LAIZA, Kachin State — In the northern reaches of Burma, Laiza is a small town near the Chinese border with a reputation for being the headquarters of a major rebel group known as the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO).
Although the town is run by ethnic Kachin who have fought against Burma’s central government for decades, police officers can be seen in the downtown area, monitoring and managing traffic.
Just over the border from China’s Yunnan Province, Chinese words are written on billboards in the town, and on signs for hotels and restaurants. Most shopkeepers are ethnic Chinese, speaking Chinese languages with their families, although they have lived in Burma for decades and can also communicate fluently in Burmese.
Before setting up their headquarters in Laiza, the KIO only placed a border gate at the town, allowing troops to collect taxes from traders and merchants on the Sino-Burma border. The town was a village back then, but after the KIO military wing, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), developed a bigger presence in 2002, more hotels, schools, markets and phone shops sprang up, with Chinese goods exchanged easily over the border to fuel demand. These days the city relies mainly on Chinese products—from infrastructure and technology to daily goods such as cooking oil, drinking water, soap and shampoo. Cars, motorbikes and telephones all come from China.
Most hotels, including the Laiza hotel, are owned by the KIO government. The town itself is run by the rebel group’s general administration body, which, unlike most other ethnic rebel administrative bodies, has its own immigration department, municipal department, police team, military and firefighting force. The KIO has also established a taxation system and a health care system, and it provides electricity to local residents.
Col Maram Zau Tawng, a military official at the KIO research department, said that despite the town’s reputation, Laiza was not the rebel group’s true headquarters. “We have our headquarters in Laision, about 100 miles north of Laiza,” he said. “We have a central committee office, a council office, and offices of other respective departments in Laision region.”
With an estimated 15,000 soldiers, the KIA is the second-largest ethnic rebel group in Burma, after the United Wa State Army (UWSA). It signed a ceasefire agreement with the government in 1994, but that deal broke down over two years ago and fighting renewed.
Under President Thein Sein, the KIO is the the only major rebel group that has yet to sign an individual ceasefire with the government. The Kachin rebels are also believed to be leaders in politics among ethnic organizations, inviting rebel groups from around the country to Laiza this week for a conference to discuss their objectives for peace talks.
The KIO also has its hands in entertainment in Laiza. It opened a library, owns a golf field and operates a television channel as well as a radio station, Laiza FM. It has also established military training centers to recruit and teach new members.
Facebook is restricted in Laiza, as the Internet service providers are all from China, where the social network is officially banned. Chinese cultural practices seem to have influenced the Kachin community, as local residents use chopsticks and China-made plates, and most foods are cooked in traditional Chinese styles. People buy and sell goods in Chinese yuan, although visitors can use Burmese kyats.
A Chinese manager of a mobile phone shop in the downtown area held a Chinese ID card. “I can speak Burmese language well because we have been living in Laiza for more than two decades. My family has done business here for a long time,” she said.
Dau Htaw, a Kachin construction engineer, said almost all Kachin residents in the town speak Chinese. “If they can’t speak Chinese well, they can at least speak a little to communicate. Stores and shops are mostly owned by the Chinese. They are traders,” Dau Htaw added.
Under KIO control, Laiza had grown to a population of 5,000 people. However, after Burmese government troops launched an offensive late last year against KIO bases, including in Laiza, residents fled over the border into China. Others went to Myitkyina, the government-controlled capital of Kachin State. Local residents say their neighbors fled because they feared war.