Ethnic minority rebels say the government army is heating up its offensive in northern Burma, with artillery shelling from jet fighters and helicopters reportedly landing on the border with China.
Speaking from the frontlines on Wednesday, Burmese war photographer John Sanlin said two rocket shellings landed Monday evening on the border with China’s Yunnan Province, just opposite the town of Laiza in northern Kachin State, where ethnic rebels from the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) make their headquarters.
Hla Seng, a soldier from the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF), an armed group fighting alongside Kachin rebels, confirmed that the shelling had landed on Chinese soil on Monday.
He said the fighting was continuing on Wednesday morning, with the government army sending four helicopter gunships, including Mi-24s, to fire on KIA bases at about 11 am in Lajayang, a strategic region about 11 miles from Laiza.
“They [the government army] have been attacking us non-stop by using the planes for six days. Now, they’re heating up the war by using jet fighters, helicopter gunships, artillery weapons and chemical weapons,” he told The Irrawaddy in a phone call from the region, with gunfire heard clearly in the background.
On Tuesday, he said, jet fighters and helicopters attacked KIA bases in Lajayang and Nasam Yang regions three times.
The KIA first reported air attacks by the government army last week on Friday morning.
A top government official denied on Wednesday that it had launched an air offensive. In an interview with London-based BBC, Zaw Htay, director of the President’s Office in Naypyidaw, said the government army had not used the fighter jets or helicopter gunships for military purposes, but only to resupply troops on the frontlines.
“It’s just propaganda,” Hla Seng said of Zaw Htay’s statement, adding that the air strikes on KIA bases had been ongoing for six days.
“The more casualties and injuries they [the government army] suffers, the more troops and planes they send,” he said.
The war has escalated in Kachin State since a 17-year-old ceasefire broke down between the government army and the KIA, which is fighting for greater autonomy and basic rights.
Ethnic minority leaders and government officials have met for peace talks but have yet to reach any tangible results.
The conflict has made international headlines in recent months and is increasingly drawing attention on social media websites such as Facebook, where Kachins have posted comments about the attacks and their suffering.
Lamai Gum Ja, a Kachin national who leads the Kachin Peace-Talk Creation Group, condemned the use of air strikes in a civil war.
“I think it’s inappropriate,” he said. “It [the air strikes] can harm the peacemaking process too.”
The air strikes began last week after the government army ordered the KIA to vacate a strategic route to Lajayang.
Brig-Gen Tun Tun Naung, a northern commander of the government army, sent an order on Dec. 23 for Kachin fighters to leave the route by Dec. 25, saying government soldiers would be deployed there to work on administrative processes.
But the KIA refused to respect the order, keeping its position on the route to protect its nearby headquarters.
About 100,000 Kachin civilians have been displaced since the ceasefire broke down, taking refuge in camps on the Sino-Burma border.
The government has prevented international aid groups from helping internally displaced persons (IDPs) in rebel-held territory, and the United Nations has been unable to investigate the latest conditions on the ground.
On Tuesday, hundreds of Burmese activists in Rangoon also launched a protest in the heart of Burma’s biggest city, calling for an end to the war.