KACHIN STATE, MYANMAR - Under the scorching midday sun, a drill sergeant for the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) shouts commands at around 100 young soldiers, some barely out of their teens.
The rebels, mostly male, struggle to keep formation. They’re exhausted when they return to their barracks at a training school near Laiza, a town in a mountain valley near the border with China that’s also the KIA’s main stronghold.
The cadets, many of whom came from government areas to volunteer with the KIA, are about to finish four months of training, and their confidence is high.
"We’re not scared, we’re ready to fight," one says with a defiant grin as the cadets enter their barracks.
They soon could find themselves on a volatile frontline post.
Fighting in Kachin state has escalated since mid-August, when the Myanmar military launched its heaviest dry-season offensive in two years. It’s trying to capture a strategic mountaintop called Gidon, some 30 kilometers north of Laiza, according to the KIA.
"Gidon is the security post protecting our Laizin headquarters and the Laiza area" from the north, said Lieutenant Colonel Naw Bu, a KIA spokesman interviewed at his office in late October. "Now the Burmese army is sending more troops and weapons to this area, including heavy artillery, so the fighting is likely to become worse."
Threat to peace process
The Gidon post recently has taken daily fire from mortars, three different artillery positions and fighter jets and helicopter gunships, Naw Bu said. The rebels, dug into the mountains and armed with basic weaponry, so far have managed to fend off several ground attacks.
The rising violence threatens to undermine efforts by Aung San Suu Kyi’s young National League for Democracy (NLD) government to resume Myanmar’s peace process and establish a democratic, federal union, bringing an end to decades of ethnic conflict.
At Lawa Yang Post, located in the mountains a few miles south of Laiza, government forces operate within visual range of KIA troops. The area has not seen clashes for a long time, but soldiers are on alert and staff a network of deep trenches half hidden by the jungle canopy.
"I’m ready to fight as my officers command," said soldier Maru Tang Gun. "I’m just worried about the safety of the civilians, not about myself."
Many civilians and Kachin rebels in Laiza expressed disappointment that the army, also known as the Tatmadaw, launched an offensive while publicly participating in the NLD government’s efforts to reach a nationwide cease-fire and begin talks to reform Myanmar’s political structure.
"The KIO, Kachin public and other ethnic groups are trying to work with the NLD for peace, but the Tatmadaw don’t want to allow a political dialogue," said Lieutenant Colonel Zhau Hpan, who commands Lawa Yang Post. The army wants to keep fighting to postpone amendments to the 2008 constitution, he said.
After assuming office in early April, State Councilor and de facto government leader Aung San Suu Kyi quickly tried to restart the peace process of the previous quasi-civilian administration. It had signed a so-called nationwide cease-fire with eight rebel groups last year, but another 12 groups – including the KIA – opted out.
The NLD held its first peace conference in late August. The highly inclusive but largely ceremonial gathering involved the powerful army chief Min Aung Hlaing, top government officials and 17 ethnic rebel groups. But since then, the military has stepped up operations in Kachin as well as Shan and Karen states. It fought a rebel splinter group in Karen.
The government has little authority over the military operations, as the constitution guarantees the military direct control over the ministries of defense, home affairs and border affairs. The charter also centralizes power over Myanmar’s states and regions with the government in Naypyitaw, a situation the country’s numerous ethnic groups have long resented.
The Kachin living in rebel areas increasingly have come to distrust the army since its renewed offensive, as well as its decision to delay or block aid convoys from crossing the front line to reach isolated KIA areas. Half of the roughly 100,000 displaced civilians are sheltering in camps.
The army blames security issues for preventing aid deliveries, which already had been reduced because of declining donations to the United Nations.
Nine local aid NGOs working in Kachin recently alleged the military was politicizing aid deliveries through its interference.
"The Tatmadaw consistently hinders food transportation to the most in need areas in Kachin state," the NGOs said in a joint statement released last month. It called the action "an outright violation against the rights” of internally displaced people and said it breached international humanitarian law.
Naw Lu, an elder in the Pa Kawthang IDP camp near Mai Ja Yang, another KIA-controlled town located some 80 kilometers south of Laiza, said aid supplies recently had been limited to irregular deliveries of rice, salt and oil. He said IDPs were losing hope that they could return to their villages in the near future.
"We don’t expect there will be peace soon," the 68-year-old said. "Aung San Suu Kyi is discussing peace, but Min Aung Hlaing is still fighting. We don’t trust the Burmese. They’re changing their position all the time, just like they’re adjusting their longyis," the sarong-like cloths worn around the waist.
The NLD government has stayed quiet about the clashes and is trying to push ahead with more meetings involving the army, the KIA and other rebel groups.
"In the current situation, it’s very complicated to get to the bottom of why there is fighting," said Zaw Htay, speaking for the Presidential Office. "So we need to reduce tensions first, then we have [cease-fire] talks and then we can hold a political dialogue."
Army operations are seriously undermining the peace talks, said Sai Kyaw Nyunt, a peace process committee member and representative of the major ethnic party Shan National League for Democracy.
"If there is still fighting, how will the KIA participate in the peace process? It’s very difficult for them," he said, adding that the operations cast doubt on the army's willingness to eventually reform the constitution, as both the NLD and ethnic groups desire.
"The Tatmadaw seems to be considering whether they are with this government or not, and it seems they don’t quite agree," he said.