News / Asia

    Ethnic Militia Challenges Burma's Army, New Government

    A soldier guards the Laiza Hotel, where the Kachin Independence Organization holds meetings, Laiza, Burma, August 2011.
    A soldier guards the Laiza Hotel, where the Kachin Independence Organization holds meetings, Laiza, Burma, August 2011.

    Clashes in Burma between an ethnic-based army and government forces are presenting a challenge to the country’s new government, the regime's relationship with its biggest ally, China, and also in its ability to maintain control of resource-rich and strategically important border areas. Although the conflict remains limited to a small region along the Chinese border, it has drawn international attention and public appeals from Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

    In Laiza, a sleepy border town nestled in lush jungles and hills, children are coming home from school, soldiers with rifles on motorbikes are preparing to return to the frontlines, and a Catholic priest is leading a service for internally displaced persons in an IDP camp.

    IDPs from different villages have become new neighbors in their camp, Laiza, Burma, August 2011
    IDPs from different villages have become new neighbors in their camp, Laiza, Burma, August 2011

    The latter group kneels on the floor, surrounded by children playing, sick people sleeping and families eating in the dusty, smoky hall. The Kachin are devoutly Christian and priests in Laiza have been working overtime to minister to some 7,000 newly arrived refugees in town who have fled nearby fighting.

    One refugee described being forced to act as a porter for Burmese troops before the latest violence flared.

    Increasing number of displaced persons

    He said that in the past, Burmese troops forced him for months to carry heavy loads and ammunition for them. He said he was beaten with a rifle butt for being slow. He said that when the recent tensions started, he just ran away.

    Local aid workers say that in all, about 16,000 people have been displaced by the fighting on the Taping River, where a Chinese corporation is building two hydroelectric dams.

    Many of those fleeing want to cross into China. However, Chinese officials have refused entry, saying the fighting is not close enough to the border to grant asylum.

    La Rip, who founded a refugee association to help people displaced by the conflict, said Burmese troops have emptied villages by threatening violence against locals if they are attacked by the ethnic militia known as the Kachin Independence Army.

    “The Burmese army already came in the village and dug a bunker in front of houses, and threatened them," said Rip. "If the KIA shoots us, we’ll burn down the whole village. That village is very close to Laiza.”

    KIA, Burmese troops clash

    The Burmese government accuses the KIA of starting the conflict in June by attacking the Chinese-built dam. The KIA insists government forces started hostilities as early as May, when they fired mortars at their bases, and says its troops have responded only defensively.

    Kachin commanders say the fighting has meant an end to a 17-year-old ceasefire intended to prevent large-scale clashes between Burmese forces and the ethnic militia.

    Kachin militia commander Chyana Zaw Awn said the Burmese officials are using the construction of the dams as an excuse to go after his forces, because they refused to become border guards, working under the military.

    “The source of the conflict is the refusal of the border guard force proposal," he said. "Since we reject that proposal, they have been looking for a way to ignite the conflict. So they have used the security of the Chinese investments as an excuse. We believe that they have planned from the beginning to eliminate the ethnic troops. It is the Burmese government’s strategic plan to eliminate the ethnic armies."

    Pleas for peace

    U.S. and Chinese officials have urged all parties to settle the conflict peacefully. The conflict also has drawn in Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Last month, the Nobel laureate wrote an open letter to Burma’s President Thein Sein appealing for peace talks.

    The KIA’s vice chief of staff, General Gun Maw, has been pushing for a new ceasefire agreement to bring an end to the conflict. But he is seeking discussions covering much more than the conflict in Laiza.

    “We want a nationwide ceasefire in all conflict areas, and then we’d like to move toward political dialogue," said Maw. "They seem to be happy to discuss peace, but don’t mention politics. They want a ceasefire, but are not willing to engage in political dialogue. What we want is real, genuine federalism. This word scares the Burmese.”

    It is unclear how much leverage the KIA has to force the government to the negotiating table. Despite calls from Aung San Suu Kyi and others inside Burma for the government to discuss the standoff, officials have been unwilling to directly talk to the group. The government has appointed two envoys to talk to the militias, but they do not have the authority to negotiate.

    Maw warns that his forces will escalate fighting if the standoff continues. “We are ready to go back to guerilla warfare, if it comes to that, we are ready to carry on the revolution. I believe the biggest battle has not yet been fought. The main thing is, they want to eliminate the ethnic groups,” he said.

    Kachin state is not a densely populated area. Laiza has a population of about 10,000 people. The state is slightly larger than 89,000 square kilometers, a fraction of which is KIA-controlled territory. All urban areas are controlled by the Burmese government, as well as key mining areas and rivers, which the KIA was required to hand over as part of the 1994 ceasefire.

    Sixty-three year-old Burma-analyst Aung Kyaw Zaw was once a soldier and a member of the Burma Communist Party. He stresses the importance of Kachin state’s location between India and China, and points up that it is where headwaters of the country’s vital Irawaddy river flow south.

    “KIA is the very clever insurgent in the northeast," he said. "They know international politics and the Burmese politics and Chinese politics. It is not easy to face Kachin leaders.”

