The Global Mail has ceased operations.
2012 Walkley Finalist
<p>Photo by Aubrey Belford</p>

Photo by Aubrey Belford

KIA soldiers and civilians building fortifications at Ning Moi Bum.

Myanmar’s Bloody War in the Shadows

The West, wary of Myanmar’s relationship with China, hopes that the country once known as Burma is finally opening up. The Global Mail goes behind the lines of a largely unacknowledged war in the north that suggests otherwise.


Amid the trenches, the landmines and the tense hum of latent violence at Ning Moi Bum, it's hard to feel optimistic about Myanmar's political future.

On this hill within sight of China, ethnic Kachin rebels are taking part in a dirty, bloody war against Myanmar's military, largely out of sight of the rest of the world.

Sitting in foxholes by a jungle road, soldiers from the Kachin Independence Army, or KIA — a guerilla army of as many as 20,000 men — warily eye a government camp on a nearby rise as men and teenage boys haul bamboo and dig fortifications.

Far from Yangon and Myanmar's Potemkin capital at Naypyidaw, there is no glint of democratic awakening here, no talk of reform, and no adulation of the opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

The fighting on this hillside, when it happens, is brutal. Mortar craters pepper the hillside and, above, shrapnel has shredded the foliage. The last heavy fighting here in the first two weeks of January killed six Kachin fighters as they made a staggered retreat down the hillside.

The Burmese soldiers, many of them children, are treated as cannon fodder; often they cry and scream in terror as they advance in exposed waves.

For the Burmese soldiers, many of them hapless conscripts from the lowland country of the ethnic Burman majority, it has been even worse, says the frontline KIA commander here, Captain Malang Naw Mai.

The Burmese soldiers, many of them children, are treated as cannon fodder; often they cry and scream in terror as they advance in exposed waves. The rebel soldiers, who hail from hill tribes familiar with the terrain, easily cut them down. Capt. Malang isn't sure how many Burmese his men have killed, but he estimates, with a mournful crack of smile, that it's more than a hundred.

"I feel sorry for them," he says. "My enemy is my enemy, but as a human being I have sympathy. They don't want to be fighting." To cope, the Kachin soldiers, who unlike Myanmar's Buddhist majority are devout Christians, have spent a lot of time in prayer, he says.

While global attention has been transfixed on what appear to be moves away from decades of harsh military rule by the new quasi-civilian government of Myanmar's President Thein Sein — including the release of about 300 political prisoners, the re-entry of a free Suu Kyi into politics, and nonstop visits by Western dignitaries — parts of the resource-rich north have been bloodily unraveling.

<p>Photo by Aubrey Belford</p>

Photo by Aubrey Belford

Kachin villagers displaced by fighting in the Jeyang camp near Laiza.

The war has looked less like the new Myanmar that the country's new government is keen to promote, and more like the country of old, where the military has long done as it pleases in six-decades of battle against a dizzying array of ethnic armies, in fighting that has crippled much of the country.

Since a 17-year ceasefire between the Kachin Independence Organisation, or KIO, and the Burmese government broke down in June, about 150 KIA soldiers have been killed, along with likely thousands of civilians and Burmese soldiers; there are no reliable figures. About 55,000 civilians have been forced to flee their homes into grim camps, largely unreachable to international aid, on both sides of the China border. Rebels, rights groups and those displaced by the fighting recount horror stories of torture, summary execution, rape, looting, the targeting of civilians and kidnapping.

"The contradiction the Kachin State throws up, I think, should give us reason to consider whether what we're seeing in the politics of central Burma is all that it might appear to be," says Nicholas Farrelly, an expert on Myanmar and the Kachin at the Australian National University.

Burma is the old official name for the country, and is still preferred by opposition activists and the many exiles, foreigners, organisations and governments that sympathise with them.

Thein Sein twice has issued instructions to the military to cease attacks on the rebels, and twice has been ignored.

For Farrelly, the war is a sign that while the new, nominally civilian government of Thein Sein may be loosening the long legacy of military rule in Myanmar's Burman heartland — and has had some success in reaching ceasefires with other ethnic armies — it is likely facing pushback from some military hardliners.

Thein Sein twice has issued instructions to the military to cease attacks on the rebels, and twice has been ignored. Whether this is the fog of war, open defiance, or if Thein Sein may have consented privately to attacks is impossible to know for sure. Even during one recent, inconclusive round of talks in the Chinese border town of Ruili, Burmese troops continued to shell rebel positions in the north of nearby Shan State, the KIO says.

Myanmar has been fighting multiple overlapping insurgencies since it gained independence from Britain in 1948. For the military, fighting internal threats has been a key reason for its oversized presence — and a justification for its rule, which stretched from 1962 to the advent of Thein Sein's government last year.

