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For Myanmar's Kachin Rebels, Life Teeters Between War, Peace

Despite progress in its transition to democracy, Myanmar has struggled to end all the ethnic insurgencies that have long divided the country.

Now the Kachin — the last of the insurgent groups that have been fighting the government — have signed a preliminary agreement that could end the conflict.

The agreement falls short of an actual cease-fire, but calls for both sides to work "to end all armed fighting."

Two years ago, Myanmar's army broke a cease-fire and launched an offensive against the Kachin Independence Army, or KIA. The fighting displaced more than 100,000 Kachin people, a hill tribe who live on both sides of the Myanmar-China border.

Lamai Luseng is one of those who was forced to leave. She lives in a refugee camp in northern Myanmar's Kachin state. Many of the refugees have lived in the camp's wooden shacks since two years ago, when the fighting resumed.

At first, Lamai Luseng and her family fled over the border into China. But they didn't feel safe or welcome there, so she came to this camp.

"I feel safe staying here, because the KIA is from our ethnic group. We trust them. And the people in this camp trust each other," she says.

A nearby church holds services on Sunday. While most Burmese are Buddhists, the Kachin are mostly Christian. They also have their own language, and their homelands are rich in jade and timber.

The KIA has been fighting to preserve all of this for about 50 years. Its 8,000 or so soldiers are lightly armed, but they're very good at jungle warfare.

"Left, right, left!" a drill sergeant calls out in the Kachin language as he trains KIA cadets.

There was heavy fighting in Kachin state early this year. Government troops almost overran KIA headquarters.

Neighboring China got alarmed and helped broker a preliminary cease-fire agreement between the two sides. The Kachin did not trust the Burmese government, and asked the U.S. and U.K. to observe the peace talks. But China is wary of a foreign presence on its border and refused the Kachin's request.

Chinese Academy of Social Sciences scholar Du Jifeng explains that Myanmar's democratic reforms have cost China some influence in that country. But the Kachin conflict offers China a way to maintain some leverage.

"By getting involved in this peace process, China expanded its local influence, which in turn boosted its leverage in relations with Myanmar's central government," Du says. "Expanding its influence wasn't China's primary consideration, but objectively, this is the result."

China funded communist rebels fighting the Burmese government during the 1960s and 1970s, but later withdrew its support. While China cannot give the Kachin material support, it does give them some control over parts of the China-Burma border, which helps them militarily and economically.

China will not take a stand on whether Myanmar should adopt the federalism that the ethnic minorities want or the centralized system that the military prefers. But until this debate is settled, the border stability that China sees as a priority in its relations with Myanmar may prove elusive.

A bone-rattling, eight-hour jeep ride away, through lush jungles and misty mountains, is the KIA headquarters in the town of Laiza.

It's odd to be in a place that is part of Myanmar — on the map at least — but which the central government has never really controlled. Kachin state just seems to teeter precariously somewhere in between peace and war.

In Laiza, KIA Maj. Gen. Gun Maw says that after Burma gained its independence from Britain, the Kachin people agreed to be a part of the new nation in exchange for full autonomy.

"In 1947, our leaders made an agreement with Gen. Aung San to establish a federal union, in which all ethnic people can enjoy equal status," he says. "This is a basic principal on which our nation was founded, and we want to maintain it."

Aung San is known as the founder of modern Burma, and the father of current opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

But not long after the agreement was signed, Aung San was assassinated, and governments since then have failed to honor the deal.

Gun Maw says that the government has never treated the KIA's political wing, the Kachin Independence Organization, as a legitimate entity with which it can negotiate Kachin state's political future.

"From the very beginning, the KIA has fought for the rights which the Kachin people deserve," he says. "But the Burmese government has always just treated us like a bunch of armed rebels."

The reformist government of President Thein Sein says it now supports federalism, and it's pushing for a nationwide cease-fire with all ethnic insurgent groups.

But the ethnic groups are not interested in any cease-fire that does not lead to real autonomy. And without that autonomy, they say, Myanmar's democratic reforms will be incomplete.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.