    Strategic resources in play

    Resource-rich Kachin state, littered with gold and jade mines, teakwood, rubber and banana plantations, is small but potentially profitable. Htoo Trading, a conglomerate owned by one of Burma’s richest business men, U Tayza, has a joint venture with a Russian mining company searching for uranium near local jade mines.  

    Outside analysts say they are watching to see if the militias will be able to broaden their struggle against Burma’s military to involve other ethnic groups. Ahnan is a spokesperson from the environmental watchdog group, Burma Rivers Network, who said other ethnic groups feel the Burmese government is cutting them out of lucrative projects, such as the hydroelectric dams.

    “A lot of anger [is] happening around the country, and also some of the development projects in ethnic areas, so it’s really possible civil conflict happens inside the country,” said Ahnan.

    KIA commanders in Laiza expect the fighting to increase when the rainy season ends in September. Maw said he believes much of the fighting is still ahead.

    You May Like

    Multimedia Obama Calls on Americans to Help the Families of Its War Dead

    In last Memorial Day of his presidency, Obama lays wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery

    The Strife of the Party: Will Trump Permanently Alter Republicans?

    While billionaire mogul's no-holds-barred style, high-energy delivery are what rocketed him to nomination, they also have created rift between party elites and his supporters

    China's Education Reforms Spark Protest

    Beijing is putting a quota system in place to increase the number of students from poor regions attending universities

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Chinese-Americans Heart Trump, Bucking National Trendi
    X
    May 27, 2016 5:57 AM
    A new study conducted by three Asian-American organizations shows there are three times as many Democrats as there are Republicans among Asian-American voters, and they favor Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. But one group, called Chinese-Americans For Trump, is going against the tide and strongly supports the business tycoon. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee caught up with them at a Trump rally and reports from Anaheim, California.
    Video

    Video Chinese-Americans Heart Trump, Bucking National Trend

    A new study conducted by three Asian-American organizations shows there are three times as many Democrats as there are Republicans among Asian-American voters, and they favor Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. But one group, called Chinese-Americans For Trump, is going against the tide and strongly supports the business tycoon. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee caught up with them at a Trump rally and reports from Anaheim, California.
    Video

    Video Reactions to Trump's Success Polarized Abroad

    What seemed impossible less than a year ago is now almost a certainty. New York real estate mogul Donald Trump has won the number of delegates needed to secure the Republican presidential nomination. The prospect has sparked as much controversy abroad as it has in the United States. Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video Drawings by Children in Hiroshima Show Hope and Peace

    On Friday, President Barack Obama will visit Hiroshima, Japan, the first American president to do so while in office. In August 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city to force Japan's surrender in World War II. Although their city lay in ruins, some Hiroshima schoolchildren drew pictures of hope and peace. The former students and their drawings are now part of a documentary called “Pictures from a Hiroshima Schoolyard.” VOA's Deborah Block has the story.
    Video

    Video Vietnamese Rapper Performs for Obama

    A prominent young Vietnamese artist told President Obama said she faced roadblocks as a woman rapper, and asked the president about government support for the arts. He asked her to rap, and he even offered to provide a base beat for her. Watch what happened.
    Video

    Video Roots Run Deep for Tunisia's Dwindling Jewish Community

    This week, hundreds of Jewish pilgrims are defying terrorist threats to celebrate an ancient religious festival on the Tunisian island of Djerba. The festivities cast a spotlight on North Africa's once-vibrant Jewish population that has all but died out in recent decades. Despite rising threats of militant Islam and the country's battered economy, one of the Arab world's last Jewish communities is staying put and nurturing a new generation. VOA’s Lisa Bryant reports.
    Video

    Video Meet Your New Co-Worker: The Robot

    Increasing numbers of robots are joining the workforce, as companies scale back and more processes become automated. The latest robots are flexible and collaborative, built to work alongside humans as opposed to replacing them. VOA’s Tina Trinh looks at the next generation of automated employees helping out their human colleagues.
    Video

    Video Wheelchair Technology in Tune With Times

    Technologies for the disabled, including wheelchair technology, are advancing just as quickly as everything else in the digital age. Two new advances in wheelchairs offer improved control and a more comfortable fit. VOA's George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Baby Boxes Offer Safe Haven for Unwanted Children

    No one knows exactly how many babies are abandoned worldwide each year. The statistic is a difficult one to determine because it is illegal in most places. Therefore unwanted babies are often hidden and left to die. But as Erika Celeste reports from Woodburn, Indiana, a new program hopes to make surrendering infants safer for everyone.
    Video

    Video California Celebration Showcases Local Wines, Balloons

    Communities in the U.S. often hold festivals to show what makes them special. In California, for example, farmers near Fresno celebrate their figs and those around Gilmore showcase their garlic. Mike O'Sullivan reports that the wine-producing region of Temecula offers local vintages in an annual festival where rides on hot-air balloons add to the excitement.
    Video

    Video US Elementary School Offers Living Science Lessons

    Zero is not a good score on a test at school. But Discovery Elementary is proud of its “net zero” rating. Net zero describes a building in which the amount of energy provided by on-site renewable sources equals the amount of energy the building uses. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, the innovative features in the building turn the school into a teaching tool, where kids can't help but learn about science and sustainability. Faith Lapidus narrates.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora