long-time observer says, "The Kachin are feared by many people for their fighting capabilities. During WWII [World War II], when they fought alongside the British, they were given strong credit for helping to kick the Japanese out. They have this 'we can do, we can stand on our own' mentality."
The determination of Kachin soldiers is further strengthened by the knowledge that their enemy's weaponry on the field is not really superior to theirs. In a Hkaya Bum barrack, the KIA laid their arms catch from the three days of battle. Mixed with identity documents, mobile phones, money, family pictures and other personal items, Burmese rifles, machine guns, mortars, grenades and other landmines are arranged. Much of the weaponry would look more appropriate in a museum than on a modern battlefield.
While the Kachin will be happy to use these relics against their original owners, they also manufacture their own weaponry. Copies of the famous AK-47, mortars, landmines and other items are made by Kachin gunsmiths in secret armories. The KIA claims to have around 6,000 standing soldiers and can count on as many as 8,000 more village militias composed of women and men who have received basic military training and been provided with weapons. (Asia Times Online could not independently verify the figures.)
The Myanmar military's main comparative strength is its artillery fire power. Yet any attempt to capture Laiza would represent a stiff test of its capabilities. Only two roads lead to the city. In the current monsoon season, rain and mud have made the northern access all but inaccessible while the KIA claim they can maintain strategic control of the southern road. If the Myanmar military used heavy artillery to shell Laiza across the hill ranges, they would inevitably send mortars into Chinese territory, with the risk of provoking an international incident.
So far the KIA's strategy has been to defend its territory and positions against any incursion. Sabotage operations, such as blowing up bridges, have also been conducted. "Since we are declared outlaw, we have started to lay landmines to protect our positions," adds Major Kumbu Din, the KIA's 5th Brigade commander.
The renewed conflict has brought its share of human misery. At the time of writing, more than 17,000 villagers had fled their homes to safer areas, mostly along the Chinese border. The majority of them left in anticipation rather than in response to fighting. Mali Bawk La, a 70-year-old farmer from Nam San village, walked some 30 kilometers with his six family members to Laiza. "The tension was growing, we feared that the Burmese soldiers would capture us and force us to do things like [act as] porters," he said.
According to the KIO, an estimated 6,500 displaced people have managed to cross the Chinese border to live with Jinpo relatives. Another 7,500 are taken care of by the KIO in temporary camps, including more than 6,000 in Laiza. The rest are scattered in Myitkyina and in western areas of the vast state. Anticipating a long war, the KIA has already started to build 500 bamboo houses along the Chayan river down from Laiza which will accommodate 7,000 people.
"So far we could count on the KIO's administration, donations from individuals and churches and the help of many young Kachin volunteers who came from all over the country," says La Rip, the relief effort coordinator in Laiza. "Maybe the situation looks normal but it won't be at all as long as there is no ceasefire. If the crisis lasts or gets worse we will certainly need outside help."
There are also credible reports of human-rights abuses committed by Myanmar army soldiers against Kachin civilians. The Laiza-based Kachin Women Association has documented at least 18 cases of rape, sometimes aggravated with murder, between June 10 and 18. More recently, on July 21, a KIA female officer reported the rape of a nurse in a local clinic. A nurse running a clinic in a Kachin village, says that she "never heard about rape cases before the fighting started".
The conflict has had at least two unexpected consequences. First, many Kachins confirm that support for the KIA is once again on the rise. That has not always been the case: under the ceasefire it was not rare to hear criticism of the Kachin leadership, who many felt had sold out the state's land and resources for their own personal gain.
Second, government pressure to join its BGF scheme and other recent developments have radicalized a new generation of Kachin youth that was raised in peace time conditions. "Everyone wants to go to war," shouted a young businessman coming out from a Sunday mass at the Laiza Baptist church. "It's time for the Kachin people to free themselves from the Burmese regime. We like [opposition leader] Aung San Suu Kyi but her appeals for non-violence have failed."
Within the KIA, the conflict has also signaled a changing of the guard. "The old leaders who still want to compromise without a political agreement have no say anymore," says a young KIA cadre. Yet even though many Kachin don't see any other way than armed resistance to push their grievances, nearly everyone wishes for a negotiated settlement.
La Nan, the KIO's spokesman, said the Kachin are determined to stick to a three-point proposal. "First we will try to establish a temporary ceasefire in our area; secondly, we want the same for the whole country; thirdly, we want a political dialogue where all ethnic armed groups will be represented by the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC)." (UNFC is an organization formed in February with three ceasefire groups and three non-ceasefire groups who advocate for a federal union.)
A June 30 meeting between government and Kachin delegations failed to reach any agreement, though contacts are reportedly ongoing. The Kachin side has blamed the government for sending a team with no real negotiating power and no clear mandate from Naypyidaw, Myanmar's capital. "The Burmese told us 'let's work peacefully so let's go for a ceasefire'," said Gun Maw. "But there is no political agreement, it's just a call to facilitate the life of people for business purposes."
The mid-July clashes down from Hkaya Bum camp were the most intense of the nascent conflict. Since then there have been sporadic skirmishes, but apparently without a concerted strategy from the Myanmar military. The two sides have reportedly resumed contacts in recent days, without clear results. Meanwhile, those in Kachin State hold their breath, hoping for real peace and autonomy, not just another ceasefire.
1. Names marked with an asterisk * have been changed for security reasons.
Tony Cliff, a pseudonym, is a Bangkok-based freelance photojournalist. He may be reached at email@example.com.