"There's a huge amount of speculation on who exactly leads these particular factions and what they may be angling for in the long-term, but I don't think there's any doubt that the running of the war in the Kachin State is not something that the President has full control of," Farrelly says. "The President continues to attempt to resolve the situation, no doubt hoping though that events in Kachin State don't contribute to the toppling of his very tentative and very nascent semi-democratic regime."

<p>Photo by Aubrey Belford</p>

Photo by Aubrey Belford

Women at a camp for internally displaced persons in Maija Yang.

The fighting, across a patchwork of hilly, impoverished territory, has ebbed and flowed, and has been stained by widespread abuses.

In Maija Yang, a dusty former gambling town of shuttered shops on the border with southwestern China, Lamai Hkawn Shawng is one of many who have fled with shocking stories from the fighting. Hkawn Shawng, who is nine months pregnant, fled across China and re-entered KIO territory with her five children after the Burmese army shelled her village in northern Shan State, settling into a concrete cell in a dirty camp at the town market.

Her husband, a KIA fighter, stayed behind. But she soon got word of what happened to him.

Burmese troops spotted Hkawn Shawng's husband in civilian clothes in the market, gave chase, caught him and bound him to a tree. They summoned one of Hkawn Shawng's relatives to translate the interrogation from Burmese to Kachin.

“On that first night, they tortured my husband, broke his legs, broke his arms and hands, and sliced his ears off.”

"He told me that on that first night, they tortured my husband, broke his legs, broke his arms and hands, and sliced his ears off," Hkawn Shawng says, while she absently fiddles with a jacket on her lap. The next day he was led off again, drifting in and out of consciousness. "There's no hope he's alive," Hkawn Shawng says, "I can't explain how I feel."

All through the camps in KIO-controlled territory, there are similar stories — of women and children kidnapped, homes shelled and villagers bound and executed. The camps themselves have been almost entirely funded by the KIO, Kachin exile groups and churches, including assistance by a few camera-shy Chinese Christian volunteers who have slipped across.

With difficult terrain, Myanmar government territory on one side and China on the other, the outside world gets little access to this area. China has resisted allowing aid through what is otherwise a porous border. The Myanmar government has allowed only one international convoy through in the past year.

Waje Hting Nan, one of the managers of the Jeyang camp, a collection of bamboo huts housing more than 5,000 people outside of the de facto KIO capital of Laiza, says there have been periodic outbreaks of cholera. Food is in short supply. At the KIA military hospital on a hill above the town, the head doctor, Jingphaw Brang Awng, says doctors have had to scour Chinese pharmacies to buy supplies. For stronger medicine, such as anaesthetics, they have had to go through the Chinese and Burmese black markets.

<p>Photo by Aubrey Belford</p>

Photo by Aubrey Belford

KIA soldiers near the frontline at Ning Moi Bum.

The KIA fights far more cleanly than the Burmese, but no side comes out looking innocent. Far outnumbered, the Kachin in some areas have been forced to retreat into the hills; nevertheless they appear to have inflicted humiliating casualties on the Burmese. The KIA appears not to use children as combat troops.

I'm taken by the KIO to meet one 14-year-old Kachin boy who was kidnapped and forced to work as a porter for Burmese troops. After escaping he joined the Laiza Youth, a KIO militia. I meet him in a bedroom in Laiza, and he tells me his story while wearing camouflage. Two assault rifles lean near beds and child-like drawings on the wall. He insists he's too young, as an under 18-year-old, to be allowed to carry a gun, and I saw no evidence to the contrary. But in KIO territory it's not unusual to see boys helping the war effort in non-combat roles, by manning checkpoints or building fortifications. The Burmese army's use of child soldiers as frontline troops is well documented.

Both sides are also vigorously laying landmines, with the Kachin making them in workshops in their own territory. Dr Brang Awng, from the military hospital, says some of the most common injuries he's seen are the result of Kachin soldiers stumbling across their own homemade mines. In an interview, Brigadier General Sumlut Gun Maw, the KIA's vice chief of staff, offers an unprompted admission that his troops sometimes commit abuses. "We've also had a few minor cases where we've committed war crimes on the front line, but we don't have a doctrine promoting torture or targeting civilians," he says. "That's the big difference between them and us."

The irony of the Kachin war is that while it gets only limited attention from Western nations eager to embrace reform, the conflict has been triggered by the very same forces that are behind the latest political opening.

“It used to be said of Myanmar that it was one of the few places the West could promote a human rights without muddling idealism with realpolitik. But things are different now.”

