TIME Burma

China Accuses Burmese Military of Fatal Bombing Across Border

Rebel soldiers of Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) patrol near a military base in Kokang region
Reuters Rebel soldiers of Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army patrol near a military base in Kokang region, in Burma, on March 10, 2015

Fighting between Burma's border-dwelling ethnic rebels and the central government is making Beijing increasingly tetchy

A sugarcane field in southwestern China became an unlikely battle zone on March 13 when five Chinese were killed by a bomb that fell out of the sky. Two days later, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang blamed the deaths on a Burmese military aircraft that had strayed over Chinese soil while skirmishing with the Kokang ethnic insurgency native to the borderlands between China and Burma, which is officially known as Myanmar. “We have the responsibility and the capacity to firmly safeguard the security and stability of the Chinese-Myanmar frontier,” said Li during his annual press conference, while also calling the strike in Yunnan province’s Lincang region “deeply distressing.”

In a statement released to TIME on Monday, the Burmese government insisted it was “maintaining [military] operations within the territory of Myanmar and respecting the territorial integrity and friendly relations between Myanmar and China.” And while expressing “deep sorrow for the death and injuries of Chinese nationals living in border areas,” and noting that a joint Sino-Burmese task force would be investigating the deaths further, the Burmese government also questioned “whether the Kokang insurgent group is involved in this incident to [create] a negative impact on the friendship between Myanmar and China and to create instability along the border area.”

Beijing, which is Burma’s largest investor, is surely not pleased by the latest tensions on its southwestern flank, which is the conduit for the many natural resources — jade, natural gas, timber, to name just three — that flow northward from Burma to a voracious China. Fighting, though, is nothing new along this volatile frontier. For generations, the Burmese military has battled various ethnic rebel groups that crowd the hills rising up toward the Chinese border. Despite promises of an imminent national cease-fire from Burma’s quasi-civilian government, which took over in 2011 from a long-ruling junta, clashes continue.

Recent hostilities involve the Kokang, the Kachin, the Shan and the Ta’ang, among other ethnic groups. The Kokang are ethnically Chinese and have long maintained political ties across the border. Some in the opium-tainted region once aligned themselves with the Kuomintang, the Chinese nationalist government that lost to the Communists during China’s civil war and fled to Taiwan. Other Kokang residents rallied around the communists and, like many other ethnic armies in northern Burma, received financial and tactical support from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.

These days, Beijing no longer openly backs rebel groups in Burma. Still, the Sino-Burmese boundary, some 2,000 km long, remains porous. When fighting occurs in Burma, ethnic refugees — not to mention their military leaders — escape to China’s Yunnan province, which is home to many of the same minorities. People flows are even more significant in the opposite direction. Tens of thousands of Chinese have crossed into Burma to access the nation’s treasure trove of natural resources. In parts of northern Burma, the Chinese currency is accepted and signs in Mandarin hang from storefronts.

The preponderance of Chinese businessmen in northern Burma has bred some ill feeling among locals, even if the Chinese are among the few investors willing to devote money to such an unstable region. One of Burmese President Thein Sein’s earliest — and most popular — directives was to suspend construction of a controversial dam in northern Kachin state that was being built by a Chinese state-owned firm. (Critics contend that construction is, in fact, ongoing.) Earlier this year, dozens of Chinese loggers were detained by Burmese authorities for working illegally in Kachin.

Chinese have long been quietly — and, on occasion, illegally — working in Burma. Last year, in a virtual no-man’s land between the Burmese army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which controls territory on the border with China, a crew of Chinese mine workers operated heavy machinery, tearing up the earth in search of gold. The Chinese foreman of the mine, which is being run by a state-owned enterprise from the Yunnan county of Tengchong, said there was no need for passports or visas or any such conventions of international travel to work the land in Nam San Yang. “We’re only a little bit over the border,” he said, as his men gathered for lunch in a bamboo shack overlooking a patch of earth that was the scene of fierce fighting between the Burmese army and the KIA. Today, the area is nominally controlled by the rebels, while the Burmese front-line positions are staked on a nearby hill. “Myanmar people, Kachin people, who knows, who cares about all those politics,” said a mine worker surnamed Chen, who earns $480 a month. “I’m just here to make money to take home to my family.” Such ambitions know no national boundaries.

