On the Front Lines with the Kachin Independence Army

Narciso Contreras—Polaris
Narciso Contreras—Polaris
Jan Mai outpost at the top of the mountains, some kilometers away from Maiya Jang city. The outpost is occupied now by KIA soldiers after the Burmese army lost the post during heavy fighting.

Burma is changing. On April 1, Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi led the opposition National League for Democracy to victory in by-elections hailed as a landmark for the Southeast Asian nation. The win capped a raft of other shifts since the country’s military rulers ceded power to a quasi-civilian government last year. President U Thein Sein—a former general and one of this year’s TIME 100 honorees—has freed selected political prisoners, loosened the state’s grip on the media and signed peace agreements with ethnic rebels. But there are exceptions to the positive news from the country, notably the ongoing conflict in Kachin State.

As this series of photographs taken by Mexican photojournalist Narciso Contreras illustrates, the remote northern region is still at war. Following the collapse in June 2011 of a 17-year ceasefire between the Burmese army and ethnic Kachin rebels, violence has become an almost daily occurrence. In a recent report, Human Rights Watch claimed that the Burmese military has murdered, tortured and raped civilians. And, although they  also accuse the rebel Kachin Independence Army (KIA) of “serious abuses, including using child soldiers and antipersonnel landmines,” most of the crimes outlined in this latest report were allegedly committed by the Burmese military.

The report is based on testimony from more than 100 people living in two camps for  internally displaced people in Kachin State and across the border in China’s Yunnan province. It finds that Burmese soldiers have deliberately and indiscriminately attacked civilians, tortured children as young as 14, raped women, pillaged properties and razed homes. By the organization’s estimates, the violence has displaced some 75,000 and forced men as old as 70 into labor on the conflict’s front lines.

There have been some gestures at peace. Burmese President Sein has made repeated calls for the military to cease offensive actions in Kachin and use only defensive measures. His government has held seven rounds of talks with the KIA, most recently in the border town of Ruili. However, those talks ended without agreement last month. The government cannot control the Army, they go their own way,” said Laphai Naw Din, editor of the Thailand-based Kachin News Group.

Meanwhile, the clashes continue. Contreras’ pictures, alongside accounts by other journalists and NGO workers who have recently visited the area, show both sides preparing for a long fight. For the civilians and soldiers on the front lines, change can’t come soon enough.

Joe Jackson works at TIME’s Hong Kong bureau.

To see more recent work from Burma check out Aung San Suu Kyi’s Path to Victory by James Nachtwey

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