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Archive for the ‘Burma’ tag

Kachin Days

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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!

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.

Written by derekhenryflood

May 8th, 2013 at 3:14 pm

Welcome to Hell

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New York-Obama’s impending visit to Burma in the context of America’s “pivot” to Asia in this so-called “Pacific century” (in contrast to the previous Atlantic century epitomized by the formation of NATO etc) raises a lot of grave human rights concerns, many of which in the case of Burma have festered for decades. Obama will attempt to make America’s presence felt in Southeast Asia during the upcoming East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh.

The Bangladesh government refuses to help these children and the Burmese government refuses to recognize them as citizens even as it comes out of the shadows of international economic isolation. ©2008 Derek Henry Flood

In 2008, I traveled to the border town of Teknaf on the border of Burma’s Rakhine State (aka Arakan State) to document the festering Rohingya crisis at the junction of South and Southeast Asia. My visits to the fetid refugee camps south of Teknaf, Bangladesh culminated in From South-to-South: Burma’s Stateless Minority Under the Tip of Globalization’s Spear and my visit to the Rohingya migrant community in Karachi, Pakistan’s squalid Korangi Town area resulted in From South to South: Refugees as Migrants: The Rohingya in Pakistan.

As the tide rose on the Naf River, the camp became a toxic mix of disease and human waste. Every day. ©2008 Derek Henry Flood

I was covering the Rohingya issue, which began in earnest with ethnic pogroms in 1991, before it became to relatively hotter topic than it is now in 2012. Trying to bring attention to the crisis either here at the UN headquarters or down in DC on Capitol Hill was essentially a fool’s errand. To think that POTUS would be visiting Burma at that time (or any other time in modern history) seemed absurd.

Hell on earth. I will never forget my treks around the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh’s deep south. ©2008 Derek Henry Flood

Now everyone from CNN to the International Crisis Group is trying to catch up to speed and sound alarm bells on the world’s most persecuted, stateless people who are enduring a campaign of ethnic cleansing in part to make way for the development of offshore transnational natural gas projectson the Arakan coast. And the fact that international attention is being brought to these pogroms is a good thing, shame that it takes killings and displacements of thousands for it to come to the fore.

A Rohingya refugee girl from Burma’s Rakhine State waits to have her id created at a Medecins Sans Frontieres-assisted camp in Bangladesh’s Chittagong Division. ©2008 Derek Henry Flood

A key reason the Rohingya keep being killed and pushed out into the sea is that they are a stateless people. The insidious Burmese regime that tells the world it is gently democratizing continues to insist that these poor unwanted souls are ‘illegal migrants’ while the Sheikha Hasina administration in Dhaka cruelly maintains that the Rohingya are ‘economic migrants‘ that it cannot be responsible for aiding while its own citizenry go without. The Rohingya exist between the guns of the Tatmadaw (the Burmese military) and the Bangladesh Rifles (Border Guard Bangladesh). The Rohingya are hemmed in by a difficult geography with their only remaining option to try and reach refuge in Thailand by sea. Many of them then drown in unsound vessels and rough seas.

A gaunt Rohingya woman who was fortunate enough to find temporary shelter in southern Bangladesh. ©2008 Derek Henry Flood

As China and India, and now the United States, compete for economic and political influence in Burma, there has been no indication that the persecution of the Rohingya will be tamped down. The array of ethnic questions burning on the country’s periphery have been alight since independence from Britain in 1948-less than six months after the dissolution/independence of British India-have not been quelled with the re-introduction of Burma onto the world stage. Just because superficial change such as the return of Coke and Pepsi have taken place in no way beens that the Tatmadaw will not continue their brutal policies of scorched earth pogroms and enslavement. They may end up being emboldened.

A refugee gets employment as a day laborer building…a new refugee camp. An endless cycle of statelessness. ©2008 Derek Henry Flood

 

Written by derekhenryflood

November 12th, 2012 at 3:32 pm