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Kachin Days

Guest blogger: Raymond Pagnucco

Follow Raymond on Twitter at @RaymondPagnucco

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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!

KIA soldier with Gun ( this can be used with either pic) Young Kachin Soldier posses with this rifle. This rifle is Kachin made copy of the Chinese Type 81. The Kachin make a lot of their weapons including claymore, grenades, mortar rounds and bullets. I asked one KIA official why they didn’t buy weapons from China. He replied we didn’t want to make the Burmese Military mad and we never thought we would be fighting again. So we put our resources in to building a civil society and infrastructure. ©2013 Raymond Pagnucco

KIA member with rifle
Young ethnic-Kachin fighter posses with his rifle. This rifle is Kachin-made copy of the Chinese Type 81. The Kachin fashion many of their own weapons including claymore mines, grenades, mortar rounds and ammunition. I asked one KIA official why they didn’t buy weapons from China. He replied, “we didn’t want to anger Burmese forces and
we never thought we would be fighting again. So we put our resources in to building a civil society and infrastructure.” ©2013 Raymond Pagnucco

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.

Chinese dam While the fight rages in Kachin State work continues unabated on the Chinese dam that has been a hot bed of contention between the Burmese and the Kachin people. The power generated by this dam will go straight back to China. If the Kachin want access to the power produced by the dam they will have to buy it from the Chinese. Oddly enough the Burmese Military and Civilian Government don’t seem to care that their land is being exploited by another country as long as they get paid. ©2013 Raymond Pagnucco

Chinese-built dam
While the fight rages in Kachin State, work continues unabated on the Chinese hydroelectric dam that has been a hot bed of contention between the Burmese and the Kachin people. The electricity generated by this dam will return to China. If the Kachin want access to the power produced by the dam they will be required to purchase from the Chinese.  ©2013 Raymond Pagnucco

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.

Young Kachin rebel A youthful KIA fighter clutches his rifle as a frame his forest portrait. ©2013 Raymond Pagnucco

Young Kachin rebel
A youthful KIA fighter clutches his rifle as a frame his forest portrait. ©2013 Raymond Pagnucco

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.

Logging Elephant  On my way to Laiza I happened to see an elephant use for logging on the side of the road. I was very excited to see him and it reminded me of my first trip to Afghanistan in 2003 when I saw my first camel. I suddenly realized that this elephant was more than just a beast of burden. It was a metaphor for Burma. A might beast longing to be free but having trouble with coming to terms with it’s own reality. ©2013 Raymond Pagnucco

Logging Elephant
On my way to Laiza I happened to see an elephant used for logging on the side of the road.I realized that this elephant was more than just a beast of burden. It was a metaphor for Burma. A mighty beast yearning to be free but having trouble with coming to terms with it’s own reality. ©2013 Raymond Pagnucco

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.

Shot of the lower receiver of the M16 A veteran of the first war between the KIA and the Burmese military proudly displays this  US Government issues M16. If you look at the lower receiver you can still see  Colt AR 15 Property of the US Govt. M16A1 stamped on the side. When i told the veteran solider I grew up near the factory, he asked me when i go home if I could stop by the factory and pick some up for his men. My heart sank after hearing this. He then went on to tell me it was the finest rifle he had ever fired and he believed that the KIA could win the war only if they had more M16s.   This weapon most likely made it’s way to Burma via arms deals between ethic armies and the Thai Military or black market arms dealers who took advantage of the weapons left behind by the US in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.  Either way after 40 years the ghosts of the US presents in Southeast Asia still rome the jungles. ©2013 Raymond Pagnucco

Shot of the lower receiver of the M16
A veteran of the first war between the KIA and the Burmese military proudly displays this US Government issue M16. If you look at the lower receiver you can still see Colt AR 15. M16A1 stamped on the side. 
This weapon most likely made its way to Burma via arms deals between ethnic armies and the Thai military or black market arms dealers who took advantage of the weapons left behind by the US in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Either way after 40 years the ghosts of the US military adventure in Southeast Asia still hunts the jungle to deadly effect.  ©2013 Raymond Pagnucco

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.

Women praying at shrine  Since  fighting Between the Kachin Independence army and the Burmese Military (Tatamadaw)  escalated at the end December 2012 and beginning of January 2013, women for the Catholic church in Laiza walk the streets reciting the ava maria praying for peace in Burma. One night I decide to join them as they made their loop around the city. At the end of their loop the women end the evening back at the Church to pray one last time in front of a technicolored shrine to the Virgin Marry. In a weird way it remind me of my college dorm room minus the giant Grateful Dead Steel Your Face black light poster. After the ladies finished their prayer there was a defining silence. The women got up and walked over to me each one saying Chyeju gaba and shanking my hand. I soon realized they wanted they world to see my photos. ©2013 Raymond Pagnucco

