LAJAYANG, Burma—Rolling back a blanket to show a right leg clad in a thick white bandage, *Tin Maung Win sighs and slowly manages a rueful half-smile.
“I want to go home but cannot yet, because of this injury,” he says, pointing to his quadriceps, shredded by a bullet where the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) shot him.
From Shan State in eastern Burma, Tin Maung Win is one of four Burma Army soldiers lying in a room in farmhouse 20 meters from the main road from Laiza, the KIA’s current headquarters, to Myitkyina, the government-controlled regional capital of the resource-rich northern region. The KIA and the Burma Army have fought a renewed war since June 2011, fighting that has driven around 100,000 civilians from their homes.
Two of the captives are Burman, the majority ethnic group in the country, with one young soldier from Chin State in the country’s northwest making up the quartet sharing their grim would-be prison.
Kyaw Kyaw, a former student protestor during the 1988 demonstrations against military rule and part of the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF), is keeping watch on the captured soldiers.
He says that despite the much-lauded reforms undertaken by the current Burmese government, which is formally civilian, he still wants to fight. So, the ABSDF is on the frontline here with the KIA, where on Dec. 14 a fierce battle took place in the shade of a Buddhist shrine about a half-mile on out the road toward Myitkyina.
“On D14 we fought from morning ’til night, like cat and dog,” he recalls, with a hint of relish.
“D14”, shorthand for Dec. 14, is now part of the Kachin lexicon, with locals still coming to terms with one of the heaviest battles of the now 18-month war, a fight that if lost could have put the KIA’s valley headquarters under direct threat.
With an estimated 70 government soldiers dug in on a hill overlooking the road, but otherwise cut off from their colleagues, the KIA and ABSDF sought to prevent army reinforcements from getting to the government troops, saying that if the government forces supplied heavy artillery to the hillside, the town of Laiza could be within reach of mortar fire.
One of the four captives, *Myint Aung, raises from behind a blanket he had drawn halfway up his face, when asked what the Burmese objectives were on Dec. 14.
Before he can answer, however, Kyaw Kyaw interjects. “They want to capture Laiza,” he exclaims, pulling on a cheroot. Asked again, Myint Aung says he does not want to discuss army matters in such detail.
Whatever the Burma Army intends for Laiza, tensions are palpable in the town and the KIA imposed a curfew in Laiza on Christmas Eve, telling residents to be indoors by 9 pm and to stock up on food and water. That threat passed, though the following day, even as Christmas festivals took place for more than 7,000 temporary residents of the Jeyang camp, a 20-minute drive outside Laiza, shelling was heard again at Lajayang.
At the Burmese outpost captured by the KIA at Lajayang on Dec. 14, spent cartridges and casing from rifle-fired grenades litter the ground under walls pockmarked with bullet holes and flecks of blood.
A KIA soldier points to a mound of earth between piles of upended and twisted corrugated iron. “One Tatmadaw buried here,” he says, referring to a casualty from the Burma Army. “Two buried here, and, follow me,” he adds, imploring to an open field just behind. “Twelve buried here,” he says, pointing to a five-meter-wide patch of recently dug ground.
And with the Burma Army’s northern commander telling the KIA to leave Lajayang in a letter sent on Sunday—despite ongoing but stalled talks between government peace brokers and the KIA—it seems there will be more bodies to be buried, sooner rather than later, on the hills and valleys of this rebel-held enclave, backed up against the border with China’s Yunnan province.
*pseudonym used to protect the identity of captured soldiers