From the Archive

The Battle for Laiza

By Steve Tickner 7 October 2013

Tomorrow, the Burmese government’s peace negotiating team, international observers including the UN’s Vijay Nambia, and the rebel Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) will meet in Myitkyina for peace talks; the first between the two parties since late May.

Since fighting between government troops and the armed wing of the KIO, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), broke out in June 2011, The Irrawaddy has closely followed events in Burma’s northernmost state. From January until early February of this year, The Irrawaddy’s photojournalist Steve Tickner covered the escalating battle between the Burmese government and Kachin rebels around the town of Laiza. He recounts how key events unfolded in this article, which first appeared in the March 2013 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.

LAIZA, Kachin State — Nestled in a narrow river valley in northern Myanmar, Laiza looks like any other sleepy rural town at first. A small stream divides the Kachin settlement in two and demarcates the Myanmar-China border. On the other side, China’s red national flag flies over many of the buildings.

In mid-January, shops here were open and people calmly went about their daily business; some warmed themselves in the sun after a cold night in the mountain town. But closer inspection quickly revealed that it was the center of a conflict zone; many inhabitants carried weapons, schools were closed and some families were packing up and leaving.

Laiza is home to the headquarters of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and its political wing, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO). It was developed as an administrative and commercial center for rebel-controlled parts of Kachin State following the KIO’s 1994 ceasefire with Myanmar’s central government.

The Kachin, a largely Christian minority of around 1.3 million people, have fought a decades-long rebellion against the government over their demands for political autonomy within a federal system and better protection of ethnic groups’ rights in the Constitution. Naypyitaw has rejected these demands and seeks full control over economic interests, such as jade mining and hydropower dams, in the state.

The festering disagreements led to growing tensions that were further exacerbated by the KIA’s refusal in 2010 to join a Border Guard Force under government command. In June 2011, the ceasefire collapsed and the KIA and Myanmar’s military—also called the Tatmadaw—went to war.

In mid-December 2012, the war escalated and the Tatmadaw began deploying helicopter gunships and jet fighters to attack Kachin rebel positions in the forested, low-lying mountains. The military made significant advances and by mid-January its forces made a concerted push to encircle Laiza and bring its artillery within firing range of the town.

This was the situation when I arrived in Laiza. Yet, the townspeople remained calm in the face of the looming threat. But as I sat down for a bowl of noodles at around 8 am on a sunny but cool morning on Jan. 14, a heavy thud suddenly rocked central Laiza, followed by another one about one minute later.

The Tatmadaw had fired two artillery shells into central Laiza’s Hka Chyang quarter. The first round struck several civilians warming themselves around a fire. As I rushed to the nearby scene, I could see that the victims were only meters from a recently dug bunker when the shell exploded.

Nhkum Bawk Naw, a man in his 50s, who was standing around the fire at the time of the explosion, was fatally injured. His wife Nang Zing Roi Ji sustained severe shrapnel wounds to her back. Sau Nam, 38, and her 2-year-old son Jang Ma Bawk San, were less seriously injured.

“I heard a whooshing sound of an incoming shell, grabbed my child and threw myself to the ground. Then there was a large explosion and a lot of smoke and dust,” Sau Nam recalled later at
Laiza’s small hospital.

The second shell exploded near a wooden house, killing elderly church deacon Malang Yaw Htung and a 15-year-old boy named Hpauyu La. A 10-year-old girl Langjaw Nu Ja was seriously injured in her lower body.

The incident drew reactions from international rights groups and Western countries, but the Tatmadaw remained silent on the events. President U Thein Sein’s spokesman U Ye Htut denied that the military was involved in the incident.

In spite of such unsettling events, the people of Laiza remained remarkably calm. There was no panic or mass evacuation, although business was clearly muted. Mayor Naw Awn showed a stoic confidence in an interview following the first-ever direct attack on his town.

“We were prepared because the Myanmar side had warned they would do this,” he said. “We have educated the townspeople how to behave and stay safe.” After two years, we are used to war so really there isn’t too much effect or fear,” the mayor added.

Despite this composed reaction among the besieged Kachin in Laiza, I later learned how deep such incidents cut into their lives.

The killed teenager Hpauyu La was a student at Laiza High School and his two close friends in class 9A, Nkhum Tu Shan, 18, and Hpauyam Doi Bu, 15, described him as a popular, enthusiastic student.

“He loved listening to music, and he enjoyed singing and playing his guitar,” Tu Shan said during an interview on Feb.1. “He was a good, kind person who would always support his friends when they had troubles,” added Doi Bu.

“When Hpauy La died, I and his other friends felt very bad as we were all close,” said Doi Bu, adding that Hpauy La’s father had died from illness last year and his mother and sister had now fled to China.

After a while Tu Shan revealed that he not only lost his best friend that week, but also a family member. “My father was killed in an air attack by the Myanmar army on [the KIA’s] Hkaya
Bum outpost on Jan. 16,” he said with great sadness.

After the incident, Laiza sustained no more attacks. But continuous government air and artillery assaults on rebel posts less than 6 miles (10 km) away created a rumbling sound in the town, like a distant thunder, providing the civilians with a constant reminder of the nearby war.

While the fighting terrified Laiza’s civilians, violence also engulfed other parts of Kachin. Across the state at least 75,000 villagers were displaced by the war and live in camps, according to UN estimates.

On Jan. 15, I made the first of several visits to the frontline in the Lajayang area and to the strategically important Hkaya Bum mountaintop. Both areas were key defense positions for the KIA, a lightly-armed force of several thousand fighters.

On my visit to Naw Hpyu post that day, jet aircraft could be seen pounding Hkaya Bum outpost just a few miles away, while an occasional artillery shell would fall on the range we occupied and sporadic gunfire drifted up from the valley below.

