Hundreds die in obscure war on Burma's border with China
Kachin rebel army uses guerilla tactics it employed to help the British beat the Japanese in WW2
CHIANG MAI - The skirl of bagpipes drifts over the highlands of Burma's northern Kachin State as the country's most feared rebel army drills in preparation for action against demoralised government forces. This is one of Asia's forgotten wars - and it's going on right now.
Hundreds of Kachin soldiers and Burmese army regulars have reportedly died and 30,000 Kachin villagers have fled to makeshift refugee camps on the Chinese border since a 17-year ceasefire between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and Burma's new government broke down in June.
"There's a full-scale war going on over there," said Swedish journalist and author Bertil Lintner, an authority on Burma and its ethnic minorities, visiting Chiang Mai after touring the mountainous Chinese region bordering Burma's Kachin State.
Communications with Burma's northernmost state are difficult at the best of times. But human rights organisations say they are receiving credible reports of widespread brutality by government forces frustrated by a well trained Kachin army employing guerrilla tactics they learned in World War Two when they helped the Allies chase the Japanese Imperial Army out of Burma.
Frustrated by the KIA's hit-and-run tactics, the Burmese government regulars are reportedly responding with search-and-destroy raids on Kachin villages. Human Rights Watch says it has well documented reports of government troops looting and destroying villages, stealing livestock and raping local women.
By contrast, the 10,000 KIA troops — 800 of them women — are independently described as well trained and disciplined, modeling themselves on their forefathers who fought alongside Britain and the Allies in two world wars.
Hence the bagpipes on parade ground drill. Kachin soldiers first learnt to play the pipes when serving in Gurkha units fighting alongside British troops in the Great War — most of them in Mesopotamia, present-day Iraq.
The wailing bagpipes are not the only reminder of the Kachin contribution to allied victories in two world wars.
The highly disciplined KIA troops wear British army style khaki or crisp white dress uniforms, some of the soldiers sporting medals won by grandparents in what villagers still call "our days of honour".
Like the Karen and other ethnic peoples in Burma's border regions, the Kachin were handed a raw deal when Burma achieved independence from Britain in 1948. The high degree of autonomy they had been promised at the pre-independence Panglong Conference was eroded by successive military governments, beginning with Ne Win's repressive regime, which seized power in 1962.
Kachin units joined the Karen in armed rebellion, but were beaten into submission while the world looked on. The Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), the political body behind the KIA, signed a ceasefire agreement with the military regime in 1994, but tension increased as the junta pressured ethnic armies to join a new "border guard force" under Burma Army command.
In June this year, the 1994 ceasefire broke down and hostilities flared throughout Kachin State, reaching a devastating scale in recent weeks.
Both the British and the Americans made use of Kachin talent against the Japanese in WW2. The British formed a guerrilla force known as the Kachin Levies. American forces under the controversial General Joseph Stilwell ("Vinegar Joe") set up a similar group of fighters named Detachment 101.
The Kachin were fierce and courageous fighters and their hit-and-run tactics in the remote highland territory they knew so well took a heavy Japanese toll.
The Burmese army would do well to remember one of Stilwell's accounts of working with the Kachin. One day, he questioned a Kachin commander's casualty report, which listed the number of dead Japanese soldiers as an impressive 5,428.
Stilwell asked the Kachin officer how he reached such a precise number. The Kachin produced a bamboo container and emptied on the US commander's desk a pile of human ears. "Divide by two!" he said.