There is now enough video and photo evidence to confirm that the Burmese military has deployed fighter jets and helicopters close to its border with China to use against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). One video circulating on Facebook, in which you can hear a man speaking Kachin, shows a fighter jet being shot down. Despite this, and various other videos of attack helicopters and planes flying low over KIA positions, the government on Monday denied it was using aerial power. Instead it said the planes, which Kachin sources have claimed include Serbian-made G4 trainer jets, are being used to resupply Burmese battalions after KIA troops had cut off roads.
Past reports of planes flying over KIA positions (and allegations the Burmese army was using chemical weapons) have surfaced since fighting first broke out in June 2011, although without the intensity of the latest wave from the Burmese side. Nor was there the hard video evidence that has emerged in the past fortnight.
It’s probably safe to say then that the conflict has moved into a new phase, as the Burmese push closer to the Kachin headquarters in Laiza (the government had reportedly ordered the KIA to clear a key supply road by 25 December, or risk heavier attacks). “We’ve heard motor fire in every 20 minutes day and night since 14 December,” one person wrote.
A source currently in Laiza told me today that fighting has broken out around Bumre Mountain, which lies around seven kilometres from Laiza, and is thus very close to the China border. It may well also be the closest that fighting has got to Laiza. Other unverified reports from the KIA claim the Chinese are complicit in the fighting.
“All the jets they have been using to crush the posts around Laiza are attacking Pangwa areas now,” another source said in an email. “They’re using Chinese airspace and bombarding there. So the Chinese police from border point-6 have gone. It’s obvious that China is the accomplice in this.”
Again, this can’t be independently confirmed, yet the Burmese army is known to have used Chinese territory earlier this year to launch a rear-guard assault on a Kachin battalion north of Laiza. That may or may not have been done this with the permission of Chinese authorities.
China however should be growing nervous at the proximity of the fighting to its border (Laiza town sits directly on the borderline). On several occasions, notably after the Burmese attack on Kokang rebels in 2009 that forced 30,000 refugees into China, it has warned Burma to maintain stability in the border regions where it has various lucrative investments. It may then have pressured Burma into attempting a final rout of the Kachin army, which as investment in Kachin state grows becomes a potentially destabilising force, although its strained relations with the government cloud the picture somewhat.
Of pressing concern is the safety of refugees close to Laiza. Conditions are already poor with the arrival of winter snow in the Kachin mountains, meaning that should fighting draw closer to the camps, the ability of refugees to flee will be hugely impeded. Kachin sources have said that planes and helicopters have flown over Je Yang and Hpung Lum Yang camps near Laiza, and as a result, “trenches and foxholes have been dug around the camps”. If China is indeed playing a hand in this latest push, then one can assume it would also tighten the border and potentially block refugees from crossing over (it already expelled around 7,000 Kachin refugees from its territory earlier this year). The situation is endlessly traumatic for the 70,000-odd displaced Kachin.
The lack of international condemnation for the latest wave of attacks is puzzling. “Just like Syria but where’s the intl outrage?” tweeted one journalist of the aerial assaults. Kachin have also used social media to vent anger at Aung San Suu Kyi, whom they say has not responded with any substance to the conflict. It’s worth remembering that President Thein Sein has twice already ordered troops to cease attacks on the Kachin, but clearly to no avail.
“The Burmese military is wrong to believe that the tenuous peace in other parts of Burma has given it a free hand to handle the Kachin conflict as it pleases,” reads a measured and important editorial in the Irrawaddy last week. “All it is doing is fanning the flames of ethnic resentment, and making real peace harder to achieve in the long run.”