Maija Yang, Myanmar – Even as the Burmese government initiates political reforms in much of the country, it has intensified an ethnic civil war here in the resource-rich hills of northern Myanmar, a conflict that at once threatens its warming trend with the United States and could alienate Chinese officials concerned about stability on the border.
This month hundreds of mortar rounds fired by the Burmese military landed within miles of this town near the mountainous Chinese border. International human rights groups and soldiers and officials of the Kachin ethnic group say that Burmese soldiers have burned and looted homes, planted mines, forcibly recruited villagers as porters and guides, and raped, tortured and executed civilians. Several thousand villagers have fled to China. Tens of thousands more who have been displaced could follow if the Burmese Army continues its offensive, local relief workers say.
Lazum Bulu will not be going farther. Exhausted by the flight from her village, she died on Jan. 10 in a bare concrete room in a camp here for the displaced. People said she was 107. Her body lay on blankets on the floor. “I regret that my mother can’t be buried with my father,” said her daughter, Hkang Je Mayun. “The Burmese Army was coming, and we didn’t want to live in the village anymore. We were afraid they would kill all the Kachin people.”
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The fighting has raised questions about the limits of the reform agenda pushed by President Thein Sein, Myanmar’s first civilian president in nearly 50 years, who has led the opening to the West. Some analysts in Myanmar say Mr. Thein Sein has been unable or unwilling to control the generals pressing the war.
Myanmar, formerly Burma, is riddled with ethnic civil conflicts, but this is the largest, with the greatest at stake. Right on the Chinese border, Kachin State is rich in jade, gold and timber, and has rivers that are being exploited by Chinese hydropower projects. Part of the state has long been controlled by the Kachin Independence Army and its political wing, which levies taxes on all commerce. The army allowed a reporter and a photographer recently to visit an area rarely seen by Western reporters for one week.
Both the United States and China would like to see the war resolved: the Chinese to ensure stability on the border and access to resources and important power projects; the United States to forestall the kinds of abuses by the Burmese military that present one of the biggest obstacles as President Obama considers lifting economic sanctions. At the same time, some Chinese officials and executives might welcome Burmese military control of the resource-rich areas, preferring to cut deals with the Burmese rather than the Kachin, foreign analysts say.
Some Kachin commanders say one factor that rekindled the war last June after a 17-year cease-fire may have been a desire by the Burmese military to widen its control of the areas with Chinese energy projects.
Such projects are a source of tension. After protests last year by Kachin civilians, Mr. Thein Sein suspended the planned Myitsone Dam, which was being built by a Chinese company in a part of the state controlled by the Burmese. That angered Chinese officials and executives, some of whom suspect Mr. Thein Sein of trying to wean Myanmar off its overreliance on China and to encourage investment from the West.
Despite the war against the Kachin, Mr. Thein Sein, a former general, has tried to quell other ethnic conflicts and push reforms, like his release of 651 prisoners last week. After the release, the Obama administration upgraded relations by agreeing to exchange ambassadors.
American officials have told Myanmar, which reached a cease-fire agreement on Jan. 12 with a major ethnic Karen army, that it must prove its commitment to reforms by resolving its many other ethnic conflicts, including the Kachin war. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the main opposition leader, has said the same. On Dec. 10, Mr. Thein Sein ordered a halt to attacks against the Kachin, but Burmese commanders have carried on.
Kachin officials said they held inconclusive negotiations this week with the Burmese in a Chinese border town; talks held last fall failed.
Chinese officials are anxious about the refugees. Since June, about 7,000 have fled to China, and 50,000 or so are displaced on this side of the border, said Lahkang May Li Awng, director of a local aid organization.
The Chinese government has made no formal statement about the war, but analysts in Beijing say officials want a settlement.
“With the military conflict, Chinese companies operating in the area are definitely affected,” said Xu Liping, a scholar of Southeast Asia at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “China obviously hopes the Myanmar government and the local Kachin regime can seek reconciliation together and treat regional development as a priority.”
At the conflict’s resumption in early June, the Burmese military attacked a Kachin post at Bum Sen, near a hydropower project operated by the China Datang Corporation that sends 90 percent of its electricity to China. Chinese workers fled, but the project resumed operations last month.
A major cause of the fighting was a government push in 2009 to get all the ethnic militias to disarm and join the Border Guard Force. A few groups agreed, but most balked. The Kachin intensified their military training. Their leaders now say they will not enter into another cease-fire unless Mr. Thein Sein can guarantee real political dialogue. Their aim is to maintain autonomy. Independent Kachin candidates were barred from taking part in the parliamentary elections of November 2010.
“We want our autonomous area,” said Brig. Gen. Sumlut Gun Maw, 49, as he sat in the Kachin army’s command center in a hotel in Laiza, a Christmas tree and a portrait of Jesus against one wall. (Most Kachin are Christians, while most Burmese are Buddhists.) “But they couldn’t address this problem by means of politics, so they decided to do it by means of arms.”
The general said at least 140 Kachin soldiers had been killed out of a force of more than 10,000, and he estimated that there had been 1,000 battles or skirmishes since June. There are no accurate numbers for civilians killed or wounded.
The Kachin army has lost significant territory in recent months, and it and the civilians are now pressed up against the Chinese border. Its bases are mostly huts strung along ridges or at roadsides. Soldiers carry old automatic rifles, and some have slingshots tucked into their belts. Much of the recent fighting has been near Maija Yang, the second-largest town under Kachin control and a place that once drew Chinese gamblers with its Chinese-run casinos.
This month, residents heard heavy mortar fire from dawn until late night. The barrages lessened after two Kachin posts on a strategic road were taken. Now residents fear Maija Yang could soon fall. The commanders of the Third Brigade of the Kachin army have abandoned their headquarters here and retreated to an old base in the mountains. They are also evacuating amputee soldiers.
“I think it’s impossible for us to defend our territory because of the unequal strengths of the two armies,” said Cpl. Waje Naw Ja, 32, as he lay in a hospital bed stained with dried blood, his right leg amputated below the knee because of a landmine wound. Both sides are rampantly planting mines.
The Kachin government is struggling to support the displaced civilians. Camps here and in China lack adequate food, health care and education facilities. Outside Laiza, a camp of 5,000 people has sprung up, with three families squeezed into each bamboo hut and the air smoky with cooking fires. The Burmese government has allowed United Nations agencies to enter the Kachin areas only once.
“We’re so scared now; we think it’s a curse to be Kachin,” Hpakum Kaw, 50, said the day after arriving in the camp outside Laiza with her husband and daughter.
She said the family fled their village after it came under mortar fire and was occupied by Burmese soldiers. On Jan. 6, the soldiers arrested a village representative and began circulating a list of names of wanted men that included her husband, she said. About 200 Kachin households have fled, and only 20 or so remain, she said.
At least 10,000 displaced people live in camps in areas controlled by the Burmese government. In one of them, run by a Baptist church in the town of Bhamo, a father of three said he was one of five men from his village pressed into service as porters and guides by Burmese soldiers in October. The Burmese fired mortars right before entering. One boy was killed, and many of the villagers fled, said the father, Tumai Nhkum, 29. The soldiers ransacked shops and homes, burning down one, and shot farm animals. They stayed three days, then marched onward with the porters.
Tumai Nhkum said he had to carry radio batteries, rice and a typewriter captured from the Kachin army. The porters were beaten, then let go after 20 days.
“I cried when I was finally released because I was so worried about my children,” he said. “I went straight back to my family and brought them here, where it’s safer. I don’t know when I’ll be able to return.”