LAJA YANG, Kachin State—The dry daytime heat succumbs to a balmy dusk cool, setting the tree-lined valley in a soft yet vivid glow. Aside from the occasional truck or motorcycle, the verdant landscape rings only to the warbles of birds and lowing of cattle in fields on the valley floor.
It seems almost too picture-perfect for a war-zone, says Capt Naw Mai, commander of a Kachin Independence Army (KIA) post on the main road from Laiza—a town of around 10,000 people sitting right on the Chinese border—and regional capital Myitkina. Kachin State remains a resource rich region of northern Burma neighboring China, but is the site of almost daily battles between the Burmese government army and ethnic militias since a ceasefire agreed in1994 broke down last June.
Pointing across a bridge—a dog-leg left off the main road—to a Burmese army post a mere 100 yards away, Naw Mai claims, “Even though there is fighting elsewhere, we leave them alone, as it is our policy not to attack first.” There is another Burmese army position less than a mile away on the same main route, but both are isolated from the larger military posts elsewhere in Kachin State. Another reason, Naw Mai says, why there is no need for the KIA to attack the enemy here.
That said, later the same night, the Burmese army shelled KIA positions at Loi Je, close to the ethnic armed group's second main stronghold at Mai Ja Yang, several hours drive from Laiza. There was also gunfire at Nam San Yang, an already burnt-out village less than an hour away from Laja Yang.
Fighting has left both the KIA and government forces in control of an amorphous and criss-crossing patchworks of territory close to the Sino-Burmese border. The KIA believes they have the upper hand in ground-level, small-arms combat in their mountain redoubts. But, faced by a much larger and better-armed adversary, they have been forced to retreat from several areas since fighting began, leaving the Burmese government in control of perhaps 70-75 percent of the northern state.
Two rounds of peace-talks have been held so far, but, in an indication of how little common ground can be found, neither side can even agree where to stage the next parley. Back in Laiza, KIA headquarters for the past seven months, Col Ji Nong of the group's central committee says he has been involved in every negotiation with the Burmese government since 1994.
Going by his account of recent discussions in Ruili, China, it will be difficult to cut a deal. “We want to talk about political issues first,” he told The Irrawaddy. “But they want to leave that until later.” He says that the Burmese interlocutors mention “equal rights for all civilians,” a formulation that does not sit well with the desire of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO)—The KIA's civilian wing—for “equal rights for ethnic groups.”
Ji Nong says that even if the KIO and government can make some progress, his organization is bound by a commitment to other ethnic armed groups as part of the United Nationalities Federal Council which will meet on Feb. 28 in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
The KIO says that it wants national-level discussions on Burma's political future, despite the government's recent tentative democratic reforms, such as the release of political prisoners. The talks should be expanded to include other political parties, said Ji Nong, “I don't know how much Aung San Suu Kyi knows about the ethnic groups,” he ponders, “but we want to include [her] National League for Democracy and the [Shan Nationalities League for Democracy] in any bigger negotiations after that.” But, he says, “the government does not want Aung San Suu Kyi and the Kachin [people] united.”
Back at Laja Yang, a billboard commemorating Burma's 1988 student rebellion and featuring a larger-than-life image of Suu Kyi sits right in the Burmese soldiers' line of sight, positioned as if to taunt. Standing nearby, and pointing again to the Burmese army post across the bridge where soldiers can be seen looking through binoculars across at the KIA, Naw Mai outlines the uneasy modus vivendi on this sector of the frontline.