TIME China

China Says It Will Decide Who the Dalai Lama Shall Be Reincarnated As

“It’s like Fidel Castro saying, ‘I will select the next Pope'"

The Dalai Lama has been described by Chinese government officials as a “wolf in monk’s robes,” and a “dangerous splittist” intent on cleaving the Chinese nation. On March 13, the Chinese Communist Party–linked Global Times kept up the decades-long attack on the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, denouncing him as a “double betrayer” who “keeps spouting nonsense” while devising “a sly trap.”

That supposed trap extends into the hereafter. Tibetan Buddhists believe the current Dalai Lama is the 14th reincarnation of a holy monk who lived in the 14th century. Now 79, and surely aware that his hopes for an autonomous Tibet are improbable, the Dalai Lama has raised several possibilities of what might happen after he dies. Perhaps he will choose his successor during his lifetime, contrary to the usual tradition of identifying the new Dalai Lama only after the death of the old one. Maybe his soul will transfer to a person outside of Tibet. Or perhaps, he has said most recently, the line of Dalai Lamas will end with him, if that is the wish of the Tibetan people.

No way, says the officially atheist Chinese Communist Party. Earlier this week, on the sidelines of China’s annual parliamentary session, Zhu Weiqun, head of an influential ethnic-and-religious-affairs committee, insisted that it was the Chinese government responsibility to designate the Dalai Lama’s successor. “The 14th Dalai Lama hasn’t shown a serious or respectful attitude on this issue,” Zhu said. “He sometimes says he will reincarnate as a foreigner in a place where he visits, sometimes to a woman. When someone gives him a bottle of honey, he would happily say he is going to become a bee in the next life.”

The Communist Party’s spiritual prerogative has stoked controversy before. In 1995, the Dalai Lama named a 6-year-old boy living in Tibet as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, widely considered the second-holiest monk in Tibetan Buddhism. The Chinese government then picked its own child. For 19 years, the Dalai Lama’s choice has not been seen in public, and his whereabouts are unknown.

Despite having fled over the Himalayas to exile in 1959, the Dalai Lama remains popular in his homeland. The Chinese government boasts about Tibet’s economic development, with growth reaching nearly 11% last year. But over the past four years, as government restrictions on Tibetan faith and culture have intensified, more than 130 Tibetans have immolated themselves to protest Chinese rule over the high plateau. In many cases, they have used their final words to express devotion to the Dalai Lama.

Members of the Tibetan exile community have also disparaged the ruling Communist Party’s insistence on dictating the Dalai Lama’s afterlife, which Chinese officials say reflect rules from the Qing Dynasty. “It’s like Fidel Castro saying, ‘I will select the next Pope and all the Catholics should follow,’” Lobsang Sangay, the Tibetan Prime Minister in exile, told Reuters earlier this week. “That is ridiculous.”

March is a sensitive month on the Tibetan plateau. The anniversary of a quelled uprising 56 years ago that led to the Dalai Lama’s exile falls on March 10. In mid-March 2008, Tibetan protesters fatally clashed with members of China’s Han ethnic majority and the Hui ethnic minority. Chinese authorities cracked down, leading to more deaths. In 2012, police fired on Tibetan protesters, killing two, according to exile organizations. This March 10, Tibetan exile groups claim an unarmed youth was shot after he ignored a police order to stop his motorbike while on his way to commemorate the 1959 revolt against Chinese rule. Four days earlier, a Tibetan woman from a nomadic family immolated herself on the eastern fringes of the Tibetan highlands.

TIME China

This Is What Communist Propaganda Looks Like These Days

Forget heroic workers trampling on imperialist aggressors. The Chinese Communist Party has made a video that comes across like one long corporate ad

The video features the Great Wall, a waving astronaut, a constellation of synchronized swimmers, a Muslim noodlemaker, a female bartender and, inexplicably, a juggling clown. Its purpose: to show the might and benevolence of Communist Party of China (CPC). Rereleased on Feb. 8 via the social-media accounts of the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s official mouthpiece, the video boasts the production values and soaring music of a multinational firm’s big-brand advertising campaign. In less than a day, the 3-min. 7-sec. film, which was also uploaded on Sunday on a popular online portal, had been watched more than 265,000 times.

