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Story Publication logo September 16, 2012

Burma's Kachin State: Still Ablaze

Media file: Kachin-burma-KIA.jpg

After decades of isolation, Burma is taking fresh steps toward democracy. The West has strengthened...

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Media file: Kachin-burma-KIA.jpg
Kachin Independence Army fighters on patrol near the frontline, southern Kachin state. A Burmese Army outpost sits about a mile away from their forward outpost. Image by Jason Motlagh. Burma, June 2012.

On the rare days when the power is not cut here, patrons at the local internet café read the good news coming from the lowlands. After decades of isolation, a wide-ranging push towards reform by Myanmar's new government has thawed its relations with the West at dizzying speed. Major American and European companies are lining up to invest. The main opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is travelling freely around the world as a newly elected member of parliament; she is due in America next week. And more and more foreign tourists are pouring in to what travel publications rave is now one of the best places on earth to visit.

By contrast Myitkyina, the capital of war-torn Kachin state in northern Myanmar, might as well be another country. A spate of mysterious bombings and the arrest of a growing number of ethnic Kachin in recent months have cast a pall over its pot-holed streets. While the rest of the country took part in historic by-elections in April, the polls in Kachin never opened. The familiar routine of electrical blackouts and unemployment has been compounded by the arrival of thousands of villagers who were displaced by the state's brutal civil conflict, which keeps grinding on in the surrounding countryside.

Fighting reignited last year between the Burmese army and the rebel Kachin Independence Army (KIA). Since then more than 75,000 ethnic Kachin have been uprooted from their ancestral lands. Human-rights groups say that these new refugees are the victims of a ruthless campaign by the army which has subjected civilians to rape, torture, forced conscription and summary executions. Both sides are accused of sending child soldiers to the frontlines and of laying landmines that have maimed combatants and innocents alike.

In Laiza, roughly 40 miles (64km) south of Myitkyina, camps around the KIA's main base continue to swell with Kachin families, each with their own grim stories of survival. Thaung Naw Din fled his farming village in May when it was pounded by Burmese artillery from several directions. "There were many bodies on the ground," he says. Because Myanmar's government continues to block humanitarian access to dozens of makeshift camps in KIA-held territory, food is limited to rations of rice and salt. Medicines to combat water-borne illnesses, which surge during the monsoon rains, are also in very short supply.

These developments clash against the rosy impression of reform that has been gaining currency in the West. The nominally civilian government, led by the president, Thein Sein, himself a former general, has released hundreds of political prisoners, eased media restrictions and opened up the economy. Thein Sein's government has also reached cease-fire agreements with several other ethnic minority rebel groups, like the Karen and Mon, both of which have battled the state for decades, as have the Kachin. Several rounds of negotiations have also been held with representatives of the KIA, both in Yunnan province over the border in China and in Maijayang, in Kachin state. A noted reformer, a former railways minister who successfully negotiated with the Karen on behalf of Thein Sein, has now taken charge of the Kachin talks. Still, the unreconstructed generals seem to be leading the way in the rest of Kachin state.

The short explanation for the ferocity and persistence of fighting in Kachin state, according to both analysts and rebel leaders, is money. Even within a country that brims with untapped resources, Kachin state's mountain jungles and river valleys contain a stunning wealth of timber, minerals and—most critically—billions of dollars worth of Chinese-financed energy projects contracted by the former military regime. Indeed, the war in Kachin resumed when Burmese forces attacked a KIA outpost last June near a disputed dam site, ending a 17-year ceasefire. It's no coincidence that today some of the fiercest clashes are near a pair of major pipelines, in nearby Shan state, which will pump oil and gas to Yunnan province starting next year.

KIA officials insist it was just a matter of time before the conflict resumed. Although a ceasefire was established in 1994, General Sumlat Gun Maw, the KIA's vice-chief-of-staff, contends that in the intervening years his Burmese counterparts brokered major deals with energy-hungry China with no concern for the downtrodden Kachin, who seek greater autonomy. When the KIA refused "kneel down" before a 2008 constitution that required that rebel groups be folded into a new national border guard, the Burmese reverted to force. "We want our rights to be respected, but they have no will for dialogue," says Sumlat Gun Maw.


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