CHIANG MAI — On Wednesday, as President Thein Sein released a Union Day speech that invoked a federal union as a path to peace in Burma, government troops held an operation that killed several Kachin troops and seized an outpost near rebel headquarters in northern Burma, a Kachin leader said.
Kachin Independence Army (KIA) Deputy Chief of Staff Gen. Gun Maw told The Irrawaddy during an interview in Chiang Mai, Thailand, that Burma Army soldiers overran a rebel platoon stationed in northern Bhamo Township about an hour’s drive from Laiza, a town on the Burma-China border where the KIA is headquartered.
“A KIA outpost was seized,” he said. “We lost two to three soldiers, but I don’t know the exact number of causalities yet.”
“Our frontline bases are being attacked under the pretext of a crackdown on illegal log traders,” Gun Maw said, adding that gun battles had continued until Wednesday evening.
Fighting began in the village of Ja Ing Yang on Monday and spread through the area near Laiza, a region that had enjoyed a year-long period of calm, Gun Maw said.
The KIA and Burma Army have been engaged in at times heavy fighting in Kachin State since June 2011, when a 17-year-old ceasefire broke down. In late 2012, fighting escalated and government fighter jets bombarded the lightly-armed guerrillas and ground troops surrounded their stronghold.
The government declared a unilateral ceasefire in mid-January 2013, but fighting continued around Laiza for another month, and subsequent rounds of ceasefire talks failed to produce results.
In recent months, the Burma Army carried out operations in KIA territory in Mansi Township, southern Kachin State, ostensibly to target illegal loggers. The operations led to skirmishes with the KIA, while thousands of Kachin villagers were forced to flee the area.
On Thursday, an article in Burmese-language state media mentioned the latest fighting between the Burma Army and “an armed group” in Kachin State, without naming the KIA. The article said government soldiers had tried to stop a convoy of trucks carrying illegal timber near Ja Ing Yang village in Bhamo Township when members of an armed group tried to interfere in order to protect the timber traders.
A gun battle ensued in which one soldier was injured, the report said, adding that 44 trucks carrying 1,500 tons of illegally logged timber were seized while they were on their way to the China border.
Gun Maw said the Burma Army operation against the logging trucks had been carried out in KIA-controlled area and amounted to an incursion into rebel-held territory, adding that the army could have stopped the logging trucks before they reached the KIA area.
“Illegal logging occurs mostly within Sagaing Division, where loggers cut those valuable trees inside forest reserves. The problem could be solved if they [the government] stop them from logging in these reserves instead of cracking down at the border paths,” he said. “The [military] engagements occur as they catch them on the way of transport near border.”
Illegal timber trade in Burma has seen huge amounts of high-grade timber disappear over the border into China, where the luxury wood is highly prized. The timber, with an estimated value of US$252 million in 2012, is transported through Kachin State and both the Burma Army and rebels are said to tax the trade in order to support their troops.
“The illegal logging issue is complicated,” Gun Maw said. “There are people who benefit from this trade on both sides, in KIA and the government, they are taking bribes. We have to find a way to solve this issue, instead of blaming each other.”
Gun Maw said the clashes endangered the planned nationwide ceasefire talks between Minister Aung Min’s peace negotiation team and the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordinating Team (NCCT), which represents 16 of Burma biggest armed ethnic groups.
“It is unacceptable that government troops attack the KIA, while they are talking about a nationwide ceasefire with the NCCT,” he said. “We are preparing to inform about these incidents to the Myanmar Peace Center, as well as the [peace talks] observers—the United Nations and the China representatives.”
The ethnic rebels groups are scheduled to hold ceasefire talks with the government in the Karen State capital Hpa-an next month.
President Thein Sein’s government is eager to sign a nationwide ceasefire agreement with the groups in order to show the international community that is making progress in resolving Burma’s decades-old ethnic conflicts.