“The 80 million CPC members, together with the entire population [of China], are working for everyone’s dreams,” declares a sonorous English voiceover. “Our people’s dreams are our goals.”

The film’s narrative arc references Chinese President Xi Jinping’s catchphrase, the Chinese Dream, which tries to fuse national pride with personal aspiration in order to make the Communist Party more relevant to China’s 1.3 billion citizens. Chinese voices articulate their own ambitions in the video. One person pines for bluer skies “and cleaner water.” Another wants “a pretty wife.” A child dreams of “a world free of wars.” (Xi, who took over as head of the Communist Party in late 2012 and has amassed more power in that time than his recent predecessors, appears in three of the film’s shots.)

Along the way, the video issues a torrent of inspirational platitudes. “On the road chasing our dreams, we walk side by side” viewers are told, “transcending differences and shaping the future together.”

The Communist Party’s publicity video, which originally appeared online more than a year ago to lesser fanfare, is credited to a production company called On the Road to Renewal (复兴路上) that previously made an animated film praising the Communist Party’s leaders. The film notes that while China is an “ancient and youthful country, it is growing fast yet with development disparities.” As if reading from a fortune cookie, the English narrator whose accent hovers over the Atlantic, neither British nor American — deems China “full of opportunities, along with untold challenges.” The video ends with a slogan that floats amid flashes of light and galactic gravitas. “The Communist Party of China,” it reads, “is with you along the way.”

Reaction from Chinese commenting online on Sunday was mixed, with supportive statements doing battle with ridicule. Pang Yanzhuo, whose verified Weibo account lists him as an independent photographer, struck a dismissive tone. “I’m an ordinary Chinese, not a party member,” he wrote. “The video mentioned 1.3 billion Chinese several times. What does that mean? It has nothing to do with me. Meanwhile, among the party members I know, none of them joined the party because they believe in its ideology. They merely want to get promotions or become rich. Is there anyone who really joined the party simply because of a devotion of spirit? If so, I want to know you.”

With reporting by Gu Yongqiang / Beijing

TIME mongolia

The Jailing of Foreigners in Mongolia Is Unnerving the Business Community

Justin Kapla
Justin Kapla/AP This undated photo provided by Justin Kapla shows Kapla, of SouthGobi Sands, a Mongolian mining company

In 2011, the resource-rich landlocked nation ranked as one of the fastest growing economies on earth, though falling commodity prices have since taken their toll

On Jan. 30, three men were sentenced to more than five years in prison for tax evasion in Ulan Bator, Mongolia’s capital. A tax case in a remote, landlocked nation’s capital might have gone unnoticed if not for the fact that the three men are foreigners: American Justin Kapla and Filipinos Hilarion Cajucom Jr. and Cristobal David. Rather than symbolizing due process in an emerging democracy, the trial’s numerous irregularities have raised fears that a country struggling with a resource curse has further dulled its economic prospects. Despite Mongolia’s trove of minerals, the first 11 months of 2014 saw foreign direct investment plummet 71%, year on year. “This case sends a message to foreign investors that if they want to do business here, they have to play by Mongolian rules,” says Munkhdul Badral Bontoi, a market analyst in Ulan Bator.

The three foreigners are former employees of a subsidiary of SouthGobi Resources, a Canadian mining outfit whose largest stakeholder is an arm of Rio Tinto, the Anglo-Australian mining giant. (Rio Tinto runs Oyu Tolgoi, the massive copper-and-gold mine that single-handedly contributes around 45% of Mongolia’s total exports.) SouthGobi, which was considering a majority-stake offer from a Chinese state-owned enterprise when its subsidiary’s offices were raided by Mongolian authorities in May 2012, was also fined around $18 million for evading taxes. The case dragged on for almost three years, with the expatriate trio barred from leaving the country, even though formal charges against them were not issued until just eight months ago.

U.S. Ambassador Piper Campbell attended the trial, and the U.S. embassy in Ulan Bator criticized the lack of adequate interpretation for the foreign defendants. “Because of these problems, the defendants stated during the trial that they could not understand the interpretation, nor could they express themselves clearly,” read a statement. “Mr. Kapla’s case has lasted nearly three years and the repeated delays and exit ban have caused him enormous hardship.”

Jackson Cox, chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Ulan Bator, who also attended the trial, had other serious concerns. “I want to be talking about investment and stronger trade between Mongolia and the U.S., but this makes it very hard for any of us, whether it’s the government or the private sector,” he says.

