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.
Danielle Bernstein

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

ASEAN Ministers Set to Push for South China Sea Agreements

According to documents obtained by VOA Khmer, ministers will stand up for 'freedom of navigation, unimpeded lawful maritime commerce, trade and over flight' More

Puerto Rico Defaults on $58M Debt Payment

Payment was due Saturday, default is first in country's 117 years as a United States possession More

Turkish Public Fears Jihadists More Than Kurds

Turkey facing twin threats of terrorism by Islamic State and PKK Kurdish separatists, says President Erdogan’s ruling AK Party More

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.
Iraqi Yazidis Fear Death of Their Communityi
X
Sharon Behn
August 03, 2015 2:23 PM
A year ago on August 3, Islamic State militants stormed the homelands of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, killing hundreds of men and enslaving thousands of women. The scenes of desperate Yazidi families crowding on the top of Sinjar mountain without food or water spurred Kurdish fighters into action, an emergency airlift and the start of the U.S. airstrike campaign against the Islamic State Sunni extremists. VOA's Sharon Benh reports from northern Iraq.
Video

Video Iraqi Yazidis Fear Death of Their Community

A year ago on August 3, Islamic State militants stormed the homelands of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, killing hundreds of men and enslaving thousands of women. The scenes of desperate Yazidi families crowding on the top of Sinjar mountain without food or water spurred Kurdish fighters into action, an emergency airlift and the start of the U.S. airstrike campaign against the Islamic State Sunni extremists. VOA's Sharon Benh reports from northern Iraq.
Video

Video Bangkok Warned It Soon Could Be Submerged

Italy's Venice and America's New Orleans are not the only cities gradually submerging. The nearly ten million residents of the Bangkok urban area now must confront warnings the city could become uninhabitable in a few decades. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from the Thai capital.
Video

Video Inclusive Gym Gets People With Disabilities in Fitness Spirit

Individuals with special needs are 58 percent more likely to be obese than the general population. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, they also have an increased likelihood of anxiety, depression and social isolation. But a sports club outside Washington wants to make a difference in these people's lives. With Carol Pearson narrating, VOA's June Soh reports.
Video

Video Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missions

Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Special Olympics Show Competitors' Skill, Determination

Special Olympics competitions will wrap up Saturday in Los Angeles, and the closing ceremony for athletes with intellectual disabilities will be held Sunday night. In a week of competition, athletes have shown what they can do through skill and determination. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Civil Rights Leaders Struggled to Achieve Voting Rights Act

Fifty years ago, lawmakers approved, and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The measure outlawed racial discrimination in voting, giving millions of blacks in many parts of the southern United States federal enforcement of the right to vote. Correspondent Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights leaders who were on the front lines in the struggle for voting rights.
Video

Video Shooter’s Grill: Serving Food with a Touch of the Second Amendment

Shooter's Grill, a restaurant in Rifle, Colorado, attracts visitors from all over the world as well as local patrons. The reason? Waitresses openly carry loaded firearms as they serve food, and customers are welcome to carry them, too. VOA's Enming Liu and Lin Yang paid a visit to Shooter's Grill, and heard different opinions about this unique establishment.
Video

Video Despite Controversy, Business Owner Continues Sale of Confederate Flags

At Cooter’s, a store in rural Sperryville, Virginia, about 120 kilometers west of Washington, D.C., Confederate flags are flying off the shelves. The red, white and blue battle flag, with 13 white stars representing the Confederate states, was carried by southern forces during the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s. The South had seceded from the Union over several key issues of disagreement, including slavery. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs