Burma's Last War

While the world’s attention is diverted by Burma’s tentative steps towards political reform, the plight of the country’s ethnic minorities remains an issue of enduring concern. Though some secessionist groups have managed to reach peace agreements with a junta-dominated civilian government, the Kachin have seen a shaky 17-year ceasefire come to an abrupt end. Wedged between the borders of India and China, a fierce military campaign continues to displace tens of thousands in a region rich with jade, gold, timber and hydropower potential.

It was a Friday night in Laiza and a few students had gathered for dinner. They were watching television, where a Burmese channel was broadcasting live a speech delivered by Aung San Suu Kyi at Yale University. The 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate spoke in the soft, yet determined and righteous tone that had made her famous around the world. She explained how she wished she had listened more carefully to her piano teacher, so she could have played better later, during her years of house arrest.

The students did not understand every word. Aung San Suu Kyi was speaking in English and they lived in one of the most remote parts of Burma, far away from Rangoon’s intelligentsia – indeed, much closer to China. But the sole fact that she could express her views freely in an American university symbolized the major changes Burma was undergoing. The Burmese have gained many new liberties in the last two years, a shift very few had expected from one of the world’s most repressive military dictatorships.

This sounded a little incongruous, however, to the students, as besides the voice speaking on television, one could also hear another sound that night. It was the impact of mortars falling just a few kilometers out of town.

While most of Burma is getting back on its feet, Kachin State has slid into a war that has now lasted over 12 months. After a 17-year ceasefire, fighting broke out last June in the country’s northernmost state, a place of remote hills wedged between the Chinese and Indian borders. The conflict has only intensified since, with Burmese troops making significant progress.

As of early October, the Myanmar Army was approaching Laiza, the capital of the insurgency. The Kachin Independence Army (KIA) was under enough pressure to move its general staff from a hilltop two or three kilometers away from the town to a more central location. The leadership was now based at the Laiza Hotel, officially, out of convenience. More likely, however, the group saw the Chinese border – only 30 meters away – as insurance against any artillery attack. Shooting – literally – at the border would have entailed heavy diplomatic repercussions. The room price was still displayed in the hotel’s main lobby – 185 yuans per night – but from the second floor there was no doubt this was a time of war, not tourism: sandbags were piled up in the corridor, in case of attack.

On the fourth floor, what was probably a ballroom in normal times had been converted into a national emergency room, with military maps covering the walls. A banner hung above the stage: “Lord is our victory. Victorious journey of our operations. Central command war office.” The colors matched those of the Kachin movement’s flag: half red, representing blood that had been shed; and half green, representing both the dense local forests, as well as the region’s jade mines. It could not have summed up local dynamics any better.

On a map, Maran Zau Tawng, the KIA’s Research Director, outlined the current situation: national forces were trying to open a route to take Laiza. To do so, they had first tried to push through Laja Yang, 12 kilometers west on the road in question. The enemy was launching 105 mm artillery fire on this small village from three different locations – west, south and north – to create space. “These weapons, they’re supposed to be used against foreign countries,” said another man. Hundreds of infantry troops were on the move from other parts of Burma by boat.

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by Harold Thibault