Kachin State, wedged between India and China, is rich in jade and timber. And — crucially — it sits across a slew of Chinese hydropower projects. It is one of the crucibles of Myanmar's steady spiraling, while under Western sanctions, into Chinese economic domination. It is also a future crossroads that would link Chinese energy and transport all the way to the Indian Ocean. It's a huge prize.

Public outrage against one hydropower project in Kachin State, the Myitsone dam, prompted Thein Sein last year to suspend the project. That decision was hailed abroad as a milestone of liberalisation, but it did nothing to ease the war with the KIA. Western and Burmese anxiety about China's growing role has also been a driving force, if not the driving force, behind the current rapprochement between the West and Myanmar.

KIO leaders acknowledge the role of resources, but say the main cause of the fighting is the 2008 constitution pushed through by Myanmar's erstwhile military rulers. That document laid the foundation for Thein Sein's current government by including a raft of clauses that maintain extraordinary military powers and preclude a full transition to parliamentary democracy. In essence, it opened the door a crack, but in a way that ensures the generals will likely never find themselves in the dock, or up against a wall.

The constitution also precludes the existence of armed groups outside of the Myanmar government's control, and the government has pushed for rebels to become government-led border guard forces. The KIO, which has run government and commerce in its patchwork territory for decades, never accepted the plan and continues to call for the transformation of Myanmar into a federal state that supports minority rights. In June last year, Burmese frustration with the Kachin finally broke into war, Brig. Gen. Gun Maw says.

"They're trying to put pressure on us, to reduce the strength of the KIO and force us to accept the 2008 constitution," he says. "The government is only prioritising being seen by the outside world as democratising."

There are some signs of conciliation from the Myanmar government. While fighting continues, it's not nearly as intense as before and has lapsed into standoffs in most areas. The government is also aware that the ethnic conflicts potentially stand in the way of Western governments lifting sanctions and has trumpeted a series of ceasefire deals with ethnic armies. However even the most celebrated of these, a deal that froze 63 years of war with the Karen National Union, near the Thai border, has not completely stopped violence and some Karen leaders are now denying they even signed a ceasefire.

Despite Western statements of concern over the Kachin fighting, the notion that Myanmar is becoming democratic is an illusion, says Bertil Lintner, a journalist and veteran analyst of Myanmar affairs. The government is simply softening its iron fist enough to lure the West back to the table. And the West, eager to counterbalance China and end military cooperation between Myanmar and North Korea, is buying into and promoting the narrative that Myanmar is indeed on the path to democracy. But the 2008 constitution puts the lie to that, he argues.

"There are no reforms. Reform means changing something in the fundamental power structure. That has not happened. What they have done is ease the pressure on the population, but they haven't actually implemented any structural reforms," Lintner says. "Any time the governments want to clamp down they have the right to do so because nothing has changed in the fundamental power structure, in the chain of command."

Burma is the old official name for the country, and is still preferred by opposition activists and the many exiles, foreigners, organisations and governments that sympathise with them.

It used to be said of Myanmar that it was one of the few places the West could promote a human rights without muddling idealism with realpolitik. But things are different now, Lintner says. "That was true until China became the big player in Burma, and North Korea established a military relationship with the regime. So that is no longer the case, and that is why the Western politics has changed."

Lintner argues the Kachin conflict will not stand in the way of Western countries lifting sanctions. Indeed, the United States within a matter of days in early February raised concern over worsening violence in Kachin state and then promptly eased sanctions on multilateral aid.

In the microstate controlled by the rebels, it's clear that they are digging in for a long war. The KIA continues to train new troops, women sew handmade uniforms and improvised factories churn out ammunition for old and stolen weapons, many of them Chinese made. The Chinese themselves appear to be playing an each-way bet on the conflict, neither helping nor hindering the rebels. In the KIO capital of Laiza, Chinese and Kachin guards control a bustling crossing; 10 minutes down a dirt road, the Chinese appear to mostly ignore an open smugglers' route across a river.

The joint general secretary of the KIO, Kumhtut La Nan, explains that he believes the Chinese simply want the fighting to end again — and for business to carry on a usual. He says this as he sits, with a pistol at his hip, in a room plastered with maps, at the Laiza Hotel. It's not a luxurious establishment, but it has the added bonus of being about 100 metres from the Chinese border crossing. The fact that the Burmese would be less likely to bomb the place prompted the KIO and KIA to move much of the brains of their war effort here.

Negotiations with the Burmese are ongoing, La Nan says, but the key sticking point is Myanmar government resistance to calls for federal autonomy for minority people. He sees no ceasefire soon.

"We started this revolution because of politics, and so it can only be resolved by political means," La Nan says. "They've never wanted to go into political dialogue with us.

"Without solving ethnic problems, Burma will never be a democracy."

CLOSE
Type a keyword to search for a story or journalist

Journalists

Stories