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<p>Photo by Aubrey Belford</p>

Photo by Aubrey Belford

Tin Myint, a former soldier in the Burmese army who now works as a greenskeeper at Laiza golf course.

Myanmar’s Rebel Territory: The Perpetual Badlands

In remote territory beyond the reach of Myanmar’s generals, rebels create their own jarring sense of normality.


It's nighttime in Laiza, the de facto capital of the Kachin Independence Organisation, or KIO, a rebel group currently in a bloody war with the Myanmar government. After two days spent sneaking into rebel territory I'm tired, hungry and thirsty as I sit down to dinner with my translator.

After ordering, he asks me if I'd like something to drink. A can of stout perhaps? Or maybe some horse piss?

"Horse piss?" I ask.

"Yes," he replies. "Budweiser."

Ah, the flavourless American beer. After all the hassle of getting here I expected something a bit more exotic. Part of me is disappointed. But only a small part.

It often seems little comes out of here except for misery — stories of war crimes, traumatised refugees, and, famously in some areas, lots and lots of drugs.

In fact, in Laiza, you can drink a Chinese-made Budweiser or a can of Myanmar Lager, and pay for it with Chinese yuan or Burmese kyat. There is a television station, ho­spitals, schools and a bottled-water factory. Unlike a lot of Myanmar proper, electricity is fairly reliable, thanks to a hydropower plant on the edge of town.

Over the hills, there is a war on. But in Laiza, the sense of normality is jarring.

Since June last year, soldiers of the Kachin Independence Army, or KIA, have been battling government forces in a conflict that has killed possibly thousands of people and has sent 55,000 civilians fleeing into squalid camps.

This is, after all, Myanmar's ethnic minority fringe, one of the world's perpetual badlands. For six decades, all along the country's borders with India, China, Thailand and Laos, a multitude of ethnic armies and militia (and for a time Communists) have fought with the government for independence and, later, autonomy. It often seems little comes out of here except for misery — stories of war crimes, traumatised refugees, and, famously in some areas, lots and lots of drugs. Order, when it comes here, almost always comes at the point of a gun, or is bought with some very questionably sourced money.

Laiza is a town that Myanmar's government has never controlled. Instead, it is under the control of the Kachin Independence Organisation, or KIO, which was formed in the 1960s and has fought intermittently with the Burmese government since then. The current fighting started after a 17-year ceasefire with the government broke down.

In peace and in war, the Kachin have built their own microstate along a mottled, hilly frontier. It's a semblance of order that says as much about the failures of Myanmar's government as it does about the enormous wealth of this part of the world and the resilience of its people. It also says a lot about the influence of China, the economic giant next door.

<p>Photo by Aubrey Belford</p>

Photo by Aubrey Belford

Patients inside the Laiza civilian hospital.

Laiza, the KIO capital, is the nerve centre of this country-within-a-country of about 300,000 people. Flush up against the border with China's southwestern Yunnan province, the town of about 8,500 people, not counting the thousands of displaced people living in camps on its outskirts, is a bustling place on a war footing. KIA soldiers with rifles slung across their backs zip along the streets on motor scooters, past restaurants and Chinese-run mobile phone shops. Chinese guards stand upright at a very open and very busy border gate, with a full view of the town.

Laiza's mayor, Major Kareng Naw Awn, is a man with an exacting manner who operates out of a small house in town. Appointed by the KIO leadership in 2009, he is the unelected boss with wide-ranging responsibilities across a threadbare state.

"I'm responsible for everything that's not military. Customs, boundary affairs, administration, justice. Every single thing," he says.

Maj. Naw Awn explains the KIO moved its government to Laiza during the last decade of the ceasefire, taking advantage of the then village's defendable proximity to China — and the fact that you can use cheap Chinese mobile phones and internet here. The Kachin trained and professionalised their army, while building up the town's civilian infrastructure and workshops for producing ammunition, mines and uniforms.

A six-hole golf course was opened in 2007 by a river on the edge of town. In some parts, an errant slice to the right could land a ball in China. The place is a favourite with KIA officers.

“Horse piss?” I ask. “Yes,” he replies. “Budweiser.”

The KIO makes its money through a combination of its own ventures and taxes on business. The town's Pa Jau bottled-water factory is one KIO-run concern, as is, some KIO officials tell me, a factory producing counterfeit Chinese and Burmese cigarettes. And then there's the huge money to be made from jade and timber, shady business where both sides of the current war make money — and where the KIO also exacts levies in its territory.

While some areas near the Thai border were once notorious for opium — and are now major production centres for crystal methamphetamine — the KIO touts its anti-drug efforts, running a high-walled drug rehabilitation centre in Laiza and plastering businesses with anti-drug posters.

