KIA Poses Formidable Threat to Junta Military in Northern Myanmar

By Ko Oo 10 November 2022

In Kachin State in northern Myanmar, the military regime is facing an increasing threat from its old enemy, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).

The KIA strenuously objected when the Myanmar military seized power in a coup last year. When the military carried out brutal crackdowns on peaceful anti-coup protests, the armed group warned that it would respond if unarmed protesters were shot in Kachin.

The ethnic armed group did as it said, and started by seizing the regime’s Alaw Bum hill-top base in March last year, which earned the KIA public support and attention.

The regime has suffered heavy casualties attempting to retake the base, but all to no avail so far.

The KIA has also provided shelter for striking government employees who evaded arrest by the junta, as well as political dissidents. It also took an active part in forming the parallel National Unity Government.

More importantly, the armed group provided shelter, military training and arms for young people from different parts of the country who decided to take up arms against the regime after it brutally slaughtered their relatives and friends.

The KIA’s assistance forced the pace on the development of the armed resistance movement in Sagaing, Magwe and Mandalay regions as well as Chin State in northwest Myanmar.

In the early days of the armed resistance, the regime boasted that it would crush the resistance in Sagaing within six months. But the reverse is happening, thanks to the bravery and sacrifices of local people, and the KIA has also played a part.

This has earned the KIA public support not only from locals in northern Myanmar but from people in Mandalay, Magwe and Sagaing regions in central Myanmar, which in turn bolsters its political image.

During a ceasefire with the Myanmar military that spanned 17 years from 1994 to 2011, the armed group grew financially and militarily, establishing a parallel administration which consists of schools, courts and public service departments.

The KIA is made up of 10 brigades—three of which (4, 6 and 10) are active in northern Shan State. In Kachin it has seven brigades, two infantry divisions and an artillery division. In total these comprise 24 local battalions, 27 mobile battalions, five artillery battalions and three special battalions. The KIA reportedly has more than 600 officers.

Kachin State is the third-largest region in Myanmar, and is a largely forested area with numerous rivers and creeks.

Kachin State map

The Northern Command of the Myanmar military oversees Kachin State, and is headquartered in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin. An air force base is located in Myitkyina with a squadron of helicopters, and the base is also used to refuel fighter jets and bombers.

Myitkyina is also home to artillery and drone units, combat support units, a military training center and a military hospital. A large number of junta armored vehicles have recently arrived in Myitkyina, and cantonments are so overcrowded that tanks have to be housed in the district-level fire office.

The KIA is headquartered in Laiza on the China-Myanmar border east of Myitkyina. Laiza is also home to other civil service offices and military units including an artillery division, military hospital, and officer training school. There is reportedly also an ordnance factory near the KIA headquarters.

Meanwhile, the regime has local ethnic militia groups under its control in Kachin, including Pangwa militias led by notorious warlord Zakhung Ting Ying in Pangwa; Lisu militias in Waingmaw; and Shanni militias along the Tanai-Hpakant road.

The Myanmar military has a total of 75 infantry battalions plus a number of artillery battalions and combat support units across Kachin State. Besides them, it also has militia groups mentioned above and three Border Guard Force (BGF) battalions.

Junta battalions are well positioned to take control of major towns and routes in Kachin State. It has also built bases in Hpakant, Myanmar’s jade-mining hub.

The KIA on the other hand controls rural parts and is exploiting the forested and mountainous terrain of Kachin to poses threats to the regime.

The armed group controls many jade, amber and gold mines in Kachin, a major source of income for it. Overall, the KIA is active across Kachin and poses threats to junta troops across the state.

So far, the attack on the Alaw Bum base has been the only military operation directly commanded by the KIA headquarters. Other operations over the past 20 months were carried out by brigades in their own territories.

Continuous clashes have been reported in Putao, Sumprabum, Tanai, Hpakant, Waingmaw, Bhamo and along the Irrawaddy River between Myitkyina and Katha.

There have been no large-scale attacks on the regime since the seizure of Alaw Bum base. But at the same time, the regime can’t conduct large-scale attacks on the KIA either.

The regime is overstretched, as it has been fighting on multiple fronts across the country since the coup. So, it dares not mobilize its battalions from one area to conduct maneuvers in another, because doing so risks losing ground in the first.

As such, the regime has been forced to form new units out of combat support units and forces from the rear to fill gaps. Under such circumstances, it is quite unlikely that the regime would use three or four divisions and its Military Operations Command to launch a large-scale attack in a particular area.

Battalions under the Northern Command did send troops to conduct some military operations in Hpakant, Tanai, Putao and in the east of Waingmaw. But the attacks were neither large-scale nor long.

The regime attacked the KIA’s Lung Ja Bum base in the east of Momauk around the end of October. This was a medium-scale operation. Again, it was not conducted by battalions under the Northern Command alone.

Two tactical commands under the 7th Military Operations Command based in Shan State’s Pekon were used to reinforce junta bases in the area before the planned attack. Some 600 troops from six battalions of the Northern Command were then dispatched on the combat mission, assisted by air and artillery support.

The regime said it managed to seize the KIA base in the attack, but the KIA dismissed the claim. It is fair to say the KIA and the Kachin People’s Defense Force (KPDF), which operates under the KIA’s command, are sufficiently well-prepared and well-equipped to repulse small- and medium-scale regime attacks.

The heaviest losses sustained by the KIA since the coup were as a result of junta bombings on ANang Pa in Hpakant. The commander of the KIA’s Brigade 9 died in the air raid. Earlier, KIA Brigade 8 deputy commander was arrested. But such attacks by the regime are still far from causing devastating damage to the KIA.

KIA troops in northern Kachin State / The Irrawaddy

There have been reports that the regime is planning to conduct an aerial attack on the KIA’s headquarters in Laiza. But such reports are not new.

The KIA has grown in number due to the KPDF forces, which have a strong presence along the Mogaung-Hopin-Mohnyin-Namar road and railroad.

Reports from the ground say junta troops dare not go beyond Nan Yin Creek in the east of Mohnyin and Hopin, with the KIA apparently taking control of a place locally known as Kauk Kwe Kwin between Myitkyina-Yangon railroad and the Irrawaddy River.

Over the past 20 months since the Alaw Bum fighting, the KIA has also fought in neighboring Sagaing, apart from training PDFs. There were large-scale attacks in Pinlebu and Banmauk. Twenty months is enough to train and arm the KPDFs in Kachin.

So, we can expect to see major attacks in Kachin soon.

Ko Oo is an ethnic affairs analyst.