Women praying at shrine
Since fighting Between the Kachin Independence army and the Burmese military escalated at the end December 2012 and beginning of January 2013, women from the Catholic church in Laiza walk the streets reciting the ava maria praying for peace in Burma. One night I decided to join them as they made their loop around the city. At the end of their loop the women end the evening back at the Church to pray one last time in front of a technicolor shrine to the Virgin Mary. .©2013 Raymond Pagnucco

KIA soldier sleeps in trench  After a long night of guard duty a KIA solder sleeps in a trench. This picture was take at the front lines in Laiza. Three weeks earlier this was a rear position now it’s the front. I stood over this young man while he slept and tried to imagine what this young man when through in the last few weeks. ©2013 Raymond Pagnucco

KIA rebel sleeps in trench
After a long night of guard duty a KIA member sleeps in a dug out dirt trench. This picture was taken at the front line at Laiza. Three weeks earlier this was a rear guard position now it’s a frontal one.  ©2013 Raymond Pagnucco

For more, see Raymond’s short film The Front Lines of Laiza over at CNN’s iReport.

TWD Inside Free Syria

January 31st, 2012 No comments

Man vs War. I was so ill prepared for this trek. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

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.

“We Still Seek No Wider War?”

November 22nd, 2010 No comments

President Johnson speaking about the Gulf of Tonkin on August 4, 1964.

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.”

May Issue of Militant Leadership Monitor Online

May 31st, 2010 No comments

Los Angeles- The May issue of MLM is out. Worked hard on this one. Enjoy! If you’re not already enjoying, subscribe! 

New Issue of Militant Leadership Monitor

April 2nd, 2010 No comments

MLM's third issue.

New York- The new issue of Militant Leadership Monitor is online. In this issue we have two pieces from two of Yemen’s three fronts. A profile of Adel al-Abbab of AQAP by Murad Batal al-Shishani and a bio of Abdulmalik al-Houthi leading the Zaidi rebellion in the country’s north by Michael Horton. Moving across the Arabian Sea up to Pakistan, Syed Adnan Shah Ali Bukhari tells us of the brutality of Ibn-e-Amin in the strife-torn Swat Valley. Heading west, we have a profile of Ibrahim Ag Bahanga, a hard bitten Tuareg rebel leader hailing from the Mali-Algeria border. Additionally, I have briefs on the arrest in Karachi of Mullah Omar’s son-in-law and the death of JI’s Bali bomber, Dulmatin, in a suburb of Jakarta last month.

Subscribe to Militant Leadership Monitor Here!

New Jamestown Article!

October 24th, 2009 No comments

JT grab for TWDI have a new piece in this week’s edition of Terrorism Monitor on the Jamestown Foundation site that can be read here. It is the first long form interview with PJAK leadership that I’m aware of.

BBC Appearance on Drones and Demonization

May 20th, 2009 No comments

 

Lawyer Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui in his client Khalid Khawaja in the warrens of the Rawalpindi bar association last year.

Lawyer Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui and his client Khalid Khawaja in the warrens of the Rawalpindi bar association last year. ©2008 Derek Henry Flood

I participated in a contentious debate on the BBC at the last minute today with Owen Bennett-Jones, author of Eye of the Storm, who was hosting a show from Islamabad. Initially, I didn’t realize I was on with a perennially controversial figure in Islamic politics in Pakistan Khalid Khawaja whom I met at his lawyer’s office in Rawalpindi last year. Pakistan is convulsing in the largest humanitarian crisis since the catastrophic Partition of British India in 1947.

The Pakistani army is waging a difficult battle against those it terms “Miscreants” which the Western media knows collectively as the Taleban. Meanwhile millions of civilians, much like those in Sri Lanka, are caught dangerously in the middle. If Islamabad treats its own citizens as badly as Colombo, there will be plenty of trouble ahead. The rifts within Pakistani society have become so deep that solutions, rather than traditional exchanges of blame and conspiracy theories, are desperately in order. The United States is attempting to partner with Asif Ali Zardari who many Pakistanis see as an integral part of the problem much the way Afghans now view Hamid Karzai. Siding with inept and inherently corrupt leadership further perpetuates insurgency in these two vital and very fragile state structures. Taleban ideologues proclaim foremost that theirs is a war against a fraudulent leadership and a vacant justice system marketed through a prism of rigid Islamic doctrine. The Taleban’s two-front war is not terribly differing from the massive Maoist insurrection being waged against the state in central India. Pakistan has yet to adopt a viable counterinsurgency strategy and huge parts of NWFP are being displaced as a result. Fighting a conventional war against furious Pashtun religious nationalists will fail unless Pashtunistan’s legitimate issues are addressed in the long term which, so far, Islamabad does not appear inclined to do. 

Podcast link hereBBC WHYS

A Lament for Pakistan

I have a piece this week on the Huffington Post on where Pakistan was and where it is or could be going. Read it here