Here’s a couple of articles from SCMP and Independent that I published from Laiza, along with some pictures.
Kachin rebels retreat in Myanmar as government troops close in
05 February, 2013
The town of Laiza, nestled inside Myanmar’s border with China, used to be known for its nightlife.
It was a “little Macau” in which Chinese citizens could escape their country’s gambling laws for a flutter at the baccarat tables and perhaps finish the night in a mafia-run brothel.
But in the past fortnight, the streets have grown quiet. The gambling dens are closed, and half the stores shuttered.
The reason is the presence of Myanmese soldiers 6 kilometres away on the jungle-covered mountains overlooking the town.
They aren’t there for the nightlife – they are there because Laiza is also the headquarters of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the last of Myanmar’s rebel groups still at war with the government.
Since a 17-year ceasefire broke down in June 2011, an estimated 60,000 Kachin civilians have fled to rebel-controlled camps, hoping to escape the government troops’ advance.
They held out for 18 months, but in mid-December, the government forces started Operation Thunderbolt, a daily barrage of artillery and mortar shells on the poorly equipped rebels.
At the local hospital this week, KIA troops described the bombardments. “They were hitting us non-stop, every second. It was coming like rain,” said Sin Wa, whose arm was broken in a mortar blast two weeks ago.
The KIA estimate over 1,200 shells hit his position that day.
In the next room, 21-year-old Mung San is having the stump of his left leg cleaned by nurses.
He remembers seeing the bomb fall from one of the jet fighters overhead. “I woke up buried to my chest. I thought I was all alone. I could hear nothing. Suddenly my friends were there and pulling me out.”
President Thein Sein, lauded internationally for his efforts to reform the former military regime since taking office in 2011, has said his army would not attack the town.
But his promises ring hollow in these parts – his announcement of a ceasefire on January 19 was immediately followed by the fiercest bombardments yet.
The Kachin leadership have retreated to an undisclosed mountain location. Their representatives have been in talks with the government in the Chinese border region of Ruili , and Myanmese state TV yesterday announced that progress had been made.
But 50 years of struggle for greater autonomy and less discrimination against its Christian population has left the Kachin people deeply pessimistic.
Every night, a procession of candle-bearers walks through Laiza’s deserted streets, praying for peace. Others pray for something more tangible.
“I pray for Western countries to give us anti-aircraft rockets and accurate heavy artillery, and to train us to become powerful soldiers,” said Father Joseph, the town’s Catholic priest.
His prayers are likely to go unheeded. The US and EU have criticised the “extremely troubling” escalation in the conflict. But their priority is weaning Myanmar away from ties with countries like North Korea, with whom it was at one time rumoured to be dealing in nuclear technology.
“Their [the government forces'] ultimate goal is to annihilate the Kachin,” said Father Joseph.
“They say we are not accepting peace talks, but we tried for 17 years to talk with them and they refused to give us even basic rights. They tear down our churches, they give no opportunities in schools and jobs to Kachin people. We cannot accept the kind of peace they want.”
China is pressuring all sides to stabilise the situation, fearing for the multibillion-dollar investment it has poured into Myanmar’s timber, gold, jade and hydropower resources.
Particularly worrisome is the fact that fighting has approached its new oil and gas pipelines, due to start operations in May, which cut across the length of Myanmar from Yunnan province to the Bay of Bengal.
“China wants [Myanmar] to be stable and ruled by an autocratic regime capable of keeping dissent in check,” said Bertil Lintner, author of several books on the country. “Turmoil is bad for business, and that’s what China is mainly interested in.”
Aung San Suu Kyi has abandoned us, say Burmese rebels being bombed into submission
29 January 2013
Ethnic Kachin rebels in north-eastern Burma are digging a new front line just three miles from their headquarters in Laiza, after losing a series of their strategic mountain outposts in battles with the Burmese army.
Kachin Independence Army (KIA) troops have only tattered sheets of tarpaulin to protect them against an aerial bombardment, which they expect any day from the Burmese battalion stationed less than a mile away on the adjacent slope, near the border with China.
“We are not afraid of their ground troops but they have so many powerful weapons,” said Brang Bhawng, a 53-year-old sergeant with the KIA. “Sometimes they drop 100 or 200 mortars on us in an hour. You can’t even open your eyes when that is happening.”
The Kachin have spent half a century fighting for greater autonomy within Burma and an end to discrimination against their Christian community. In June 2011, a 17-year ceasefire broke down and up to 100,000 civilians have been displaced amid reports of human rights abuses by the Burmese military.
As government troops approach Laiza, the rebels feel increasingly abandoned by the country’s icon of democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi. While the KIA was being bombed out of its mountain redoubt at Hka Ya on Saturday, Ms Suu Kyi was addressing a televised luncheon in Hawaii, at which she made no mention of the war raging in her country’s second-largest state.
“Her focus is collecting awards and becoming President, rather than the suffering of our people” said Khon Ja, the founder of the Kachin Peace Network, which organises aid for the displaced. “Kachin community leaders have been asking to meet her for over a year, but she has continuously refused.”
Ms Suu Kyi told The Irrawaddy newspaper earlier this month that she had limited powers to directly comment on the war. “We will only be able to avoid such conflicts if we begin to practice a culture of negotiation,” she said.
Ms Suu Kyi’s diplomatic language sits uncomfortably with reports from Human Rights Watch and other international organisations of extensive “sexual violence, forced labour, torture and summary executions” as the Burmese military has advanced through Kachin state.
In a camp for refugees on the edge of Laiza on Monday, one woman recounted the fate of her brother when he returned to look after his rice farm. “There had been no fighting for a few days, so he thought it was safe to return, but he was caught by the Burmese army,” said La Sam Kho, 50, who now runs the women’s association in the camp. “They cut off both his legs before they shot him”.
The government of President Thein Sein, who has been lauded for his efforts to reform Burma’s repressive military regime, says it is acting in “self-defence” against the KIA’s “terrorist actions and atrocities”.
But there has been international condemnation as the military has intensified its assault on Laiza in the past month, including the use of jet fighters against rebel positions, which the US government called an “extremely troubling” escalation.
Back at the front line, Lieutenant Sham Tu was defiant. “This is our last defence line so we will hold it,” he said. “We are fighting against injustice, trying to protect our people and our identity. If I’m ordered to fight I will not retreat. I will keep fighting until I die.”