Erbil- Here are a handful of snapshots from my iPod from my day running around the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan while trying to get situated.
Guest blogger: Raymond Pagnucco
Follow Raymond on Twitter at @RaymondPagnucco
See Raymond’s site here
New York- I’ve known Ray Pagnucco for some twenty years now. Ray is constantly on the move in Asia and Africa, often interested in uncovering the world’s lesser told e stories that strike his imagination.
The following guest post stems from Ray’s most recent trip to what is likely the world’s most perennially troubled nation-state if one goes by sheer decades of political violence (sorry clichés about Somalia since 1991 but Burma has been raging since 1948). Ray recently crossed from the western-most region of southern China’s Yunnan Province into Burma’s northern Kachin State to document the hardscrabble rebels of the Kachin Independence Army. Enjoy!
It is well known to any highly organized ethnic group that the road to greater autonomy is a rough one replete with of hopes, dreams and a considerable amount of uncertainty that come with a national liberation movement. When your an ethnic group in Burma that makes up just 1.5% of the population of a country of 60 million the reality of ever being autonomous in even more challenging.
However the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and their armed wing the Kachin Independence Army ((KIA) have been pushing for greater autonomy since the the early 1960’s with only limited success. After about three decades of fighting the KIO and KIA had reached a ceasefire with the Burmese junta then known as the ominous sounding State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC)* in 1994.
*The SLORC was later renamed the State Peace and Development Council in 1997 and then officially dissolved by the infamous General Than Shwe in early 2011 when Than abdicated the junta’s rule in the transfer of power to President Thein Sein’s civilian government.
The1994 ceasefire gave the KIO and KIA a fair bit of autonomy over a large area of Kachin State and parts of Shan State along the Chinese Border. This Kachin autonomous zone allowed the KIO is able to collects taxes at border crossings with China and engages in various business deals throughout Kachin State. Most of the trade often revolved around the monetization of natural resources such as jade, timber and gold. The KIO-though no angels themselves in this prolonged conflict-also launched a ambitious opium eradication campaign within the territory under its control.
However in June 2011 renewed violence broke out between the KIA and the Burmese military effectively ending the seventeen-year long ceasefire. The fighting was a result of the Burmese regime’s attempt to secure areas around lucrative energy projects in Kachin and Shan state, the majority of which are funded by the Chinese government while in an area traditionally controlled by the KIA.
For the first year and a half the KIA was able to hold its ground and tried on eleven separate occasions to end the fight and work on a new ceasefire. Then in late December 2012 the Burmese escalated the fighting using aerial attacks to push the KIA back toward to their de-facto capital of Laiza hugging the Chinese boorder. Government troops have since stopped their larger advance but sporadic fighting continues and an estimated 100,000 Kachin civilians have since been displaced.
For a number of years I have kept a close eye on Burma and the various ethnic conflicts that have plagued the country since it was granted independence from Britain in the wake of the the Second World War. I have travelled several times with the Karen National Liberation Army in Karen State to wittiness the war they had been waging for 63 years. This past February I felt it was time to make a trek to Laiza and see what they Kachin where going through and to understand why they were fighting following the ceasefire’s collapse.
When you get to the KIO and KIA controlled areas you will see the result of the former 17 year ceasefire. From roads to schools to sending students abroad for higher education, the Kachin upheld the rule of law and where able to transform their area into a functioning civil society that other ethnic groups like the Karen were not able to achieve after the fall of their d-facto capital of Manerplaw fell to the Burmese in early 1995. The Kachin used their natural resources to create something out of nothing and waited for many year to have a real peace deal with the Burmese military government that went beyond a ceasefire agreement that are so often broken by the Burmese military known locally as the Tatmadaw.
Although Laiza is essentially a city under siege, Stalingrad it is not. Upon arriving in Laiza, I noted that many of the businesses were shuttered.. Its is normally possible to get in and out of the city through either the official nearby Chinese border crossing that has now been closed to non-Kachin. It is also possible or to take a jeep and travel five-six hours on a bumpy mountain road (thought this alternate route is impassable during rainy season). On they way I passed open pit mines, a Chinese dam and elephants employed in logging.