In the following days the Myanmar government would attack—and eventually conquer—several KIA posts guarding Lajayang, a hilly area at the end of a narrow river valley that forms a southern gateway to Laiza.

During a visit to these positions on Jan. 16 and 17, there was an air of expectancy amongst the dug-in KIA soldiers since there had been no government attack for days. As they waited, smoke rose up in the distance, where Tatmadaw soldiers were reportedly torching Nalung village.

The rebels—a mix of young and older men, equipped with plastic helmets, KIA-made automatic assault rifles and captured Tatmadaw guns—were calm. They seemed accustomed to the brutal attack methods that the Myanmar military had deployed since late December.

“Artillery is used first, then ground forces, and occasionally air support in the form of jet fighters and helicopter strafing,” Lt La Din told me. “It was difficult during the first two weeks because the KIA was not used to air attacks.”

In the late afternoon of Jan. 17, the Tatmadaw began its attacks on the Lajayang area with a prolonged artillery barrage. I dropped back behind the frontline at Upper Lajayang village and heard up to six 105-mm and 120-mm shells explode per minute for several hours.

The next morning, on Jan. 18, after a sustained overnight attack, these outposts had fallen to the Tatmadaw and the KIA soldiers had retreated a few miles down the road to Laiza. The southern ground approach to the town was now difficult to defend for the rebels.

While the Tatmadaw attacked the Lajayang area, it had also launched ferocious air, artillery and ground assaults on the Hkaya Bum mountaintop outposts. But despite the heavy bombardments, the KIA held out.

The government nonetheless announced on the evening of Friday, Jan. 18, that all military operations had ceased as its strategic targets had been conquered.

The fact that the KIA had held Hkaya Bum perhaps surprised the government, which appeared to have planned the ceasefire announcement ahead of an important meeting with international donor countries on Jan. 19-20. Despite the government’s public promises, Tatmadaw assaults on Hkaya Bum would not end, although air attacks ceased.

A visit to the mountaintop position on Jan. 19 revealed that sporadic gunfire and mortar shelling continued that day. KIA soldiers made use of the relative calm to uncover three of their comrades, who had been buried alive when their bunker sustained a direct hit from an airstrike a day before.

The next day, Jan. 20, a large number of Tatmadaw ground forces launched a frontal assault on KIA positions on the mountaintop.

In the trenches there, I witnessed the Kachin soldiers taking regular casualties and two injured rebels were dragged to the safety of a dug-out bunker.

Yet, in the heat of the conflict they seemed almost casual. Some threw hand grenades, while another admonished his fellow fighter for shooting without aiming properly, saying “You should shoot better; otherwise they will laugh at us.”

Despite the KIA’s apparent resilience, the continuous attacks—from early Jan. 20 throughout the night until the afternoon the next day—proved too much for the rebels. “We relinquished our Hkaya Bum positions to avoid further loss of soldiers,” Col Zaw Tawng told me on Jan. 21.

Now, the Myanmar military held full control over the mountains around Laiza as well as the southern ground approach to the town. The KIA headquarters and the Kachin town—where
some 20,000 residents and another 15,000 displaced civilians had sought refuge—were vulnerable to Tatmadaw attacks.

It was only then that the heavy fighting ceased. Sporadic clashes continued but the KIA began to consolidate their last remaining defense positions on the outskirts of Laiza, the town that had been its stronghold since 1994.

With the government’s negotiating position strengthened and the KIA’s defense situation weakened, government peace negotiator U Aung Min and senior KIO leaders agreed to meet on Feb. 4 in the Chinese border town of Ruili in Yunnan Province.

In the presence of Chinese observers, the parties agreed to schedule more ceasefire talks before the end of February. The KIO insisted that further political dialogue with the government should include all 11 ethnic militias in Myanmar, who are allied in the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC).

It was also decided that the UN and international relief agencies would be allowed to provide aid to all displaced Kachin civilians, including to the approximately 45,000 displaced in rebel-controlled areas. The government had so far prevented international aid from reaching these areas.

President U Thein Sein’s spokesman U Ye Htut said the long-standing demands of the KIO and the UNFC—political autonomy for minority regions and amending the 2008 Constitution—would be discussed at the upcoming meeting, but he added that political issues would ultimately have to be resolved at a later stage.

“We also have to discuss these issues with other ethnic armed groups. As the President [U Thein Sein] said, inclusive meetings will be held with the Parliament, the political parties and the civil society groups in the future,” he said when pressed about a political solution to the Kachin conflict.

Neither the government nor the KIO have revealed how many casualties they sustained during the conflict.

If a ceasefire agreement is reached, the Kachin would join Myanmar’s 10 other major rebel militias, which already have such agreements with Naypyitaw. Yet, the recent conflict has done much to undermine the other groups’ trust in the government’s commitment to peace with Burma’s minorities.

The Kachin conflict, nonetheless, seems far from over, as it remains unclear how a political solution can be reached, while the KIA—despite their recent losses—remain a confident fighting force.

During the fighting around Laiza, the rebels frequently stated with calm defiance that if they lost their base, KIA units would simply escape through the forested mountains that they know so well, in order to regroup and fight another day.

“Even if we lose Laiza we would continue to fight for the Kachin people. We don’t choose only one strategy in our revolutionary journey,” KIO joint secretary La Nan said on Jan. 22, shortly after the loss of key Kachin defense posts.

As I left Laiza on Feb. 5, it indeed seemed as if the Kachin rebels were quietly adapting to a new phase in the long-running conflict with government, raising the question whether anyone gained anything from the bloody battle for Laiza.