Mongolia’s economy has traced a roller-coaster journey in recent years. In 2011, the resource-rich nation ranked as one of the fastest growing economies on earth. In the previous decade, Mongolia’s economy had expanded tenfold, a remarkable development for a country that peacefully traded Soviet satellite status for democracy in 1990. But as resource nationalists claimed more political airspace, the welcome for foreign investment soured. Trading on fears that Mongolia’s mineral patrimony was being stolen by rapacious outsiders, foreign investment laws tightened. Further development of the Oyu Tolgoi mine has stalled, as Rio Tinto and the government bicker over how revenues will be apportioned, delaying billions of dollars in financing. In 2013, scores of mining projects were scrutinized by local courts, with some exploration licenses pulled for alleged graft. Meanwhile, global commodity prices have declined, further wounding the Mongolian economy.

Facing an economic crisis, Mongolians may be ready to reconsider the need for foreign investment. Earlier this year, the government designated nearly one-fifth of the country ready for new mineral exploration, a move opposed not only by resource nationalists but environmentalists as well. Some of the mining-exploration licenses that had been suspended two years ago are being restored. This month, the results of a referendum held by text message, under the direction of new Prime Minister Chimed Saikhanbileg, found that more than half of 302,000 respondents — around 10% of the national population, although some people have more than one mobile phone number — wanted major projects like Oyu Tolgoi to move forward rather than accept budgets cuts and other belt-tightening measures.

SouthGobi and the three men plan to appeal the sentences. The case has highlighted perceived flaws in Mongolia’s judicial system, even as President Tsakhia Elbegdorj vows legal reform. Legal observers wonder why the tax authorities were not more involved in the trial, which was considered a criminal rather than a civil case. Kapla only had executive authority at the SouthGobi subsidiary for six months of the five-year period during which the mining firm was accused of tax delinquency. The day before the sentencing, the prosecutor advised the court that the three men should be subject to fines, without recommending jail time. The next day, however, the prosecutor said the men deserved six years’ imprisonment.

Other cases have raised eyebrows. Last year, the former chairman of the nation’s Petroleum Authority, Dashzeveg Amarsaikhan, died unexpectedly while in custody as a suspect in a money-laundering case. His supporters allege he had complained of ill health while in prison but his requests for medical care were ignored. He died at the same Detention Facility 461 where the three SouthGobi former employees are now being held.

TIME Tibet

China Takes a Predictably Harsh Line on Obama’s Meeting With the Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama talks to the media after a meeting with President Barack Obama in Washington
Yuri Gripas—Reuters Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama walks outside the White House after his meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington on Feb. 18, 2010

To Beijing, a breakfast isn't simply a breakfast. It's tantamount to backing Tibetan independence

It took three days for China’s official media to react to the news that the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, will join U.S. President Barack Obama at a National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 5. But Beijing’s response, now that it has finally come, is not joyous.

“Obama is acquiescing to the Dalai Lama’s attempt to split Tibet from China,” went a Monday op-ed in the China Daily, the Chinese government’s English-language mouthpiece.

“Tibet is an inseparable part of China,” it continued. “The Dalai Lama’s flight from China’s Tibet in 1959 was because of his failed attempt to maintain the serfdom in the region, under which the majority of Tibetans were slaves leading a life of unimaginable misery.”

The official Chinese narrative holds that Tibet trembled under the fist of Buddhist monks before the People’s Liberation Army marched in more than six decades ago. Since then, living standards in Tibet have increased; this year, the Chinese government has projected 12% growth in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, higher than in most other parts of the country.

But many Tibetans decry the Chinese government’s systematic repression of their religious and cultural freedoms. Possessing the Dalai Lama’s image can land Tibetans in jail, even though he has repeatedly said he is not calling for an independent Tibet but rather one in which local traditions are respected.

Tibetan monks are regularly required to denounce their spiritual leader in communist-run re-education classes. So profound is the despair among some Tibetans that more than 130 people have committed suicide since 2009 by setting themselves on fire, according to exile organizations. As they burn, self-immolators reserve their final breaths to praise the Dalai Lama and denounce Chinese rule.

