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Mortar shells whistle through the air as young soldiers in military fatigues and AK-47s slung over their shoulders shoot past on motorbikes.
“The moment they hear gunfire, all the soldiers come to fight. Even if they’re not on duty,” explains an officer holding a crackling radio. He mans a Laja Yang border post tucked in the mountains seven miles southwest of the Kachin Independence Army’s (KIA) headquarters in Laiza.
Around the bend some 300 yards away rebels are launching shells at advancing Burmese troops, who are moving to resupply their forces. The Burmese forces respond by hurling bombs indiscriminately over the hillside.
A group of women with baskets and clutches of rice sit huddled a few miles down the dirt road that connects Laja Yang with Laiza. They explain that their village was hit by a stray shell for the second time in two weeks, and are now waiting for the fighting to simmer down before going back. Hoards of other IDPs (internally displaced persons) pass by in trucks as the rebels evacuate villages from further afield.
Government forces have been steadily closing in on Laiza since March, sparking rumours of a final assault to squash the rebels. But enclosed by mountains and nested against the Chinese border, the rebel base is strategically placed to fend off an invasion.
“They can’t just march into Laiza,” says Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) Joint General-Secretary La Nan. “We’ve been surrounded since November or December last year. Their plan is just to fire mortars from far away and make us restless and try to overwhelm us during [peace] negotiations.”
However the KIA is adamant that no agreement can be reached before the government agrees to pull back their advancing troops and invite international monitors to oversee the peace process. Beyond that, they want a political solution before a ceasefire is signed.
Unlike many of the other ethnic rebels, the KIA kept a 17-year truce with the government from 1994 until it broke down in June last year over a territorial dispute near the Chinese-backed Taping dam. During this time, the military increased its brigades in the region and foreign-led extractive projects multiplied. According to the Kachin Development Networking Group “vast amounts of natural resources in Kachin state were lost, natural habitats were depleted, and human rights [were] abused.”
Under growing pressure from locals, the KIA pushed back against the government, and nearly two decades later, they feel betrayed and determined not to make the same mistake twice. “It would have been much better if we hadn’t signed the 1994 agreement,” says La Nan. “Instead we should have had a political agreement.”
The government’s three-step peace plan has been heavily criticised for prioritising economic development ahead of political resolution. Both Karen and Shan rebels have agreed to defer discussions on these thorny topics until later in the process, but some analysts worry it will allow tensions to simmer unaddressed.
The controversial 2008 constitution, which affirms military control of ethnic minority regions, is another intractable source of contention for the Kachin. The KIO voiced their objections already during the drafting of the legislation, but were ignored. This issue is unlikely to be settled in the next rounds of meetings, despite President Thein Sein’s recent decision to reshuffle the government’s peace delegation.“I think both sides have to negotiate, they both have to reduce their demands to find a win-win solution.”
“We’ve heard that even with the new negotiating team led by the Vice President they want us to enter parliament under the 2008 constitution, and if they do there is no point to get an agreement,” shrugs La Nan. “We don’t care who we are going to meet, just what we are going to talk about.”
The vast majority of Kachin support their leadership, partially fuelled by an endemic fear that the Burmese army is out to exterminate the predominately Christian population. Reports of rights abuses committed with impunity by Burmese troops circulate freely among IDPs and villagers, and nationalist sentiments continue to flourish.
But some voices are more critical, insisting that the KIO’s current position is untenable.
“Both sides’ demands are very difficult to meet. The KIO wants political change first and a ceasefire later. But the government wants a ceasefire first and talks later,” says May Li Aung from the local humanitarian NGO Wunpawng Ninghtoi (WPN) set up in the wake of the conflict.
“I think both sides have to negotiate, they both have to reduce their demands to find a win-win solution. Right now they are just looking for a win-lose solution and that is impossible.”
The KIA admits they are outnumbered in troops and artillery, and some reports suggest that morale is tumbling. A former farmer recruited by the KIA last June explains that defections are on the rise and substance abuse among troops is rampant.
“I’m angry because I can’t go back to stay with my family,” says 31-year old soldier La Nan shaking his head. “Some soldiers ask me if I want to run away from the army with them, because they are so tired and afraid. So many people run away. Sometimes I want to run too, because it is so difficult to fight.”
He says drug addicts are ordered to chop wood as punishment, but are not usually removed from the frontlines. This contradicts the KIO, which claims to send addicts to their official drug rehabilitation centre for soldiers in Laiza, currently housing a mere dozen patients.
With an estimated 75,000 people displaced and growing food shortages, the humanitarian cost of the war is mounting. State media reported at least 29 Kachin fatalities earlier this month with dozens more wounded. Even in Laiza, the KIO lacks basic medical supplies to care for their casualties, relying on poorly trained staff and rudimentary equipment.
In the military hospital, perched on a remote precipice overlooking Laiza, a team of nurses scramble over a young soldier with blood gushing from his head. He convulses and expels heavy rasping breaths, as they struggle to remove a bullet lodged in his skull.
“We have no anaesthesia, so he has passed out,” explains a nurse before pouring disinfectant into the wound. The 32-year old Lance Corporal died a few hours later on his way to China for surgery.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon has called the Kachin conflict “inconsistent” with Burma’s democratic reforms, and the United Nationalities Federal Council recently urged the international community to step up pressure on the government. But with Western sanctions suspended and growing political deadlock, there is no immediate solution in sight.
“We might not win this war,” sighs soldier La Nan. “It’s very difficult. I just want to go home.”