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Conflict

Dim outlook as guns fall silent in northern Myanmar

The guns over a key Kachin independence army outpost, Hka Ya Bhum near Laiza in northern Myanmar, may have fallen silent but the situation remains explosive.

The strategic hill top in Hka Ya Bhum in the Kachin state has been ravaged by the Myanmar Army's unceasing attacks, its vegetation obliterated, nearby forests ablaze, grey smoke billowing into the air.

For the past 18 months, the armed forces of Myanmar - also known as Burma - has maintained a campaign against the Kachin Independence Army, marking the end of a 17-year ceasefire pact.

"Since Burmese forces overran Hka Ya Bhum, there has been a resounding silence in Laiza and its surrounding area for the first time in 2013," a resident told the news service, Kachinland News.

Fighting at a 'critical' point

Just a few kilometers from the mountain outpost, Laiza is home to the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and its armed wing, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).

Refugee camp in bordering China

Many people from the Kachin state have fled to nearby China

Hka Ya Bhum has been under increasing attack for the past two months after Kachin forces earlier surrendered ground to the Myanmar Army.

Russian-made Mi-35 helicopter gunships, acquired by Myanmar in 2009, were involved in the attacks. The helicopters, sometimes reoffered to as "flying tanks," have been backed by aircraft fighters to support some 3,000 troops on the ground.

Karin Dean, a senior researcher at the Tallinn University in Estonia, believes the Kachin fight for autonomy over the past five decades is now at a "critical" point.

"The government has the power and equipment, (and is) well equipped to perhaps take over Laiza and crush the Kachin positions, but it will not be able to stop the violence," Dean told DW. "The KIO may have another tactic on the ground."

The intensified fighting reached a climax late last week with more than 1,000 mortars hitting the outpost. KIO spokesman U La Nan told Kachin media that the January 24 shelling marked a new record since the war began.

Major Zaw Khaung with the Kachin forces told Bangkok-based media that he was worried about being able to protect Laiza once the outpost fell. "We have launched neither an offensive nor guerrilla attacks," Zaw Khaung told The Bangkok Post newspaper. "We are just defending our land. If Hka Ya Bhum falls into their hands, they can control Laiza."

But Kachin officials Monday remained confident that the headquarters would remain secure from the Myanmar Army despite the loss.

Possible new ceasefire

Laiza, with a population of 20,000 and located close to the Chinese border, thrived during the ceasefire years as Kachin and Chinese businessmen opened up trade and business ties. But the outlook has changed significantly since the end of the ceasefire in mid-2011.

Kachin children walk outside a Catholic church in the border town of Laiza in Myanmar. (ddp images/AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

Laiza is the headquarters of the Kachin insurgents

Carl Thayer, a defense analyst at Australia's University of New South Wales, expects the Myanmar army to press for a new ceasefire.

"The strategy is obviously to gain an upper hand over the Kachin forces," Thayer told DW. "The attempt to get a ceasefire would cause the military to push even harder because it would solidify the gains it has got on the ground."

Dean fears a Kachin capitulation could have wider consequences for the Kachin community. "If they were crushed militarily, then [the situation] would be even worse [for the community] because the areas under KIO control would go under government control."

She said the KIO's control over the areas near the border has enabled the Kachin community to thrive and pursue projects in areas such as education, in which the Kachin language is spoken and taught in higher education.

The war, however, has led to tens of thousands of displaced people. Rights groups estimate about 20,000 displaced people in Laiza alone. New York-based Human Rights Watch puts the total across the Kachin state at more than 100,000.

Stewart Davies, with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Yangon, said that international organizations had long been calling for access to conflict areas, but the Myanmar government continued to deny it.

Calls for access

The intensified violence has only added to the calls for access, according to Davies. "More than ever, we are concerned about civilians caught in this conflict," he said. "We need access first and then we can follow up."

Participants gather to mark the International Day of Peace in Yangon, Myanmar, Friday, Demonstrators in Kachin State. 
(AP Photo/Khin Maung Win)

Demonstrators call for an end to the long-running ethnic insurgency in the Kachin state

The fighting has triggered concerns by the United States, China and United Nations. But in comments published by state-run media, Myanmar's Foreign Ministry countered by saying the US had failed to mention the "terrorist actions and atrocities committed by the KIA."

The government's aim is to secure and control the border areas as a basic condition for state sovereignty, according to Dean. She says the government also hopes to expanded trade with China, including extraction and export of rich natural resources such as jade, gold, timber and hydropower, which may be vital for its economic and political survival.

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