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Inside Burma’s War

13 minute read
Hannah Beech / Laiza

Duct tape holds together his Chinese-made assault rifle, and the mosquito net in his rucksack gapes with so many holes that it practically invites dengue- and malaria-carrying insects to feast on his body. Felix has never fought in the jungles of northeastern Burma, where a rebel army is preparing for war with one of Asia’s largest militaries. With no heavy artillery and little more than flip-flops and used flashlights to give their recruits, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) can only depend on guerrilla tactics to deter soldiers of the Burmese military regime. The 24-year-old cadet at the KIA’s military academy, deep in the monsoon-drenched hills of Kachin state, juts his chin out, blinks back tears and announces he is ready for deployment. “I am shaking very hard inside,” he tells me, his voice trembling. “But I have a responsibility to complete my mission.”

Felix was promoted to active duty last month, when tensions reached fever pitch between Burma’s ruling junta and various armed ethnic groups in the country’s northern borderlands. In late August, the military regime unexpectedly overran the army of the nearby Kokang minority, sending some 30,000 refugees spilling into neighboring China. Now other ethnic militias who control various jigsaw-puzzle pieces of northeastern Burma — the Kachin, the Wa, the Eastern Shan — are reinforcing their ragged armies and playing a terrifying guessing game: Who’s next on the junta’s hit list?

(Read “A Closer Look at Burma’s Ethnic Minorities.”)

Two decades after Burma’s army dictatorship reached an uneasy peace with a patchwork of ethnic militias, the country is again poised on the brink of civil war. The junta has long maintained a tense relationship with the up to 40% of the country’s population that is composed of ethnic minorities. When Burma won independence from the British in 1948, political groups representing some of the country’s 130-plus ethnicities agreed to join the union in exchange for autonomy. But uprisings quickly proliferated in the country’s vast frontier, only worsening after the military regime wrested control of the country in 1962 and began limiting ethnic freedoms. Beginning in 1989, cease-fires were signed with 17 rebel militias, and certain ethnicities were granted a measure of self-rule. The junta claimed victory for having united one of the world’s most diverse countries — and promptly began mining the natural resources that abounded in tribal regions.

With nationwide elections slated for next year, Burma’s ethnic minorities may soon lose what little sovereignty they have left. The junta claims the polls are the final step in creating what it calls a “discipline-flourishing democracy,” after it ignored the results of the last elections back in 1990. International human-rights groups, however, decry the process as little more than a choreographed exercise designed to legitimize the junta and stamp out any threats to its power. In April, the Burmese government informed the cease-fire groups that as part of the electoral run-up they would have to refashion their armies as part of a centrally controlled border guard force, the first step in what many fear will be the death knell to ethnic autonomy. The deadline to accede to the regime’s demand is October. Most ethnic groups have already responded with a firm no — among them the Kachin and the Kokang, whose two-decade cease-fire with the Burmese abruptly ended last month when junta forces invaded its tiny territory. The ease with which the Kokang were defeated presumably buoyed the junta, many of whose members gained their battlefield experience against ethnic militias. “Everyone in the West talks about democracy and [Nobel Peace Prize laureate] Aung San Suu Kyi,” says Aung Kyaw Zaw, a Burmese military expert and former communist rebel living in exile in China’s Yunnan province. “But the junta’s biggest enemy is not her. It is the ethnics.”

(Read “Burma Court Finds Aung San Suu Kyi Guilty.”)

The renewed threat of civil war in Burma isn’t just an internal problem. The country’s minorities are concentrated in its borderlands, and in recent weeks, as the junta has surged into rebel territory, tens of thousands of ethnic refugees have poured into Thailand and China.

Beyond the international humanitarian crisis also lies a potential economic one. Neighboring nations are increasingly dependent on Burma’s resources, and most of the country’s natural wealth — from jade and timber to hydropower and natural gas — is concentrated in the tribal regions. The planned route for a Chinese-financed project of dual natural-gas and oil pipelines, for instance, begins in an ethnically troubled part of western Burma’s Arakan state and runs past the part of Shan state where fighting raged last month in Kokang. Construction of the Shwe pipeline project, the biggest ever foreign investment commitment to Burma, was supposed to begin this month, but ethnic skirmishes may imperil that schedule. Reports are also trickling in from Kachin state, where dam projects funded by foreign investors are suspending operations because of potential violence. Little wonder that Beijing, which usually shields Burma from any formal criticism by the U.N., publicly condemned the Kokang assault, warning that the junta should “properly handle domestic problems and maintain stability in the … border region.”