More than half a century of anti-Dalai Lama propaganda has failed. The Tibetan leader is still widely venerated across the high plateau. Even Tibetan government officials are not immune, with Chinese state media reporting a crackdown on cadres who “are suspected of providing intelligence to the Dalai Lama’s separatist forces.” Last year, 15 Tibetan officials were punished for “serious violations in discipline.”

Obama has met with the Dalai Lama three times before, but always in a private setting. The National Prayer Breakfast marks the first time the pair will appear in public together. Chinese state media reported that a Chinese Vice Foreign Minister summoned a U.S. diplomat in Beijing to register official displeasure with the Feb. 5 event. News of the National Prayer Breakfast, however, will likely take time to reach parts of Tibet. Since the spike in self-immolations, Internet and phone lines have been severed in some regions.

TIME China

What’s the Priority for Chinese Colleges? ‘Studying and Propagating Marxism’

Students walk down a flight of stairs outside a dining hall at the campus of a university in Zhengzhou
Reuters Students walk down a flight of stairs outside a dining hall at the campus of North China University of Water Resources and Electric Power in the Chinese city of Zhengzhou on Jan. 17, 2015

Xi Jinping is fond of the kind of socialist jargon more reminiscent of Chairman Mao’s era

University life in China involves more than just cramming for exams and polishing résumés. On Jan. 19, China’s official Xinhua news agency published a high-level government and Communist Party decree stating that Chinese universities needed to make a renewed effort to “fortify conviction in the right ideals and faith.” The appropriate ideologies, lest anyone be confused, are socialism and Marxism, as the pronouncement explained:

“As the front line of ideological work, universities bear the responsibility of studying and propagating Marxism; cultivating and promoting the core values of socialism; and providing the intelligence and talent for the realization of the China dream.”

The “China dream” (also called the “Chinese dream”) is President Xi Jinping’s amorphous mission statement for a country intent on regaining its former glory and encouraging individual fulfillment. Last month, in a harbinger of the Jan. 19 university decree, Xi gave a speech in which he urged universities to exert better “ideological guidance” over students and professors alike.

When Xi assumed control of China’s ruling Communist Party in late 2012, some China watchers wondered whether he would be more amenable to economic and political reform than his predecessor Hu Jintao. But if Xi has a soft spot for political liberalization, he has not exposed it. The Chinese President’s speeches have been peppered with the kind of socialist jargon more reminiscent of Chairman Mao’s era. Under Xi, China has intensified a crackdown on dissent that has locked up everyone from university students and poets to journalists and lawyers. An internal government memo that was leaked in 2013 enumerated seven Western values and institutions that China needed to wage war against, including constitutional democracy, civil society, market liberalism and the “universal values” of human rights.

How do Chinese campus denizens feel about the need to “build universities into strongholds of studying and propagating Marxism” and “persistently use socialism with Chinese characteristics to arm the brains of students and teachers,” as the decree urges? Are they as committed to “uncompromisingly resisting the infiltration of hostile forces,” as Western ideals and values are labeled?

It is, of course, impossible to generalize about a university population of more than 30 million students. But Zhang Ming, a politics professor at Renmin University in Beijing, noted on his microblog that “ideological indoctrination can only succeed in a closed environment.” China today, Zhang said, is a “semiopen environment so mandatory indoctrination will cause an antagonistic psychology … the more forceful the indoctrination is, the more superficial obedience is.”

A Peking University postgraduate student, who, given the sensitivity of the subject only wants to be identified by her English name, Penny, tells TIME: “The notice is a heap of long, disgusting, empty words … I read the whole [decree] and I still do not understand what they will do in the future.” As for the mandatory ideology classes she has already attended in college, Penny issues no praise. “Very boring,” she says. “Most students just sleep at their desks.”

With reporting by Gu Yongqiang / Beijing

TIME China

China Arrests Former Security Czar in Major Political Purge

File photo of China's former Politburo Standing Committee Member Zhou Yongkang attending the closing ceremony of the NPC in Beijing
Jason Lee—Reuters China's former Politburo Standing Committee Member Zhou Yongkang attends the closing ceremony of the National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, March 14, 2012.

Zhou Yongkang faces serious corruption charges

Chinese authorities arrested the nation’s former security czar Zhou Yongkang, once considered the most feared man in China, just before midnight on Dec. 5–the first ever arrest of a member of the nation’s ruling Politburo Standing Committee, retired or sitting.

