High in Burma’s rolling Kachin hills at a training camp in May this year, officers of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) were conducting artillery training. It was the first time in nearly six years, and the young cadets were eager to learn. ‘I joined the KIA for the revolutionary principles of our leaders and to fight for Kachin ethnic rights,’ says one cadet. According to the officer in charge, for the last six years Kachin, Burma’s northernmost state, has enjoyed relative peace, and there was no need for military preparation. Now, however, the situation is different. ‘Things are tense, we need to be ready,’ he says, before entering the training hall.
The KIA was right to prepare. On the afternoon of June 9, fighting broke out near Chinese-backed hydropower projects between the KIA and the Burmese government, signalling the end of a 17-year ceasefire. Both sides dispute who started it. In state media, the Burmese government blame the KIA. The KIA, on the other hand, claim it was the Burmese that opened fire on a Kachin camp after KIA soldiers refused to leave their territory near the hydropower projects. Later, tensions only worsened when Burmese soldiers allegedly returned the dead body of a KIA officer. The Burmese claimed he was killed in the fighting, however the KIA asserts that he was stabbed and tortured.
Formed in 1961, the KIA's raison d'être was to defend their region from Burmese troops and create an independent Kachin state. Previously, in 1949, the Kachin and other ethnic groups in the region had signed an agreement with Aung San to form a federal union, the leader of the Burmese army, under the watchful eye of the departing British colonials. After Aung San – the father of Aung San Suu Kyi – was assassinated, the ethnic leaders felt the Burmese government wasn’t respecting the agreement and many took up arms, engaging in gruelling guerrilla wars with the Burmese army in the dense jungle.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Tired of endless fighting, in the 1990s many of the ethnic armies signed ceasefires with the Burmese government, and up until very recently enjoyed the perks that came with peace. Benefiting from a border with China, the Kachin were able to build up their territory and main city Laiza, which boasts hotels, casinos and even a nightclub. At one point, citizens were renting cheaper accommodation on the Chinese side and making the daily journey back to Laiza for work. But the peace wasn’t to last.
In the run up to the 2010 elections, Burma's generals proposed that all the ethnic armies that had observed the ceasefire become ‘Border Guard Forces.’ By agreeing, the Kachin would have been required to allow Burmese commanders into their ranks, lay down their weapons and become part of the state army. For the Kachin, and nearly all the other major ethnic armies, this was completely out of the question. ‘We will never agree to their proposal,’ Lama Gum Hpan, the secretary of the Kachin Independence Council (KIC), which governs the region, said in his headquarters last month. ‘If we accept (the Burmese government's offer), the whole struggle by the people for our Kachin land will be in vain.’