MAI JA YANG / LAIZA, Kachin State – As Gen. Gun Maw, the deputy chief of staff for the armed wing of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), meets this week with his Burmese counterparts in Rangoon as part of a joint meeting with the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT), his subordinates stationed at Ban Du Kawng post near Mai Ja Yang, the KIO’s second-largest town, will keep a watchful eye on the Burma Army post on the next hilltop.
Despite the handshaking in Rangoon, KIO forces on the frontline still have ample reason to remain vigilant.
“They came up from over there and had us surrounded,” says Sgt. La Mai, recounting a sneak attack in early 2012 when the Ban Du Kawng post came under heavy assault from the Burma Army. “The shells they fired made a lot of smoke so we couldn’t see them.”
KIO forces managed to hold their position for the two-day siege, suffering only minor shrapnel wounds although they appeared to have been seriously outnumbered. “We only had seven soldiers on duty at the time,” says the sergeant. When the dust settled, KIO forces burned all the brush surrounding their post to prevent any more surprises. Thanks to the burn off, the post is now surrounded by a blackened moonscape.
The sergeant, a 14-year veteran of the KIO, had up until the outbreak of hostilities in June 2011 never fired his weapon in combat. Now he’s a seasoned combatant, responsible for inflicting serious casualties on a force far superior in strength to his own. As to just how many army soldiers were lost that day, La Mai and his colleagues don’t really know.
“We heard they lost many men but we could only see one body,” says the soft-spoken soldier. According to La Mai, that body remained for months in the middle of the heavily mined no man’s land, until the vultures eventually devoured all that remained of the young man who was sent by his superiors on what proved to be a completely futile mission.
More than a year has passed since troops at La Mai’s post last exchanged fire with their Burmese counterparts on the next hilltop, less than 300 meters away, but the sergeant keeps his machine gun, made in house by the KIO, with him at all times. Both sides exchange nothing beyond cold stares these days, but in this corner of eastern Kachin State relations are not exactly stable.
A few miles away is the village of Nam Lim Pa, which until last November was home to a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs). The Burma Army took Nam Lim Pa just minutes after an aid convoy from a humanitarian group affiliated with the Burmese Catholic church entered the KIO-controlled village via government territory, according to local aid workers.
The unexpected attack which forced nearly all of the inhabitants to flee wasn’t the first time during this conflict that the army stood accused of taking advantage of a humanitarian relief convoy to make territorial gains. An internal UN memo obtained by The Myanmar Times newspaper early last year described how UN staff participating in an aid convoy in the jade-rich Hpakant region witnessed “trucks with government soldiers taking advantage of the passage of the aid convoy to take new positions.”
Speaking to a group of Christian Kachin pastors in Myitkyina, the Kachin State capital, in March, President Thein Sein recited a biblical passage. “Peace I bequeath to you; My peace I give to you. Do not allow you hearts to be distrusted or intimidated,” state media quoted the president as saying, in a gesture of goodwill that would have been unthinkable coming from his predecessor Snr-Gen Than Shwe. Despite lofty rhetoric about the benefits of “unity in diversity,” few Kachin appear to be convinced that Thein Sein or the military are genuinely interested in peace.
In early February, a little more than a month before Thein Sein’s Myitkyina visit, the army attacked and quickly took over two outposts close to the KIO’s defacto capital, Laiza. This attack combined with regular skirmishes between the two sides in northern Shan State have served to reinforce the widespread feeling among many Kachin that a return to full-scale fighting, last seen in January 2013, could break out at any time.
Peace talks between the KIO and their counterparts from the central government have continued on a regular basis over the past two years but a breakthrough has yet to materialize. Sumlut Gam, a senior member of the KIO’s negotiation team and the group’s education minister, told The Irrawaddy during a recent interview at his office in Laiza what his side wants. “We the negotiating team are asking for a federal state with self-determination and equal rights for the Kachin and the Burmese,” he said.
“We’ve had 16 meetings with the government but they don’t want to agree to our proposals for federalism or self-determination. This is why they [the talks] have carried on for a long time.”
One of biggest sticking points, he says, is the KIO’s proposals for the sharing of Kachin State’s extensive natural resources, which the government side has so far declined to discuss.
Sumlut Gam’s colleague Gun Maw, who in addition to being deputy chief serves as the KIO’s foreign minister, is often the most prominent KIO official at the talks. He faults the government’s insistence on having an end to the fighting without allowing for meaningful change to the ethnic state of affairs as the reason there hasn’t been an agreement.
“The problem continues to exist because the Burmese government only wants to sign an agreement to cease the fighting,” he told The Irrawaddy during a stopover in Thailand in February. “But, what we want is to sign an agreement that has definitive plans for what comes next after we stop the fighting.
“The reason for this is that, although we were in a 17-year ceasefire agreement before, no constructive dialogue nor discussion came out of it. So, this time, having learned from our past experience, we want agreement if we are going to sign a ceasefire one more time. One that promises a well-oriented and meaningful political work plan for the future.”
Even if a far-reaching Kachin ceasefire is agreed to by both sides in the near future, the Kachin people’s long-standing political, economic and social grievances that have fueled the conflict and galvanized Kachin public support for the KIO will hardly disappear overnight. “We hate the military because of what they’ve done to our people,” says La Mai, the sergeant, echoing a sentiment shared by many of his fellow Kachin that is unlikely dissipate any time soon.