A Lifetime of War, with No Peace in Sight

By Seamus Martov 11 August 2014

NHKAWNG PA, Kachin State — Lazum Htang, a 92-year-old Kachin man living at the Nhkawng Pa camp for internally displaced persons (IDP) near Kachin State’s border with China, doesn’t think very highly of Myanmar’s military. “I am very unhappy now because of the army,” he says, expressing a view shared by many of his fellow Kachin.

Unlike the vast majority of the estimated 100,000-plus Kachin people displaced by the current conflict in their home state, however, Lazum Htang has a special reason to be displeased with Myanmar’s Tatmadaw, or armed forces: He was once on their side.

It was while serving in the Tatmadaw in Nyaung Lay Bin in 1949 that he got shot in the arm by rebels from the Karen National Defense Organization (the precursor to the Karen National Union) during a massive Kayin offensive which began shortly after Myanmar achieved independence. The bullet passed through his arm, leaving a scar that is still visible nearly 70 years later.

Lazum Htang originally joined a Kachin unit in the military in 1946 during the brief resumption of colonial rule that followed the country’s liberation from the Japanese. Like many other ethnic people of his generation, his memories of that period were positive. “We were free during the time of the British,” he says.

He was discharged in 1957, but his 11-plus years of service in the Tatmadaw, most of which were spent in the 2nd Kachin Rifles, would come in handy when the Kachin uprising began in 1961.

Like many of his fellow Kachin, Lazum Htang joined the Kachin Independence Organization’s (KIO) village militia forces. It was an extremely difficult time, he says. Unlike the well-supplied KIO of today, in those days, the group had only the barest of necessities. “We only had one set of clothes and homemade guns,” he recalls.

While he and his unit were going hungry deep in the forest, his wife Gaw Lu Hkang, now in her mid-eighties, was left to look after the kids. Things got particularly bad after she and her children were forced to flee their village for the first time in 1964 and again the next year. “The army rounded up the villagers many times. The first time we fled was very difficult; we had no food,” she recalls. It was while they were on the run from the military that three of their 15 children succumbed to illness.

After the KIO made gains in their area in the 1960s, Lazum Htang returned to farming and raising his large family. Life was difficult but manageable. The resumption of hostilities in Kachin State in 2011 once again meant that Lazum Htang and his family were displaced. “If this was a good government, we wouldn’t need to run,” he says.

According to Lazum Htang, this latest episode in the Kachin conflict has been worse for civilians than those that came before. “Now the army troops are worse. Whatever they see, they kill,” he says—a view supported by numerous human rights reports highlighting the army’s targeting of civilians during their ongoing operations in Kachin State.

Hard of hearing and having difficulty walking, Lazum Htang is resigned to the fact that he isn’t likely to outlive the conflict. “We’re just staying here to die,” he says. But, he adds: “We don’t want to die in the camp. We want to die at home.”

At these words, his wife of 60 years, who is sitting quietly next to him, breaks down in tears.

This story first appeared in the August 2014 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.