Reporter's Notebook: The Tanai Conflict

By Lawi Weng 16 June 2017

Under the heavy rain, I boarded a boat with a group of fellow reporters and made my way to a patch of Kachin Independence Army (KIA) territory threatened by the Myanmar Army about an hour from Tanai town.

Thousands of locals and migrants working the area’s gold and amber mines have fled the surrounding villages of Tanai in Kachin State since fighting broke out between the KIA and the Myanmar Army, also known as the Tatmadaw, on June 6. Many of the internally displaced people (IDPs) have sought shelter in Tanai town.

But as we stepped off the boat, four KIA mining officers awaited us, looking pleased to have the company. They had not yet received orders to leave, although the other mining workers had left, and so these were our guardians for the trip.

One of the men, Myit Aung, an acting officer appointed in January, told us to sit in a small shop for a while before going to the mines, which are based on land controlled by Battalion No. 14 under KIA Brigade No. 2. On June 15, shop owners were packing up and closing their businesses. They would leave from the same modest dock where we had arrived, but a few shops remained open.

An ethnic Kachin food vendor coerced her dog onto the boat, but the stubborn pet refused to budge. “Ah, the dog does not want to become an IDP,” one of our company reflected.

Myit Aung then offered us some beer, with the assurance that it “was a type of medicine to make you feel brave on the way to the front line.”

We used it to wash down our meals, and climbed into a car, listening to music with the KIA security as we drove to the mines. The rebel land we passed felt safer than the government-controlled areas.

KIA prepare for conflict with the Myanmar Army. (Photo: Lawi Weng/The Irrawaddy)

Myit Aung said we would have no problems traveling in the KIA-controlled parts, but later he pointed toward a Tatmadaw base about two miles away. In the amber-rich land of Noi Je Bum Patserm Maw, which has seven mining areas, officer Nan Nan Aung told us they had killed a pig for lunch. At 2 p.m. KIA soldiers brought us plates of meat.

Back in the car, we drove another two hours to Chyasam Hka—the last KIA post on the frontline. The area was dense with rebel soldiers, who planned to fight in bunkers drenched by the seasonal rains, though it did not seem to deter them. A KIA colonel pointed toward Inn Kar Kar village, saying it was about 10 minutes away. “You will see the Myanmar Army there,” he said.

The colonel did not stay at the post for long, as they feared an imminent attack. Both sides had troops monitoring the other side’s movements.

At 4 p.m. we traveled to Nam Kham village, where we met Dashi Naw Tawng, the head of the village. Nam Kham’s 300 or so houses had mostly been abandoned—Dashi Naw Tawng’s own family had left for Kachin state capital Myitkyina—but he was

adamant not to leave his house. He was “not afraid of fighting.”

“I know how to get out of here if I have to leave,” he added.

He gave us dinner at his house, encouraging us to drink as much beer as we wanted, as the drinks would probably have to be abandoned with the rest of his shop.

We spent the night back in the mining area, once a bustling community of thousands, where the Myanmar Army used the power of paper instead of arms to force out the residents. They dropped leaflets from helicopters – warning people they would attack and accusing the KIA of destroying the environment with mines.

“In my eyes, they tried to block the income of the KIA by stopping the mining,” said Myit Aung. Judging by the ghost town, the strategy was a success.

“They are not attacking on the basis that the mining is damaging the environment,” he added. “We did not have a big mining project here; only mobile mining, that’s all. They should stop mining in Hpakant first if they care about the environment.”

A gold mine under KIA control in Kachin State. (Photo: Lawi Weng/The Irrawaddy)