The Kachin people differ from other regional ethnic groups in that they are overwhelmingly Protestant or Roman Catholic and cherish democratic societal practices. During my visit the locals appeared be in relatively good spirits, believing that one day they will be victorious even if that means they are forced to withdraw from population centers and retreat into the jungle to fight or a yet another peace deal will be brokered.
The Kachin remain united. Not only those living in Laiza but those living in other parts of Burma, China and India. It is not uncommon to meet Kachin who have come from other parts of Burma or neighboring countries to aid in the effort. This conflict has had the effect of uniting the Kachin transnationally.
When and how this war will end is anyone’s guess. The Kachin and the Burmese authorities have met over a dozen times since the current bout of war and a lasting deal has yet to be reached. President Thein Sein has told the international community that he has ordered the army to stop it’s war against the KIA and KIO but this has not led to lasting change in the region.
This is a clear sign that the army is still in power in Burma and the civilian government of Thein Sein (a former junta member himself) is mostly a veneer in the brutal realities of Burma’s ethnic hinterlands.
Some say that this conflict will only end when the KIA and KIO are completely obliterated. Other say that this battle was only practice for the Tatmadaw for a larger war with the United Wa State Army and they the Kachin will get some kind of deal when fight in Wa State begins.”
TWD Editor’s Note: Despite having publicly shifted from a military junta to weak civilian rule with promises of reforms coupled with the limited return of Western corporate investment, the harsh militarism entrenched since Ne Win’s March 1962 coup d’état followed by the era of SLORC/SPDC-rule after the disastrous student-led People Power Uprising of August 8, 1988, the aggressive stance of Naypyidaw’s troops is as strongly felt as ever before in Burma’s independent-minded minority homelands as ever before. And it appears the rebels of the KIA will not be abandoning the fight any time in the near future.
For more, see Raymond’s short film The Front Lines of Laiza over at CNN’s iReport.
Antakya- I have a new article out in today’s edition of Asia Times Online on my journey into rebel-held northern Syria. In over a decade of jihads, war zones and civil unrest, I think this was the most difficult thing I have ever accomplished in terms of logistics. My entire body is shot and at one point repelling down a muddy mountainside I slipped into a coil of concertina wire that my amazing fixer and smuggler had to rescue me from. Then while attempting to sprint through an Assadist free fire zone, I got trapped in mud so thick it might as well have been quicksand. On the way back I had to trek through pitch black forest that we lit with cell phones to try and find our way. For some reason we hiked back to Turkey a different way than we came in which was totally disorienting. We linked arms and forded a very fast moving icy river that was nearly waist deep lit by the moon while screaming “takbir” and the corresponding “allahu akbar” to steel our resolve.
At that point my mind went into a trance-like state bent on pure survival. Then when I got back to the comfort of my hotel room in Antakya and collapsed on my bed, I stared at the ceiling and thought that I did this for one day and the rebels of Free Syrian Army live this way everyday. Hard to contemplate. I’ll be going back to the West in a couple of days (where I will be speaking at the Interallied Confederation of Reserve Officers Winter Seminar outside Köln) and there is no way anyone can relate to what I’ve just experienced.
In other news, TWD was quoted in a Global Post article titled “African Union Looks East” about the inauguration of China’s gaudy new African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia which I reported on last year. Even that relatively innocent story ended up in a violent encounter when a paranoid Chinese government foreman ordered a hulking Ethiopian security guard to grab my camera and delete the contents of my flash card. They were unsuccessful due to my cunning.
Barcelona- This hilarious article came out in the Daily Mail about show jumping rabbits here in Europe, something I never knew existed. So as not to get overly exercised about certain frustrating geopolitical constructs, one need only to picture Snoopy the rabbit staring down his competitors at the starting line. Things needn’t always be so serious?