The 72-year-old Zhou was also expelled from the Chinese Communist Party.

Zhou’s suspected rapsheet is extensive, according to Xinhua, the Chinese state newswire:

“The [party’s] investigation found that Zhou seriously violated the Party’s political, organizational and confidentiality discipline. He took advantage of his posts to seek profits for others and accepted huge bribes personally and through his family, the statement said. He abused his power to help relatives, mistresses and friends make huge profits from operating businesses, resulting in serious losses of state-owned assets. Zhou leaked the Party’s and country’s secrets. He seriously violated self-disciplinary regulations and accepted a large amount of money and properties personally and through his family. Zhou committed adultery with a number of women and traded his power for sex and money.”

For months, the noose had been tightening around Zhou, who retired from the Standing Committee in 2012 due to age limits. Dozens of his known associates and underlings were arrested in three of his previous spheres of influence: the nation’s domestic security apparatus, which received more official funding than the Chinese military did; the highly lucrative state-owned oil industry; and the populous province of Sichuan.

Zhou’s family members, including his wife, brother and son, have been detained. Last year, Bo Xilai, a former Zhou political acolyte and ex-chief of Chongqing municipality, was sentenced to life imprisonment for corruption and other crimes.

Over the summer, the party had placed Zhou under formal investigation for “serious disciplinary violations,” a codeword for corruption. It was quite the comedown for a man who once controlled the nation’s panopticon state security machine.

Since taking office in 2012, China’s President Xi Jinping has unleashed an anti-graft campaign that has resulted in thousands of arrests of government officials. Xi famously promised to nab both “tigers and flies,” high-ranking leaders and the lowliest of communist cadres. And there was no mightier tiger than Zhou.

Xinhua reiterated how Zhou’s alleged misdeeds affected the sanctity of the Chinese Communist Party: “His behaviors badly undermined the reputation of the Party, significantly damaged the cause of the Party and the people, and have yielded serious consequences.”

Zhou will almost certainly be convicted, if past political investigations are any indication. But it’s still going to take a lot more than midnight announcements to convince a skeptical public that graft won’t flourish in China’s future.

TIME Burma

Inside the Kachin War Against Burma

High school and university students receive drill instructions in Laiza, which lies in a Kachin Independence Army–controlled part of Kachin state, in Burma, on Nov. 10, 2014.
Adam Dean—Panos for TIME High school and university students receive drill instructions in Laiza, which lies in a Kachin Independence Army–controlled part of Kachin state, in Burma, on Nov. 10, 2014.

Burma's rulers have promised cease-fires with various ethnic groups that have been battling the military, in some cases for decades. But in the hills of Kachin, peace is further away than ever

Morning mist hangs low on the jungle as Kachin cadets stand to sleepy attention on this November morning, clutching slabs of wood whittled into the contours of rifles. Not far away in the mountains of northern Burma, soldiers in the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) face off against Burmese positions, a state of intermittent war that has prevailed since a 17-year cease-fire between the ethnic militia and the Burmese army collapsed in 2011.

The 162 cadets training at the military academy in rebel-held Laiza are hardly a fighting force — they are high school and college kids undergoing their first guerrilla training. Still, the KIA, which controls chunks of land near the Burmese border with China, needs all the recruits it can get.

“The Burmese want to steal all our land, but they will never succeed,” says Hkawng Lum, a student from Myitkyina, the Kachin state capital that is under Burmese army control. The 19-year-old has been training at the military academy for one month and will eventually return behind enemy lines to serve in the KIA reserve. “Every Kachin,” he says, “will fight to the death.”

On Nov. 19, a heavy artillery attack by the Burmese army overwhelmed another KIA training camp in Laiza, killing 23 officers in training — a body blow to ethnic rebels who have been forced to manufacture their own knockoff rifles and land mines. The assault, which killed cadets from several ethnic groups, came as the KIA and the Burmese army had been holding fitful peace talks, even as skirmishes had proliferated across the state.

“We knew that the Burmese army was full of tricks,” says a Kachin Independence Organization information officer. “The peace process is dead.”

