I woke up one morning early in June 2011 in Northern Thailand to a short message from a top Kachin Independence Organisation intelligence officer “if possible you better come, there is going to be a big war“.
There was at the time, about 700 photojournalists working on Iraq and, just one working on the civil war in Kachin State. I booked my ticket that day and arrived 3 days later. It was a unique moment in rebel capital Laiza and in the history of the region. A time and an atmosphere that will never be repeated. There was a vibrancy to life that was never felt before or after.
All of Laiza’s citizens knew the Burmese Army wouldn’t be able to “break through” the KIA (Kachin Independence Army) lines and take over the rebellion strong-hold in 3 days as one Burmese general had boasted, but fear was still tangible. Very real concerns of imminent airstrikes, secret back door invasions from China and chemical attacks were circulating around town. These were the topics of conversation at meals and dinner break at 2am. Those who could continue working did until breakfast at 7am, working around the clock.
Snipers were on every rooftop and a glow of urgency and anticipation on every face. The reality of the many thousands of young men who would be wounded and killed in action had not yet sunk in. Nor had the practicality of caring for the hundreds of thousands of refugees that would quickly come to outnumber the city itself.
My makeshift office was a desk, 10 meters from General Gun Maw. Around me all the important KIOCC (Kachin Independence Organisation Central Committee) meetings played out. I was invited to film the very first ceasefire meeting held in Lai Ja Yang inside KIO territory. Of the seemingly countless talks since the fighting started, this was the most raw and at times most humorous peace talk.
A handful of senior officers and delegates sat informally on plastic chairs at a small table outdoors, mostly exchanging verbal blows at one another. The talks were held in Burmese,which the Kachin leaders had learned as a second language. Most of those who saw the video, on both sides, commented the KIO had the most direct “hits” and even provided splashes of humor in their second language, carefully bundles with the attacks.
However both sides, fierce adversaries, blinded by the excitement of war, failed to fully comprehended the 5+ year daily fight that they would come to know today. A civil war, still mostly unknown to the world, despite being at a crucial geopolitical hot spot. A civil-war, that now re-ignited, may be the world’s longest running.
Droves of refugees flooded into the KIO controlled areas, trusting the rebels over the Myanmar government. The KIO had set up a plan and funding for a possible refugee influx long ago. The wells and latrines were already dug and designs laid for the refugee city, now known as Je Yang.
Today 5 years later a lot has changed and the atmosphere in Laiza is a very different one. Gone are the vibrant early days of war. Enthusiasm for the fight has waned and the steady grind of stalemate has set in. Today discussions focus on casualties, another meaningless ceasefire talk, feeding, housing and educating 100,000 refugees without external aid for the 1,825th day.
Today my energy and vigor for covering Kachin State remains strong, but reading the world news headlines it remains depressing to see that your revolution isn’t even on page six of any major newspaper, all the while losing count of how many relatives and close friends you have lost in this civil war.
Having been the only one covering the war in those early days, I’m told many young boys saw the Kachin Independence Army for the first time through my photographs. They think it looks cool, so they join and they die. I think about that.
Personally when I go to Laiza now I never ask about people not currently at the table. As all too often the answer is news they passed fighting for the revolution. With a cheers of local rice wine and “Awng Dawng” for victory.