Kachin Rebels Clash With Burma Army and Govt-backed Militia

By The Irrawaddy 2 September 2013

RANGOON — Ethnic Kachin rebels have fought deadly gun battles with the Burma Army and a government-backed militia this weekend in a frontline area near Putao, a town located in northern Kachin State, a rebel officer claims.

The clashes occurred despite ongoing ceasefire talks between Naypyidaw and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).

“The fighting broke out on August 31 at 6 a.m. It lasted three hours. Two government troops were killed. Tensions remain high. And fighting might resume at any time as the KIA troops didn’t withdraw,” a KIA officer told The Irrawaddy on Monday.

The officer was speaking by phone from Laiza, a small town on the Burma-China border where the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and its armed wing the KIA are headquartered.

He said a combined force of about 300 soldiers of Burmese Army’s Light Infantry Battalion 137 and a supporting Kachin border guard force (BGF) militia attacked Battalion 7 under KIA’s Brigade 1 on Saturday. “The government used the Kachin militia as a proxy to attack the KIA,” the officer added.

The Kachin BGF that fought alongside the government troops was formerly known as New Democratic Army-Kachin (NDAK). It was officially disbanded in November 2009, following an agreement reached earlier that year between its founder Zahkung Ting Ying and the government. The militia has since sided with the Burma Army against the KIA.

The clashes in Putao Township reportedly took place in a densely forested area known Nga Kha Akar. Burmese tycoon Tay Za allegedly has been granted a 100,000-acre (40,000 hectare) logging concession here by the government that would allow him to cut down vast swathes of valuable, pristine teak forest.

Tay Za is the founder of Htoo Trading Co Ltd and owner of private airline Air Bagan. The US-sanctioned tycoon is believed to be one of the richest men in Burma and has operated timber logging and trading rings that helped the former military government. He also has businesses interests in Putao town, including an Air Bangan flight route that operates between Myitkyina and Putao.

“The government and the BGF troops attacked the KIA to secure the area where Tay Za will do logging,” claimed the KIA officer, who declined to be named as he was not authorized to speak to the media.

“This area is historically very important for the Kachin people, so the KIA will resist the government troops. We won’t pull out,” he said, adding that ethnic Kachin villagers wanted to preserve the large hillside forest. “The fighting might even damage the peace deals between the KIA and the government,” the officer said.

In mid-August, fighting between the KIO and the joint force of Burmese government and its BGF militia also broke out near Chibwe and Sawlaw, two towns in Pangwa region, in the northern Kachin State.

The BGF soldiers launched attacks together with government troops and targeted a battalion under KIA Brigade 1. Three soldiers from the joint BGF-government forces died at the time, according to rebel sources.

The KIA and the Burma Army have been involved in occasionally heavy fighting ever since a long-standing ceasefire broke down in 2011. From December to early February fighting escalated in the strategically important mountains surrounding Laiza.

Since then, the sides have met several times for ceasefire talks. In late May, the KIO and the government’s peace negotiation team signed a seven-point preliminary ceasefire agreement agreeing to “undertake efforts to achieve de-escalation and cessation of hostilities” and to “continue discussions on military matters related to repositioning of troops.”

Little progress in the talks has been made since, however, and reports of skirmishes between rebels and the Burma Army continue.