Barcelona- I’ve just come back to Barca for the first time since 2008 and the town is as vibrant as ever. Everyone is so thin and bronzed that coming from the bowels of outer borough New York City, one may feel the need to step into summer in a big way. The city’s bike share system, called Bicing, seems to have definitely cemented itself on the urban landscape since my last stay. The bummer in the Bicing is that you have to be a resident of Catalunya to be able to use it unlike Copenhagen’s Bycykler København which anyone with a 20 kroner coin can take advantage of. Maybe that’s the difference between post-Franco Catalan nationalism and officially promoted Dansk egalitarian ideals. NYC is looking to roll out a bike share system modeled after one of the varied European Union ones but as with everything in NYC, nothing can go forward without dense business interests having their say.
For anyone who’s ever been here in the sticky summer months, you’ll know this Manu Chao classic:
New York- Got the new issue of MLM out yesterday. In this one we have a profile of Saudi jihadi ideologue Faris al-Zahrani by Murad Batal al-Shishani, sketchy Malaysian JI/AQ operative Marwan by Jacob Zenn, the real Sajid Mir of LeT whose name has been popping up in David Headley’s testimony in Chicago about the Mumbai siege, and finally a portrait of the dreaded Maulvi Qalamuddin, the Tab’s former infamous vice and virtue minister. Have a good 4th!
New York- I appeared on Saudi state television’s KSA 2 Friday to discuss the extension and, I suppose, expansion of the American war in Afghanistan (and to a lesser extent Pakistan) from the initially trumpeted July 2011 withdrawal to sometime at the end of 2014. I couldn’t help but reference the Gulf of Tonkin and President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s direct, televised deception to the American people in which he said damningly on on August 4th, 1964: “We still seek no wider war.” President Johnson had every intention of expanding American military and clandestine involvement in Indochina as a purported bulwark against a spreading communism and as an eventual boon to the military-industrial complex that the outgoing President Dwight David Eisenhower had warned the public to be skeptical of just three and a half years before, days before President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s swearing in.
Of course, there has been no knowably false or trumped up incident to act as a catalyst for President Obama’s (and Secretary Gates’ and General David Petraeus’) opaque decision to hugely extend the Afghan war. We haven’t been told of one suicide bombing in Kabul too many or one IED too far in Helmand that justifies making the Afghanistan conflict the longest foreign war fighting engagement in America’s history. The three principal players in this game are congressional republican politicians in Washington, General Ashfaq Kayani’s Pakistani Army, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s corrupt government in Kabul. Within the nexus of these interlinked but often hostile political actors, the Afghan war has been undemocratically extended for the foreseeable future. President Obama does not want to “appear weak on defense” in his 2012 reelection bid, General Kayani’s troops have thus far refused to mount a large scale COIN/scorched earth assault on South/Central Asia’s most hardcore militant outfits holed up in North Waziristan, and an increasingly paranoid and isolated President Karzai needs the US and it’s NATO and non-NATO military allies to stay in the country in order for him to remain in power coincidentally until sometime in 2014. After I left the studio, what I had said for broadcast sunk in and I then had to stave off depression. If only Obama and his underlings had understood how critically important the terribly flawed Afghan presidential campaign was last year, and had that election had a different more genuine outcome, perhaps much of the assured bloodshed on the horizon could have been avoided. Wishful thinking on my part, maybe, but one thing is for certain: there is a lot of death and destruction to be, though it mustn’t be so. Americans today would more likely pour out into the streets over a rigged vote on a reality show that one in reality as the era of mass civil disobedience long ago gave way to rampant consumer culture and hollow worship of false mass market idols. In all of this miasma, it would do many good to realize that it is principally the Afghan people who continue to suffer. It is Afghan civilians who continue to take the brunt of military and militant violence in Afghanistan. Outside of that country, Afghanistan is for most an abstraction or a set of misapplied cliches vaguely having to do with empires and their various downfalls as if empires with their ill advising courtesans, not the Afghans themselves, are the victims. In history the Afghan people are mostly an afterthought as their country is described coldly as a “graveyard,” as an ill conceived “buffer state” or as “AfPak.”