Not long ago the Burmese border town of Laiza was awash with Chinese businessmen and frontier-style hospitality that catered to their appetites: gaudy hotels, buffet restaurants and casinos flush with American booze, cigarettes and local women. These stayed open around the clock.
Since the war with the Burmese military reignited last June, the Chinese have all but left and leaders of the Kachin Independence Army have dug in. Their command center sits on the fourth floor of the Hotel Laiza, just around the corner from the main border crossing. Though Burmese forces are just 20 kilometers away, KIA officials reason they would never fire artillery that risked sailing into China.
But the Burmese Army is not being reasonable. Rights groups allege it has deliberately targeted civilians as part of a strategy that includes rape, torture, forced conscription and summary executions. They say the aim of the campaign is to scare villagers en masse into KIA-held border settlements to distract the rebels from a guerrilla war that is their expertise.
On the first count, this strategy is working. Makeshift camps in and around town continue to swell with new arrivals. Some, like Thaung Naw Din, 32, trekked for days on foot, evading Burmese Army patrols and sleeping in the shadows. “We were so scared they would catch us and torture us, or make us fight,” he says. “I heard so many bad stories.”
While the displaced are safe for the time being, conditions in Laiza are hardly a relief. At the largest of five camps, families survive on rations of rice and salt provided twice a day by the KIA’s political wing. Some grow vegetables in small gardens that ring shabby tin and plywood huts. Protein is scarce. When dried fish or pork cannot be scrounged, children catch frogs to be grilled over an open fire.
Merchants in the central market say most of their customers now come from the camps. Marip Hkawn Nan, 32, feels sorry for them and rarely charges full price for her goods – if she charges anything at all. “I earn half of what I used to but I must help my people,” says the mother of two. “My husband is a KIA soldier, so I sympathize with them.”
Many others in Laiza have been driven out of business altogether. On the main street entire shop blocks are shuttered, their neon signs cracked and lightless. Although impressions of normalcy are visible – officers playing badminton, uniformed children walking to school, the occasional wedding banquet on the church lawn – they are fleeting. Laiza has the aura of a city under siege.
Soldiers in ill-fitting olive drab fatigues streak by on motorcycles throughout the day, rifles astride their backs. A lucky few on leave make shopping rounds with their wives. The less fortunate pass the days in a barebones clinic in the heights above town, most of them casualties of landmines that both sides continue to scatter around the mountain jungle.
Pvt. Hpakawn Daj, 28, a nine-year KIA veteran, once hid them in the ground. Now he’s recovering from a shrapnel injury after a soldier next to him on a patrol stepped on a mine. His window looks out across a mist-cloaked valley to China. Doctors treat the wounded with medicines that are smuggled from across the border; when KIA fighters are seriously wounded, they must be sent to Chinese hospitals.
Difficult as it might sound, sneaking across the border either way is relatively easy. After being met by KIA representatives in the southwestern city of Luxi, we drove four hours along a freshly paved road to the border, whereupon we made an abrupt turn down a signless dirt track that led to an unguarded bridge: Kachin territory.
This backdoor is an open secret, one that sits in full view of a Chinese customs post that’s in mid-construction. According to one of our minders, China had anticipated a Burmese rout of the Kachin and set about building the post to formalize the crossing. Yet the post remains half-finished and vacant. Outmanned and outgunned, the Kachin have proven themselves relentless foes.
And resourceful ones. Despite many shortages, Laiza runs on its own power thanks to hydropower dam several miles outside of town that generates enough to keep the town out of the dark most days. The KIA also fills its war chest by taxing the black market trade in timber and precious minerals extracted from their territory with the help of Chinese entrepreneurs, a few of whom still chain-smoke in the café next to the Hotel Laiza.
KIA officials would not comment on the timber, jade and gold known to be extracted from deeper inside their territory. However, one of the four-wheel drive vehicles used by the rebels to chauffeur us around bore a sticker for a jade mining company and Chinese license plates. It was the same truck that had picked us up at the airport inside China.