Nestled in a central Kachin State river valley sits the besieged city of Laiza. If it wasn’t for the recent bout of fighting that has sent tens of thousands of refugees into neighboring China, most people outside Burma would never have heard of Laiza. Even inside Burma it was little known until 1994, when it was built up from a village and later became the headquarters of the Kachin Independence Organization and its armed wing, the Kachin Independence Army.
Virtually untouched by Western influence, Chinese casinos jostle for space alongside fabrics workshops and snooker halls while boys imitate the fighting by manning imaginary roadblocks. A large proportion of its people have fled since fighting in the area intensified late last year, a year and a half after hostilities resumed in June 2011 following the collapse of a 17-year ceasefire. But those who remain have adopted a stoic acceptance of their situation, and struggle to maintain something resembling a normal life amid the chaos of conflict.
The hotly-contested region around Laiza is at a crossroads between China’s Yunnan Province and Burma, drawing both a large trade in goods and the eye of the Burmese government to the area. While the government’s military wages war on the KIA, the KIO has created a functioning mini-state, complete with a civil service, policing, fire departments and health care, providing much-needed support to the people of Kachin State living in KIO-controlled areas.