Ex-NDAK Troops Bemoan BGF Role

By Seamus Martov 27 July 2012

Reports from the front-line between Burma’s military and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) suggest that many ethnic Kachin soldiers from the government-backed Border Guard Force (BGF) who were previously with the New Democratic Army–Kachin (NDAK), a now defunct ceasefire group, have been forced into considerably riskier positions than their Burmese army counterparts.

Although fighting between the KIO and government forces in the Pangwa area has lessened in recent weeks, clashes continue to occur on a regular basis. The former NDAK soldiers who are predominately from the Lachik ethnic Kachin subgroup are often put in the firing line ahead of Burmese military forces and have suffered accordingly, said a KIO official familiar with the fighting near Pangwa.

The situation is so precarious that several ex-NDAK troops have deserted and fled to KIO territory, while many more are said to want to escape, but are constantly under the scrutiny of Burmese military superiors. One Kachin activist described to The Irrawaddy how a family friend desperately wants to get out of the BGF, but can’t.

“He says they’re watched all the time and has no chance to escape,” said the activist who said she had a recent but very brief conversation with her friend via the Chinese cellular network which bleeds across much of the China-Kachin border.

A Kachin farmer who owns land near in the Pangwa area near where heavy fighting took place in recent months, told The Irrawaddy that he heard from army sources that as many as 200 men on the government side may have died during the army’s Pangwa campaign in May alone. The Irrawaddy cannot confirm these figures due to the nature of the warfare and the secrecy under which Burma’s armed forces operate.

A senior Kachin commander based in the Mai Ja Yang acknowledged that due to the nature of the hit-and-run tactics employed by the Kachin resistance they can only make very rough estimates as to how many army troops they have killed or injured.

“After we hit them our troops don’t wait to look … so usually we don’t know how many survive and how many die on their way to treatment. But we do know we’ve killed a lot more of them than they have killed of us,” said the veteran of more than 20 years of guerrilla combat.

The NDAK officially disbanded in November 2009 following an agreement reached earlier that year by its founder and chief Zahkung Ting Ying (also spelled in state media as Za Khun Ting Ring) and the central government that the NDAK and its force of approximately 1,000 troops be transformed into a BGF. The former NDAK troops were distributed among three BGF battalions listed as 1001, 1002 and 1003.

In March 2009, Ting Ying, his NDAK colleague Major Manchi Thein Saung, then Vice-Chairman of the KIO Dr. Tu Ja, and Major Phone Ram from a KIO splinter group led by Colonel Lasang Awng Wah tentatively agreed to form the Kachin State Progressive Party (KSPP) with the aim of taking part in the 2010 elections. The party however was never allowed to register despite the fact that fledgling party’s chairman, Tu Ja, had formally stepped down from the KIO in preparation for his new electoral career.

While Tu Ja was barred from even registering as an independent candidate for the November 2010 election Ting Ying’s registration was approved. He was duly elected to the Upper House of Burma’s Parliament as an MP representing a constituency that covers much of his longtime fiefdom in northeastern Kachin state.

Though he officially ran as an independent, no candidate from the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party ran against him and Ting Ying handily defeated his only rival from the National Unity Party. News reports from exile media organizations at the time of the election claimed that officials manning the polling booths in the Pangwa area openly called on voters to support Ting Ying as they prepared their ballots.

Ting Ying is reportedly one of the richest people in Kachin State, profiting immensely from the NDAK’s active role in facilitating the destruction of large swaths of forested areas in the east of the province. While Ting Ying made lucrative profits from checkpoints and timber operations in his territory he faced repeated challenges to his authority from his own NDAK colleagues, reportedly over squabbles about the spoils from the NDAK’s business deals and Ting Ying’s reliance on Chinese bodyguards.

In September 2005 while he was on a trip to Myitkyina where he has a large mansion, Ting Ying briefly lost his grip on the NDAK when his subordinate and longtime ally Layawk Zalum launched a mutiny and occupied the group’s headquarters. After about 10 days the mutineers were overpowered; Layawk Zalum was able to evade capture while his other supporters were eventually allowed to flee.

Although Ting Ying was able to quickly reassert his authority another insurrection against his command occurred shortly afterward in May 2006, but this also failed. In addition to the repeated attempts from within the NDAK to topple him, Ting Ying also survived a December 2004 bomb attack on his car, that injured his driver and his son.

Ting Ying and the NDAK’s business exploits, which included a casino in Pangwa, were extensively covered in a series of reports on the Kachin-China timber trade produced by the British NGO Global Witness. According to the report, the coup attempts against Ting Ying may have been fueled by a conflict he was having with his business partners and NDAK colleagues over the profits from the Htang Shanghkawng molybdenum mine, a mineral commonly used for making steel alloys that is in high demand in China.

