RANGOON — Two Burma Army helicopters and possibly one aircraft were shot down by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) during the heavy fighting in the mountains of northern Burma in 2012 and early 2013, according to a recent report by IHS Jane’s Defence.
The UK publication, which specializes in military and defense industry issues, also cited blogs that claimed the Burma Army suffered a staggering death toll of 5,000 casualties during the conflict.
In a recent article, the magazine stated, “At least two helicopters and possibly one fixed-wing aircraft were lost to ground fire or mechanical failure during the operations” to encircle the KIA headquarters in Laiza, located in a mountain valley on the Burma-China border.
In January 2013, the Associated Press reported that the KIA claimed to have shot down a Mi-35, a Russian-made military transport helicopter with attacking capabilities. Presidential spokesman Ye Htut said at the time that the helicopter had made an “an emergency landing” during which two pilots and a sergeant were killed.
Burma expert Bertil Lintner, who has written several books on the country’s ethnic conflict, said, “I believe the helicopter was shot down by a 50 calibre sniper gun, a heavy machine gun. A very lucky shot,” adding that the rifle had probably been supplied to the KIA by the United Wa State Army (UWSA).
Jane’s Defence asserted that the Kachin conflict, which erupted in mid-2011 after a 17-year ceasefire collapsed, had been one of the largest military operations the Burma Army had ever carried out and the problems in using its aircraft and helicopters showcased the limits of its modernizing and expanding air force.
“In both new fixed-wing and rotary-wing capabilities, regional analysts note that a lack of pilot experience and weaknesses in maintenance and ground-to-air links still limit the operational effectiveness of the [Myanmar Air Force],” the magazine wrote.
“These assessments appeared to be borne out in the Laiza campaign from December 2012 to January 2013, when [Myanmar Air Force] ground-attack operations involving K-8s, G-4s, and Mi-35s were filmed for the first time by independent media,” the report said.
The magazine went on to cite unnamed blogs that have reported that the Kachin offensive had led to the deaths of thousands of Burma Army soldiers between 2011 and February 2013, when the fighting finally quieted down.
“According to statistics on pro-government military blog sites, between June 2011 and the beginning of the Laiza campaign in mid-December 2012, at least 5,000 Tatmadaw troops died in Kachin state. The Laiza campaign and smaller operations since then will have added several hundred fatalities to that toll,” the magazine said.
KIA sources have confirmed to The Irrawaddy in unofficial comments that the Burma Army had suffered very heavy losses.
“We estimate the casualty rate could be between 1,000 and 5,000 soldiers,” a senior KIA commander told a reporter during a visit to Laiza in November. “They suffered a great number of causalities, but we don’t want to disclose it as it might raise tensions between us and the government army, while we are in the peace process.”
Lintner said of the death toll estimate, “It is hard to say, just that casualties were extremely heavy on the government’s side.”
A photo and video journalist who covered the fighting along the frontline in Kachin State has said he witnessed piles of bodies of Burma Army soldiers and porters that were forced to carry military equipment and supplies for the military.
Jane Defence said such casualty rates and ineffectual use of air power raised questions over whether Burma Army would have the capability to take on the UWSA, the country’s largest and best armed insurgent group, which numbers around 20,000 fighters—twice the size of the KIA’s armed forces.
“There is little to suggest today that the Tatmadaw is yet capable of the strategic co-ordination and tactical flexibility that war with the UWSA would demand,” according to Jane’s Defence. It added that the Burma Army would have to resort “to a strategy centered on efforts to divide and reduce insurgent foes with economic and financial inducements” if it would want to expand its control over the Wa.
An official at Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), told The Irrawaddy recently that UWSA commanders were well aware of the strength of their defensive position in Special Region 5 northern Shan State.
“The Wa officials told us that the Burmese government army might lose 50,000 of its soldiers if they try to take over their headquarters in Panghsang,” said the KNLA officer, who asked for anonymity as he was not authorized to speak about the UWSA military affairs.