When the Burmese soldiers dumped the body of a young ethnic Kachin guerrilla fighter outside a jungle hut in front of his commander, he was still in his uniform. His right hand had been shredded with a knife. There was a large gunshot wound in his stomach.
The soldiers had captured and tortured the fighter, Lance Corporal Chang Ying, the previous day in retaliation for the Kachin army’s detention of two Burmese officers who had entered Kachin territory, said the commander, Major Robin Maran. The Kachin released both officers alive. In exchange, they got the lance corporal’s body.
“The Burmese didn’t show mercy,” Maran said some months after that exchange. “I told them: ‘We showed our good nature to you, but you didn’t show good nature to us.’”
That round of violence in June contributed to the end in the same week of a 17-year ceasefire between the Burmese military and the Kachin Independence Army, which controls an autonomous region where rivers from China slice through the deep valleys of northern Myanmar. Burmese generals pressed their offensive even though Burmese President Thein Sein, who is trying to blunt the repressive policies of this military dictatorship, ordered a halt on Dec. 10.
About 70,000 villagers have fled their homes as a result of the renewed hostilities, one-tenth of them seeking refuge in China.
Thein Sein’s order was part of a broader liberalization campaign meant to end Myanmar’s long isolation and re-engage the country with the US and its allies. While there are occasional setbacks, his government is courting political opponents it once imprisoned, rewriting draconian laws and seeking peace with some ethnic minorities. However, those geopolitical changes seem very distant in the secluded Kachin homeland, and Maran, 56, who has seen the ups and downs of a struggle against the Burmese government that has lasted decades, is not one to put much store in proclamations of peace, as he wages a war that has unfolded largely out of sight of the rest of the world.
The unit he commands, the 15th Battalion of the 3rd Brigade, with more than 200 soldiers, has been at the heart of the new conflict. The enemy is different this time, better trained and armed, the major said. Chang Ying was the first of four men he has lost in this conflict, he said.
Two months ago, the major, a short, soft-spoken man who wears a pistol on his right hip, organized the retreat of the battalion’s headquarters from a site that had been surrounded by Burmese soldiers. His superiors ordered him to set up a temporary base on a forested ridge above a dirt road. It consists of 10 bamboo huts, just as many roosters and a net where soldiers in T-shirts play kick volleyball.
NO POINT DIGGING IN
The 21 soldiers here could be asked to move again soon, so the major has not ordered them to dig trenches or foxholes. They spend their days on short patrols and watch duty.
One day at dusk, there was an explosion to the south. Two foreign visitors looked up. The major did not.
“It’s a mortar round or a land mine,” he said.
Minutes later, there were booms from a different direction.
“Chinese construction,” the major said.
The major is from Myitkyina, the capital of the Burmese-controlled part of Kachin state. Like most Kachin, he is Christian. His father was the deacon of a Baptist church. Maran joined the Kachin Independence Army in 1975, more than 13 years after the Kachin and other ethnic militias went to war with Myanmar because of a military coup in Yangon.