Further south, the Kachin town of Maija Yang once made its money as an over-the-border gambling stop for Chinese, a model also pursued, to even greater extent, in nearby Shan State, where the town of Mong La was for years a drug-riddled casino enclave of bright lights and massage parlours. China has since choked off the casino business (in Mong La, they simply adapted by moving online).

The patterns of business are as confusing as the uneven contours of the battlefield. In Myitkyina, the capital of Burmese-controlled Kachin State and the home of its army's Northern Commander, the electricity is supplied by a KIO-owned power plant outside of town.

Things in KIO territory are by no means ideal. A few people seem to be prospering but most are barely scraping by. Outside of town, villages are bereft of basic services. In town, too, many parts of the government, including the KIO's police force of 70 officers, seem barely there.

<p>Photo by Aubrey Belford</p>

Photo by Aubrey Belford

A KIA soldier carries an officer’s clubs to his car after golf.

In Laiza's civilian hospital, mold climbs up the wall of the operating theatre and patients shuffle through darkened halls. Outside in the parking lot, a dog yelps, apparently in agony. Dr. Myitung Hkawn Pan, a paediatrician, says medicine shortages are such that the hospital often has to resort to using herbs instead.

But this being Myanmar, one of Asia's poorest countries, everything is relative. And order creeps in at surprising places.

In one of the beds, I see a patient in camouflage, pensively reading a bible. I assume he's a soldier — which doesn't seem too outlandish a thing to think. But the man, Hpaudai Seng Naw, who entered hospital after coughing blood, soon puts me right. He works for the KIO's forestry department, he says. Sometimes he carries a gun, but mostly he's teaching villagers about conservation, and checking on logging concessions.

The mayor, Maj. Naw Awn, is pleased enough with how things run in KIO territory.

"By international standards things are not so great here, but considering our circumstances I'm happy," he says. "I can get close to the people and settle their problems."

“By international standards things are not so great here, but considering our circumstances I’m happy.”

Another thing KIO territory lacks is democracy, despite the rebels' stated aim of fighting for a federal democratic state. Maj. Naw Awn says representative government will have to wait until they can finally reach a settlement with the Burmese government. "When our country is democratic we'll have elections," he says. "But while this situation continues here, we're not prepared for that. We don't have the time."

War is certainly straining this town. At one of Laiza's schools, I watch as a teacher moves around a packed classroom of about 50 children. Every kid who hasn't done their homework has been forced to stand on his or her desk, and a teacher is moving through the room with a switch, whacking each of the kids on their open palms.

The principal, Jangma Roi San, says the school has swelled since war broke out, from just over 500 students to more than 950. The school day is now twice as long, with different blocks of students in the mornings and afternoons. The only upside is that the school has 40 new teachers, who also have fled the fighting.

On blackboards, teachers give lessons in Kachin, English, Chinese and Burmese — an acknowledgment that the area cannot go it alone, and never truly has been cut off.

"During the ceasefire, we had an association with government schools. Our students would have to sit for their matriculation exams in government schools, and needed to be able to speak Burmese to go to university," Roi San says. "Now that we're at war, we're thinking of starting our own higher education here."

In war, life goes on. And some people have it easier than others.

As the afternoon light bleeds out over Laiza's golf course, I meet a man said to be one of the best players in town. Captain Nhtat Htu Awng Ja learned to play in KIA officer training, and mixes his fatigues with a Callaway Golf brand hat and white shoes.

"Everybody knows golf calms the mind," he says.

A sprinkler plays across the fairway in the distance as other senior officers, accompanied by young women caddies and rifle-toting soldiers, finish a round and tear off in a convoy of Toyota LandCruisers.

"If you want to be calm as an officer you should also be able to play," he says.

1 comment on this story
by Dureng

Thanks for your article that present the different aspect of lives in Laiza.

Though Laiza Mayor was appointed from the top, village level leadership were elected by the people.

In fact, since ancient time, Kachins are not very strange to democratic practices (if not all values of Western democracy). The Jinghpaw (lingua franca of Kachin) word for democracy is gumrawng gumtsa. The hereditary chieftain system is called gumchying gumsa. Even in hereditary chieftain system, chief had to consult with a group of elders (salang hpung) in the village. In gumrawng gumtsa system, village heads were elected.

Even in the present time, among Kachins, dictators cannot live long. Though we have to focus to achieive self-determination within the genuine federal democracy at present, we are also mindful that we need to change some administrative system. Without the support of the people, KIO would not be able to stand like today.

March 5, 2012 @ 5:41am
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