Read “Why the Omens Are Not Auspicious for the Burma’s Junta.”

See pictures of the decades-long battle for democracy in Burma.

Law of the Jungle
To get to the KIA’s mountainous stronghold of Laiza, I first traveled deep into China’s southwestern Yunnan province, to a small trading settlement called Nabang. Even though the border town is in China, many of its residents wore Burmese longyis, or sarongs, and women’s faces were painted beige with the thanaka paste used in Burma as a skin salve. Despite the occasional truck rumbling past overloaded with teak logs from Burma, Nabang felt like it was just emerging from an opium-induced nap.

But a quick splash across a few bamboo planks strewn across a river and I entered another world. Laiza was very much awake, a hair-trigger atmosphere only heightened by the fact that practically every teenaged boy appeared to have a machine gun slung over his shoulder. Soldiers from the KIA’s mobile brigade materialized from the sub-tropical canopy, stealthy as the tigers that prowl Kachin state. As my jeep climbed up a mountain path, I passed teenagers with the hardened gazes of men trudging toward a military-recruiting office. The number of youth who have volunteered to enlist has skyrocketed, as the drumbeat of war with Burma’s junta escalates.

(Read “Why Violence Erupted on the China-Burma Border.”)

Many of these youngsters fit Hollywood casting for Southeast Asian guerrillas: scrawny, scrappy adolescents who show no sign of needing a shave anytime soon. But Felix, who sidled up to me as I watched the KIA academy cadets run through their drills, disturbed the easy image of a militia conscripting hungry boys in return for a fistful of rice. Armed with a university degree in international relations, Felix speaks fluent English and expresses himself eloquently on political philosophy. But as an ethnic Kachin — an ethnicity more than 1 million strong, famed for its fortitude while serving on the Allied side in World War II — Felix knows his chances of succeeding in junta-controlled Burma are as slender as the jungle vines KIA soldiers sometimes eat to survive. So he has joined other disillusioned university graduates among the KIA ranks. “Some people say we must have dialogue with the SPDC,” he says, referring to the junta by its Orwellian-sounding moniker, the State Peace and Development Council. “But that is a snail’s pace. The only thing the SPDC understands is force, so we must meet their force with ours.”

Ethnic Tinderbox
Although the Burmese majority faces plenty of repression, there’s no question that the junta reserves its worst brutality for ethnic groups. International human-rights organizations have documented a wide array of abuses against minorities, ranging from forced labor and army conscription to mass rape and village relocations that have displaced 500,000 people in eastern Burma alone. Complicating matters, some ethnic groups are not Buddhist in a country where the junta celebrates that faith and often persecutes those who do not. (The Kachin, Chin and many Karen, for example, are Christian.) Career trajectories for many ethnic minorities are stunted. Despite their proud martial tradition, Kachin know it’s nearly impossible to rise in the Burmese army beyond the junior rank of captain.

In recent months, the decades of persistent discrimination have spawned an unusual alliance between four armed ethnic groups: the KIA, the United Wa State Army, the Eastern Shan State Army (also known as the Mongla army) and the Kokang Army. The junta’s lightning strike on the Kokang capital Laogai, which is estimated to have caused some 200 civilian casualties, left the other alliance members ill-equipped to respond immediately. But exile groups in China and Thailand are reporting that the Wa — which, with some 25,000 foot soldiers and an arsenal of heavy artillery, is the strongest of the rebel armies — is providing support to the shreds of Kokang forces still fighting, as well as giving sanctuary to Kokang leader Peng Jiasheng. With the junta reinforcing troop levels in the country’s north, another ethnic militia, the Karen National Liberation Army in eastern Burma, hopes to recuperate after a devastating series of losses earlier this summer.

Cohesion among the ethnic groups, which spent considerable time fighting one another as well as the junta, could change the nature of battle in Burma. At the KIA’s self-styled Pentagon, a collection of simple concrete buildings on a breezy hilltop, members of other ethnic groups have come to be schooled in military tactics from one of the most tenacious rebel militias. One youth leader from the western state of Arakan spoke to me in smooth, American-inflected English. “I need to do something practical,” he said. “I need to prepare for war. Politics in this country is crap. It’s just a way for the SPDC to stay in power.”