The United Nationalities Federal Council, which represents a diversity of Burma’s many ethnic groups, said that the shelling had “caused a tremendous obstacle in building trust.” The Nov. 19 attack came just days after Burma had hosted an international summit attended by national leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama. On his second visit to the country in two years, Obama warned that Burma’s much lauded reforms were by “no means complete or irreversible.”

Since Burma’s military junta began a transition to a quasi-civilian government three years ago, its rulers have promised an imminent national cease-fire with various ethnic armed groups that have been battling the Burmese military practically since the nation gained independence from the British in 1948. National reconciliation is seen as key in helping the nation’s economy develop but the ethnic militias are wary of giving up autonomy to the centralized Burmese state. Some truces have been struck, although not with the 10,000-strong KIA. Even in areas technically under armistice, continuing clashes undercut talk of peace. It escapes no one’s notice that some of the worst fighting is occurring in regions that boast some of Burma’s most-plentiful natural resources.

“When the Burmese army talks about a cease-fire, they mean stopping shooting for a short while,” says Manam Tu Shan, a 67-year-old Kachin church deacon in Laiza. “But what we mean by a cease-fire is living peacefully and being able to practice our traditions without the Burmese interfering.”

Although Burma is dominated by the Bamar, or Burman, ethnic group, some 40% of the country’s population is composed of dozens of ethnic minorities — the Kachin, the Karen, the Shan, the Wa, the Chin, the Mon and the Rakhine, among many others. When the country, now known officially as Myanmar, gained independence, it did so as a federal union in which several ethnic groups were given the option to secede if they were unhappy with their new state.

But an army coup in 1962 ushered in nearly half a century of brutal military rule. Most generals were Bamar chauvinists who won their stripes by battling various ethnic militias in the eastern and northern fringes of the country. Some of that strife, which displaced millions of ethnic villagers and subjected them to institutionalized rape and forced labor by Burmese soldiers, has been described as the longest-running civil war on earth. The current Burmese government has also been criticized for its treatment of more than a million Muslim Rohingya, a largely stateless group that lives in western Burma. Hundreds of Rohingya have been killed in pogroms over the past couple years and 140,000 have been sequestered in ghetto-like camps.

Bleakness and Bounty
The KIA headquarters in Laiza feels like a Wild West town, but with none of the romance of that description. Until the turn of this century, Laiza was little more than a dusty border outpost with China. But as the Burmese army pressed in, the KIA stronghold took on outsize importance. Laiza is now a collection of cement-block buildings with stores selling Chinese plastic goods, pirated DVDs and the latest in army-camouflage fashion. Heroin and methamphetamines are a scourge, as is human trafficking across the border with China.

If the town is bleak, the hills surrounding Laiza, and spreading across Kachin, are some of the most bountiful on earth. There is jade, gold, timber and hydropower. Banana plantations dot the landscape, as does the odd golf course, a relic of colonial sportsmanship enjoyed by the KIA top brass. There are also more than 100,000 Kachin who have fled the fighting to live in remote refugee camps. To survive, some villagers pan for gold for Chinese-owned companies, their pay meager even by the standards of one of Asia’s poorest nations.

While the Bamar are Buddhist, the Kachin, like several major ethnic groups in Burma, practice Christianity. There are no pagodas in Laiza, just as there are no churches in Naypyidaw, the bunkered Burmese capital that the generals unveiled in 2005. Although the Kachin are proud of their martial prowess — Kachin soldiers fought alongside the Allies in northern Burma during World War II and were known to string the teeth of their enemies around their necks — they have been excluded from the Burmese Defense Services Academy (DSA), which trains the nation’s next generation of military elite. (Before the army takeover in 1962, one headmaster of the DSA was Kachin.) These days, the highest-ranking Kachin in the Burmese army is a mere captain.

Laiza itself is deeply militarized, with some men carrying geriatric rifles that look like they did their best work during World War II. Most of the bullets are Chinese imports, and they are precious. At the Laiza military academy, Major Kyaw Htwi admits that live-ammunition training is too expensive for common practice. Some of the machine guns on hand are held together with duct tape. But the major has taught Kachin cadets for 21 years and is confident of his charges’ ability to adapt to jungle warfare.

“The Burmese want the ethnics to become extinct,” he says, as a soldier pulls a Kachin flag up a flagpole and salutes the dusty pennant. “But we will never give up our struggle.”

Days later came the Burmese army attack. There is no peace now in the hills of Kachin.

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