Ethnic group in Myanmar gears up for war, peace

LAIZA, Myanmar (AP) — Crawling on their bellies, the recruits inch through a field, dragging wooden rifles. A whistle blows, and they scramble to their knees, pulling the pins from imaginary grenades before lobbing them. Dropping flat, they yell "Boom!"

At a camp alongside a river, the next generation of soldiers in the Kachin Independence Army, one of Myanmar's largest armed ethnic groups, is training with a new urgency. A cease-fire is in peril, and the Kachin do not want to patrol the border for the ruling junta.

"I don't want to kill anyone but being a soldier is the best way to change the conditions in Burma," said 23-year-old cadet La Ran, who joined four months ago. "I am ready to fight if I have to."

The possibility of armed conflict in Myanmar, also known as Burma, is rising because a series of cease-fire agreements between the military government and more than a dozen armed ethnic groups are dissolving as the regime seeks to press those groups into becoming a border militia under government control.

The government has set a deadline of April 28 for the armed groups to merge or disarm as the junta tightens its grip on the country ahead of this year's nationwide elections — the first in two decades. Their demands have largely been met with resistance during negotiations over the past year with the country's largest armed ethnic groups, including the 8,000-member Kachin army.

Myanmar's government, run by ethnic Burmese who make up the majority, is well known for repressing its own people. Considered among the world's most brutal, the regime brooks no dissent and has been accused of large-scale violations of human rights, including the yearslong detention of Nobel Peace laureate and democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi.

In the country's hinterlands — home to a variety of ethnic minority groups — the junta has also faced bitter opposition from the Wa, the Shan, the Karen and the Kachin, who are united in their resentment against historical domination by the Burmese. The Karen and the Shan, who have refused to sign truces, are engaged in intense fighting with government troops.

These groups control large territories along the northern and eastern borders — along with the valuable trade in logging, jade, gems, gold, and, in some cases, illegal drugs, that have helped finance their insurgencies.

The Kachin, predominantly Christian hill tribes in the northernmost part of Myanmar, have been engaged in a decades-long struggle against the government for autonomy.

Since a cease-fire was signed in 1994, they have enjoyed de-facto self-rule: In the rebel-controlled area, the Kachin army powers the electric grid and runs hospitals while soldiers in green uniforms adorned with the Kachin flag monitor both the border with China and the frontier with government-controlled Myanmar.

But Kachin leaders are still hoping for a permanent solution. In the interim, they have rebuilt their army and their strength.

Over the weekend, the Kachin army and its political arm, the Kachin Independence Organization, adamantly rejected the government's border guard proposal at a mass public meeting held in the small town of Laiza, a rebel stronghold near the Chinese border.

"From the very beginning, the public didn't want the KIA to join the (border guard force)," said Gen. S. Gun Maw, vice chief of staff for the rebels, citing letters from thousands of people opposing the idea. "If they (the government) take the military way, it will be a big mistake for them."

Pulling up in trucks, motorbikes, buses and cars, more than 1,000 Kachin — many dressed in traditional headscarves and sarong-like longyi — packed into a large assembly hall. An overflow crowd watched intently on television monitors set up in a second room.

From the start, the rebel leaders were careful to say their stand reflects the views of the majority of Kachin people, estimated at 1 million in Myanmar. Many in the audience nodded in agreement as their leaders outlined the political stalemate after more than a dozen talks with government leaders over the past 12 months.

"We've had the cease-fire for more than 10 years now. It's a friendly peaceful society now, and I want to keep this. But (the government) violates our rights and takes our land," said Zing Hang Khawn Hpang, 45, a local trader who attended the weekend meeting.

The gathering was also intended to make a rare appeal for international attention and a small group of foreign journalists, including The Associated Press, were invited to attend. The remote and mountainous Kachin region has largely been off-limits to foreigners for years.

"Not many outsiders know very well what's happening in Burma and our region ... We hope that if they know, if they understand the situation in our region, they may be able to find a way to help us," Gun Maw said.

In Laiza, a border town of 10,000 nestled in a valley between green hills, the standard of living is better than in other impoverished areas of Myanmar.

Control over two small hydroelectric dams, built with Chinese help, provide the area with 24-hour electricity — by comparison, residents in the largest Burmese city, Yangon, only get a few hours of power every third day. Chinese telecommunications towers just over the border ensure steady cell phone service, while brisk commercial trade means a steady supply of Chinese goods, clothing and motorbikes displayed in storefronts on the main boulevard.

On the streets, people talk openly about politics — another marked difference from the tightly controlled regions of government-run Myanmar.

The stability has allowed Christianity, brought by missionaries in the 1800s, to flourish — a rare display in an otherwise heavily Buddhist nation.

Standing outside the doors of the white-tiled Laiza Kachin Baptist Church, resident Dau Lum, 36, expressed faith that a political compromise can be reached before fighting erupts.

"I try not to worry too much because the world is watching Burma so the Burmese government doesn't want to start the fight. Even if conflict happens, it will not be like those in the past. I believe that God will guide us to a good future," he said.

Though Kachin leaders are still pushing for a political solution that includes protection of ethnic rights and government-recognized self-rule, their commanders are preparing for the worst. From the Kachin army's headquarters, perched high up on the mountainside overlooking the town, they have launched a new push for training and recruitment.

More ominously, the Burmese side has also stepped up its military activities. Kachin residents report army convoys rumbling through the northern countryside in recent weeks near the regional capital of Myitkyina, which is under government control.

But any fighting in northern Myanmar would surely provoke China, the junta's biggest political ally, which has warned the Burmese government to guard against instability on its borders. Last summer, heavy fighting between troops and the Kokang ethnic group sent some 30,000 refugees across the border into China, prompting a rare reprimand from Beijing.

The Chinese leadership is in a bind, caught between its dislike of border instability and its access to the oil, natural gas, and timber that the junta provides. That makes it hard to divine how deeply Beijing will involve itself.

"We know the Chinese government has influence over the (Burmese government). We want them to use this to make change in Burma, but we're not sure whether the Chinese government will," said the Kachin army's Gun Maw.

Lamai Tang Gun, 59, a Baptist pastor from Myitkyina, notes the Kachin have lived with an uneasy peace for decades: "They (the junta) are always threatening us. We can't tell if there's a possibility of fighting. We can only pray to God."