The Kachin Conflict: A War over a Mountain of Gold

By Brennan O’Connor 27 April 2012

MAI JA YANG, Kachin State — In the early morning, before the sun has the chance to rise above the mountains, a black dog scavenges for food. The animal was a pet of the Burmese soldiers who used to occupy this base before the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), 21st Battalion, 3rd Brigade, captured it on Oct. 11.

Now the dog and a cat, also abandoned, lurk in the shadows near the edge of the camp, keeping their distance from the Kachin soldiers.

“The dog is not so friendly with us,” says Corporal John. “He doesn’t understand our language.”

He arrived at Jan Mai, near Mai Ja Yang, on Dec. 30, after he and his men had to make a hasty retreat when the Burmese military attacked their post, three hours away by motorcycle.

John, who is six feet tall, recalls spending weeks holed up in a trench, getting shelled at every day from early morning until nightfall.

“We couldn’t eat for three days. We only drank alcohol. The smell of gunfire and blood from the injured made us lose our desire for food,” he says lying next to a warm fire during a cold night.
During that time three KIA soldiers were killed and 20 were injured.

When they took Jan Mai they started with a “little pressure,” firing small artillery and gunfire from a nearby hilltop. They entered the valley below the base but were pushed back after six KIA soldiers were injured by grenades thrown by the Burmese army, says Second Class Warrant Officer La Doi of the 21st Battalion.

Several days later, at the break of dawn, they resumed the offensive. By the following day the KIA soldiers were proudly posing for photos next to a pile of recovered guns and ammunition, neatly arranged on a blanket in the center of the base camp.

Now they sleep in their enemies’ huts. They use their pots to cook meals and their bowls to eat their noodles.

The Burmese army did not stray far. With a good pair of binoculars, their shadowy figures can be seen occupying a base on the next mountain peak.

They have shelled Jan Mai more than 10 times since it was taken. So far, the shells have fallen short of the camp. Recently, new fighting has erupted in 21st Battalion territory.

It’s only hours away by motorcycle from Sang Gang, N’mawk (Momauk) Township, in eastern Kachin State, where Burmese Battalion 437 and 438 attacked a strategic KIA post at about 3 pm on June 9, 2011, officially ending the 17-year ceasefire. The fighting happened close to Taping No. 1 and Taping No.2 hydro-power plants on the Ta Hkaw Hka (Taping in Burmese) River.

Since then, thousands of civilians have been forced to flee from their homes. Most are sheltering in KIA-controlled areas or China.

May Li Aung, the director of Wunpawng Ninghtoi (WPN), an independent network of civil society and church groups that manages the camps in eastern Kachin State and China, says that since the conflict started, they have supported the internally displaced persons (IDPs) with private donations.

Now, however, WPN is finding it difficult to keep up with the growing numbers. With donations falling short of the the amount needed to provide food to the approximately 18,000 IDPs in their region, the group sometimes has to borrow money to make ends meet, according to May Li Aung.

It costs about 6 yuan (US $0.95) a day to feed one person in the camps, she adds.

According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, “Untold Miseries: Wartime Abuses and Forced Displacement in Burma’s Kachin State,” there are approximately 75,000 IDPs in Kachin State and China. Most are women and children, some suffering from diarrhea, skin infections, respiratory problems and cholera—a result of malnutrition and crowded, inadequate housing. The deteriorating health conditions will only get worse when the rainy seasons starts in the upcoming months.

President Thein Sein has received international praise from the West for his reforms in Burma. TIME magazine recently included him in its list of the “100 Most Influential People in the World” for 2012. But his influence in Kachin State is certainly questionable. He has been unable to stop the fighting here despite ordering the military not to attack the KIA last December.

Major Labya Tu Lum, the camp commander of Jan Mai, says he hopes for peace so he can see with his wife and five children again. For him and the other KIA soldiers who live on the front lines, the solution to the conflict in Kachin State is simple.

“It’s really up to the government,” says Labya Tu Lum. “If they attack us, we will fight. If they don’t, there will be peace.”

Now 40 years old, he joined the KIA 27 years ago. Labya Tu Lum was fighting against the Burmese military 10 years before a ceasefire was signed in 1994.

“This conflict is very different from the way it was before the ceasefire. Now they use so many soldiers to attack in the surrounding hills with artillery from all directions. All we can do is defend,” he says.

“The real cause of the conflict is that Kachin State is full of natural resources. But look at the bamboo huts we live in. We stand on a golden mountain but live under a banyan tree. When I see my people carrying their bamboo baskets, it makes me sad that they are so poor.”

Zinghtung Sha Roi, a second lieutenant from the 21st battalion, is also tired of fighting. Today is his 22nd anniversary of military service in the KIA. He should be happy, but he just wants to be with his family.

Before the conflict started he used to see his wife and three children every two or three months.
Since last year, he has only visited them twice.

“If we can’t arrange a ceasefire with the government, the fighting will continue,” says Zinghtung Sha Roi. “I would like peace with the government but I’m not sure how our leaders will achieve this. When I think about this, it worries me.”