Laiza in the spotlight: Myanmar’s rebel capital digs in – and switches on

Laiza is a city under siege – sort of. On one side of this remote, mountainous but important settlement in Myanmar’s breakaway Kachin state lurks the dreaded Burmese army. On the other, marking the city limits, is the Chinese border. “People are worried,” says Dau Hku, an official with the rebel Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which controls Laiza as the de facto capital of its small and shifting breakaway territory. “Everyone knows we are within shelling range.”

In theory, the Burmese army – known as the Tatmadaw – could attack the city at any moment, and in theory, Laizans would have nowhere to run. Most people aren’t officially allowed to cross the border into China.

The reality, though, is more complicated. For nearly 60 years the KIA has fought the Burmese government for control of Kachin state, with the goal of establishing an autonomous homeland for the Kachin people, a tiny Christian minority in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. They have been surprisingly effective, in part because the region’s difficult terrain and complicated geopolitics – the Chinese are major investors in Kachin state and support both sides – discourage the Burmese army from waging all-out war. Instead, the Tatmadaw has settled for spectacular, if sporadic, acts of violence. It launched an offensive on the rebel territories five years ago this month, with air strikes hitting Laiza on Christmas Eve 2012.

Since the last peace agreement broke, in 2011, it has bombarded the city multiple times, killing dozens and terrorising the population. But even as the shells have rained down and refugees have massed on its outskirts, Laiza continues to evolve into an important political and cultural centre.

Uncertain future

Laiza is one of the few places in Myanmar where the Kachin can practise their culture freely: studying, worshipping and publishing in their own language. Visit Laiza after spending time in anywhere else in the country, and the first thing you notice (or maybe the second, after all the churches) is the street signs. They’re in Jingpho, which is banned elsewhere. Laiza has a Jingpho-language newspaper, television and radio stations, and even a book publisher.

Meanwhile, the Chinese authorities have mostly turned a blind eye as people travel across the border to work and trade. (Indeed, the local economy depends on their forbearance.) Until recently it was relatively easy to travel to Laiza from the government-controlled areas, too: during the school breaks, many young Kachin made the pilgrimage to Laiza to volunteer with local schools and NGOs, and train as recruits with the KIA.

Laiza in numbers

50+ Years the KIA has controlled territory along Myanmar’s north-eastern border with China

1994 Year the Kachin Independence Organisation relocated its headquarters to Laiza, transforming the then village into the de facto capital of the Kachin Autonomous Region

20,000 Estimated number of people living in Laiza proper

70,000+ Number of people living in refugee camps in and around the city

1.1 million Number of Kachin people living in Myanmar, or about 1.5% of the country’s total population. Most live on the government-controlled side of Kachin state, where their language and culture are strictly policed

KIA soldiers guard a post overlooking Laiza.
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KIA soldiers guard a post overlooking Laiza. Photograph: Alexander F Yuan/AP

History in 100 words

Until the mid-1990s, Laiza was just another Kachin village in the rugged borderlands of north-eastern Burma. The KIA maintained a strategic military post in the area, and when it signed a peace agreement with the government in 1994, moved its headquarters to Laiza. The rebel group set about establishing the rudiments of a livable city, creating public utilities and building hospitals, schools and hotels. Kachin from all over the region moved in. The population ballooned, until fighting broke out again. Laiza has since become a powerful symbol of Kachin’s political and cultural aspirations – and a high-profile target for Burmese attacks.

The city in sound and vision

The local metal band Blast Jan Pan record and shoot their music videos in Laiza. This one, Masha, features blistering guitar solos and a good street-side view of the city.

In 2013, the Burmese military shelled Laiza. A resident captured nine harrowing minutes of the attack on video.

Biggest urban risk

For Laizans, security remains the most pressing civic issue. With no peace agreement in sight and the Burmese military intensifying its attacks, people have little choice but to put their faith in the moderating influence of the Chinese government. But this comes at a price, too: Beijing doesn’t want to see the conflict resolved too neatly, lest it lose its leverage with both sides. China wants Kachin support as it continues to push for a major hydroelectric project that would flood large swaths of Kachin state. This, ironically, is one area where the Kachin people and Burmese government actually share a common interest: the government suspended the project in 2011 out of concern that it would harm livelihoods and biodiversity downstream.

What’s next for the city?

With the election of Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s civilian government in 2015, there was hope among Kachin that another peace agreement might move self-determination closer. But the Burmese army, not the government, has dominated the peace talks. Emboldened by a public that seems to have no appetite for compromise with minority groups, the military insists on total disarmament of rebel groups – even as it continues to attack KIA positions and gobble up territory around Laiza.

Laiza from a nearby hillside.
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Laiza from a nearby hillside. Photograph: Khin Maung Win/AP

While the Tatmadaw and the Chinese ponder their next moves, life goes on in Laiza. The city is gearing up for its first ever photo and film festival this January. The theme is the global refugee crisis, and it’s hoped the festival will focus international attention on the situation here and beyond. It’s also an opportunity to celebrate the city and all that has been accomplished in just a few years.

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The Instagram feed Everyday Kachin publishes slice-of-life photos from Laiza and across Kachin State. For regular, in-depth coverage of the Kachin conflict, the Irrawaddy is your best bet. The Free Burma Rangers, a humanitarian group that works closely with the KIA and other rebel groups, is a good source for current, if partisan, reports from the frontlines.