Although regarded by many of his fellow Kachin as a notorious opportunist, Ting Ying has over the course of the decades of upheaval in Kachin State proven himself to be a skilled political survivor. In 1968 while serving as the head of a unit in the KIO’s armed wing, Ting Ying and troops under his command in the Kambaiti region defected to the Burma Communist Party (BCP), which was fighting with the KIO at the time. With communist support Tin Ying formed a BCP-affiliated unit known as War Zone 101.

In December 1989, shortly after the BCP—then Burma’s strongest rebel group—collapsed on itself following a rebellion by its predominately ethnic rank-and-file against its mostly Burman leadership, Ting Ying reached a ceasefire agreement with Burma’s military regime then known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLOCR). The deal with SLORC that created the NDAK was similar to other agreements reached at the time by both Wa and Kokang ex communist factions.

Free from the constrains of Karl Marx and the BCP, Ting Ying used his troops and new-found friendship with SLORC’s generals to carve out lucrative timber deals with Chinese interests in his area of control between Kambaiti and Hpimaw passes, termed in official Burmese state press as Kachin Sate Special Region 1. Pangwa, which is located on the international boundary across from the Chinese town of Dian Tan, quickly became one of the main hubs in a massive timber extraction boom and for many years was the headquarters of the NDAK.

The NDAK’s zone of control proved particularly lucrative in 2007 following the completion of a Chinese-funded roadway built to connect the Kachin state capital Myitkyina with the Chinese city of Tengchong via the NDAK-controlled border town of Kambaiti. It was on this road that much of the machinery and other equipment sent to the site of the now stalled Myitsone dam was shipped.

Throughout the KIO’s 17-year ceasefire with the Burmese army, its relationship with the NDAK was usually civil but remained seriously strained at times culminating in the exchange of fire along a stretch of territory long contested by both groups. During the five-year period that preceded the NDAK’s official disbandment in 2009, a number of defectors from both the KIO and the NDAK ran to the other organization following internal power struggles.

The NDAK, like the KIO, the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and other ethnic ceasefire groups in Shan State all had relatively cordial relations with long time Military Intelligence chief Khin Nyunt until his ouster. Immediately following Khin Nyunt’s official resignation in 2004 for “health reasons” the NDAK and the other groups were warned by his successors to cut all ties with with Khin Nyunt and his people, a request that may have been relatively easy to follow since most of the once powerful military intelligence apparatus was in jail or under house arrest.

Ting Ying and his colleagues attended the entire national convention process, a widely discredited series of national meetings held over the years by the Than Shwe regime to draft a pro-military national constitution, a document put into effect following the infamously rigged May 2008 national referendum, held in the wake of Cyclone Nargis.

Although the KIO and UWSA also attended the national convention and, like the NDAK, regularly sent senior representatives to other regime-sponsored events designed to show national unity, neither of Burma’s two largest rebel groups obliged Than Shwe’s regime to quite same extent the NDAK did by taking part in various regime orchestrated anti Aung San Suu Kyi activities.

In late 2007, the NDAK and several other relatively small ceasefire groups including the KIO breakaway faction the Lahsan Aung Wah Peace Group issued a similar statement criticizing Aung San Suu Kyi for interfering in ethnic affairs.

An NDAK statement published in November 2007 in the New Light of Myanmar denounced Burma’s famed opposition leader for releasing her own statement relayed earlier in the week through UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari because it mentioned ethnic issues.

The NDAK statement said, “We do not believe it is proper for her to release such a statement at a time when talks on the future of the State are being held. Particularly, she should avoid releasing the statements that hamper the stability of the State.

“Our NDAK Group does not accept the point that she was responsible for the affairs of the national races as said in her statement because we have no contact with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi at all,” the statement continued.

The NDAK also took part in similar coordinated pro-regime statement campaigns in October 2006 and January 2007 in which Ting Ying was quoted in state-controlled media denouncing attempts by the US and British governments to raise the issue of Burma at the UN Security Council with a draft resolution.

The NDAK’s October 2006 statement read the “NDAK hereby declares that the US administration’s interference in Myanmar’s internal affairs using the UN as a tool is unacceptable and it condemns and protests such acts of the US.” This position was repeated in near verbatim form in January 2007.

Since Ting Ying became an “independent” MP he has continued to toe Naypyidaw’s line. Last year he was one of 23 MPs who signed an August 8 2011 open letter to “Peace Proponents” published in the New Light of Myanmar which charged the KIO’s armed wing with being responsible for the Aug. 2 killing of “innocent service personnel” while they were returning from the Tarpain hydro-power plant in Momauk Township. According to the letter the incident was a “menace to peace process [sic].”

At a public meeting in Pangwa, in early May at a time when the town looked like it could fall to the KIO, the head of the Burmese army’s Northern Regional Military Command, Brig-Gen Zeyar Aung, told the assembled audience not to be concerned with the KIO because the army would soon wipe them out. Ting Ying who was also in attendance is reported to have vocally endorsed this prediction.