See pictures of Burma’s discontent.

See pictures of tension in Burma.

The Politics of Money
As they face the possibility of renewed conflict, leaders of some of the ethnic militias aren’t just looking out for their downtrodden populaces. They’re also protecting their own interests in a region that, after all, extends into the infamous Golden Triangle. Starved of other economic means, some rebel armies have resorted to dubious funding schemes, like selling opium, illegal timber and methamphetamines. During the ceasefire period, the junta largely turned a blind eye to such businesses, which financed spacious villas and golf courses for some ethnic commanders.

When U.N. special envoy Ibrahim Gambari visited Burma in 2007, one of the people he met was Kokang honcho Peng, who was trotted out to represent the junta’s amity with ethnic groups. But this summer, Peng publicly rejected the idea of turning his army into a border force. By early August, the junta was accusing Peng of being behind an illegal arms-and-drugs factory. The illicit activity, claimed the regime, compelled it to invade Kokang turf, even though the warlord’s business proclivities had been an open secret for years. Indeed, both the Eastern Shan and Wa are also believed to have financed themselves through such shady means; the latter’s southern commander, Wei Hsueh-kang, has been singled out by the U.S. Treasury Department as a major drug trafficker. Indeed, one battle-avoiding option for the junta is luring corrupt ethnic elders to its side. “Divide-and-conquer tactics are the SPDC’s best friend,” says KIA Brigadier General Gun Maw.

(Read about the 2007 crackdown in Burma.)

The complicated ethnic landscape puts Burma’s giant neighbor, China, in a bind. Over the past few years, tens of thousands of Chinese businesspeople have fanned across Burma, setting up trading companies and filling downtowns with signs in Chinese characters. Much of the recent Chinese influx is in ethnic areas, where rebel groups have also come to rely on Chinese-made arms to continue their struggle against the junta. (The Chinese, however, are an equal-opportunity weapons dealer, supplying the junta with much of its military hardware.)

With the possibility of war breaking out along its long border with Burma, China is finding that its presumption of easy political influence down south may have been misplaced. High-level Chinese emissaries, say Burmese analysts, recently visited Burma to warn the junta to avoid any border instability in the run-up to the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China on Oct. 1. The Kokang attack, which reportedly came as a surprise to Beijing, was seen as a direct defiance of that admonition. Since the Kokang clash, Chinese troop levels have doubled along sections of the usually porous border, and China’s Defense Minister embarked on an emergency trip to Chengdu, whose regional army command covers the Burma border region.

Clash of Titans
It’s perhaps no surprise that the junta is wary of Chinese influence, notwithstanding the two nations’ growing economic ties. For decades, Beijing financially supported communist rebels in northern Burma, even at one point sending People’s Liberation Army troops to reinforce their Burmese brothers in arms. For the fervently anticommunist junta, memories of this Chinese patronage are still fresh. It also doesn’t help Burmese nationalism that large parts of Mandalay, the country’s second largest city and historic royal capital, have turned into a giant Chinatown. “The SPDC wants to remake its image as the new great kings of Burma,” says Aung Kyaw Zaw, the former communist rebel who now lives in Yunnan. “So even if they take advantage of China for business reasons, they don’t want any foreigners interfering in their kingdom.”

That notion of a Burmese kingdom has already been threatened by the country’s ethnic minorities. In the 1990 elections that the military disregarded, its proxy party was trounced by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. But what’s often forgotten about those polls is that the parties that finished second and third in terms of parliamentary seats were ethnic ones from Shan and Arakan states, respectively. (The military party came in fourth.) Burma’s generals surely want to avoid a repeat of that ethnic electoral success.

Back in the hills of Laiza, as mosquitoes began to swarm in the late afternoon, I met Lieutenant Colonel Hkam Sa, who runs a training course for KIA officers. He has been with the rebel army since 1963, just two years after it was formed. For the first time since the KIA signed its cease-fire with the junta 15 years ago, he canceled classes and sent his battalion commanders back to active duty. “When I joined the KIA, I was 17 years old and I thought that Burma would end in the flames of civil war,” he told me. “Today, if you ask me the same question, I will give you the same answer: Burma will end up in civil war.” If he’s right, the hills of northern Burma will crackle with gunfire once again, and Felix will be heading off to battle.

Read “Burma: Virginia Senator Jim Webb Visits Junta Leader.”

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