Deep in the wilds of northern Myanmar’s Kachin state a brutal civil war has intensified over the past year between government forces and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). Filmmakers Jason Motlagh and Steve Sapienza investigate why the conflict rages on, despite the political reforms in the south that have impressed Western governments and investors now lining up to stake their claim in the resource-rich Asian nation.
Bald patches of dirt and shredded tree stumps speak to the artillery barrages that rained down on rebel Capt. Malang Naw Mai and his men when they arrived at their hilltop outpost nine months ago.
He has since lost about one-fifth of his unit in combat, but the veteran officer insists the Burmese Army’s ruthless treatment of ethnic Kachin civilians fuels his resolve to hold the frontline.
“I’m proud to be fighting their oppression and I will be satisfied if I die fighting,” he says.
The war in Kachin reignited last year when the Burmese Army attacked a Kachin Independence Army (KIA) post near a disputed hydropower dam site, ending a 17-year ceasefire. It has since ramped up its offensive, calling into question the authority of a nominally civilian government that has repeatedly ordered it to stop fighting.
“This so-called reform process has made it possible for the government – and the government means the military – to get away with almost anything,” says Bertil Lintner, an author and journalist who has covered Burma for more than 30 years. “Things they would have been severely criticised for in the past are being ignored by the international community.”
So far, more than 75,000 ethnic Kachin civilians have been driven from their ancestral lands. Human rights groups allege the Burmese army is intentionally attacking civilian areas, with wide-spread evidence of torture, rape, forced conscription and summary executions. Both sides employ child soldiers and continue to sow the ground with land mines.
According to a June report by Human Rights Watch, at least 10,000 additional Kachin refugees are stranded in make-shift camps across the border in China, where authorities still refuse to grant the United Nations and relief agencies access. Thousands have reportedly been forced back across the border, into harm’s way.
Such grim developments contradict the reform narrative now emanating from the long-time pariah state, officially known as Myanmar.
By Jason Motlagh