MONG ARK, Myanmar — On a freshly scarred battlefield, a diehard rebel army is facing off at gunfire range against a military that for decades has imposed iron-fisted rule over this Southeast Asian nation. Overhead, vultures circle the mountainous terrain while insurgent soldiers crouch near deep foxholes, prepared, they say, to throw back another possible assault.
Myanmar's civil war – the longest in modern world history – hasn't ended, even with democracy triumphant in recent elections and the winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, pledging to end hostilities between the central government and a host of autonomy-seeking ethnic minorities. Prospects for stopping the bloodshed are balanced on a knife's edge.
Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy swept November's elections, has promised that bringing peace will be the top priority when her government assumes power April 1. "We will try for the all-inclusive ceasefire agreement," the Noble Prize laureate said recently. "We can do nothing without peace in our country."
But suspicions of the country's military were again aroused as it battled the Shan State Army-North in these remote hills of northeastern Myanmar just as voters were casting their ballots across the country. As the countdown to democracy proceeds, so do clashes with the Kachin Independence Army, the Ta'ang National Liberation Army and others.
Rebel fighters of Shan State Army North stand close to a wood fire on Feb. 5 after participating in morning drills in Wan Hai, an area under their control in northeastern Shan state, Myanmar. Photo: Esther Htusan / Associated Press
The rebel armies represent various ethnic groups that for decades have been fighting for autonomy while resisting "Burmanization," a push by the Burman ethnic majority to propagate its language, religion and culture in ethnic minority regions.
"No, no, no we don't trust them," Shan army Maj. Gen. Hso Hten said of Myanmar's military, vowing they would only lay down their arms if their goals were fully implemented, the foremost of which is a federal system in which ethnic minorities are granted genuine autonomy. That would include use of ethnic languages in schools and greater control over forests, hydro-power and other natural resources.
During the battles in Shan state, which ended with a fragile ceasefire at the end of November, government jet fighters and helicopter gunships strafed and bombed military and civilian targets. They swept into villages, driving more than 10,000 from homes they looted and sometimes destroyed, according to refugee and Shan army accounts.
Both sides accuse one another of sparking yet another round of warfare in an insurgency that erupted in the early 1960s among the Shan, the largest of 135 officially recognized ethnic minorities that make up 40 percent of the population. The first uprising, that of the Karen, was launched 67 years ago, shortly after the country's 1948 independence from Great Britain, followed by numerous others.
The generals ceded power to a military-backed government in 2011, paving the way for the recent elections. But the armed forces remain the country's most powerful institution, stoking fears they will take orders not from the elected government but their commander-in-chief.
A rebel fighter of Shan State Army North adjusts his equipment Feb. 4 as another soldier follows, at rear, to the front line in Mong Ark, an area under their control in northeastern Shan state, Myanmar. Photo: Esther Htusan / Associated Press
Hso Hten, who joined rebel ranks in 1958, expressed some hope in Suu Kyi's future government, given her overwhelming popular support.
"We are compelled to trust her because we don't have any choice," said the 80-year-old general in an interview in the town of Wan Hai from which his rebel army says it commands more than 10,000 troops and 18,000 square miles (46,600 square kilometers) of territory.
Like the other major insurgencies — notably the Kachin and Karen — this Shan group is not a classic guerrilla outfit swooping down from jungle hideouts but more akin to a state within a state. It runs 28 departments, including health and agriculture, schools, a hospital and orphanage, and even issues its own vehicle license plates.
The Shan treasury, which gathers revenue from taxes on residents, can purchase weaponry on the black markets of China, Thailand and Cambodia. Some groups in the Shan State and elsewhere in Myanmar have traditionally financed their insurgencies through drug trafficking.
On the frontline, some 5 miles (8 kilometers) from Wan Hai, soldiers wield everything from Czech pistols to U.S.-made grenade launchers from the Vietnam War. A 24-hour alert is in force, and at night the soldiers observe the campfires of the Burmese military dug into a range of undulating hills.
The fighters sleep burrowed into tiny molehill-like shelters camouflaged against aerial attacks by withered brown leaves. Use of airpower is a recent development in the fighting, and some powerful ordnance appears to have been dropped: one bomb crater measured some 1.5 meters (5 feet) in depth.
The soldiers talk of combat in October and November that killed 70 of their comrades. They file past a shattered house where they killed a Burmese commander with a rocket-propelled grenade. A few meters (yards) away, stretching across a beautiful valley carpeted by terraced rice fields, begins a no-man's land sown with mines.
"We have this small piece of territory and want to live in peace but they still come and attack us," said Lt. Sao Mong. "They are all over these mountains. If they don't intend to attack again why are they still here, why don't they withdraw?"
The Shan State Army-North, one of two main Shan rebel armies, refused to sign a ceasefire agreement last October between the government and eight insurgent groups. But none of the more than 20 armed insurgencies have given up their weapons. The Shan general said the armed groups in total field some 100,000 soldiers, although analysts believe the figure may be less.
"The government has always said, 'Put down your guns and we will talk politics,' while the insurgents said, 'Let's talk politics and then we will put down our guns, maybe.' That issue is still there," says David Steinberg, an American author of several books on Myanmar.
Suu Kyi's party promise to expunge the legacy of nearly seven decades of hatred, suspicion and blood may prove difficult.
While some rebel groups have committed unlawful acts, including the recruitment of boy soldiers, international agencies, the United Nations and others have over several decades detailed widespread rape, torture and extra-judicial killings of civilians, even crucifixions, by the military. Villagers have been used as human minesweepers. More than half a million people have been driven from their homes just in eastern Myanmar.
The former government acknowledged that some atrocities did occur while its forces were fighting what it called "terrorist organizations." But nobody has been brought to justice, Suu Kyi has announced no plans to do so and the military continues to operate in its former fashion, although the scale of atrocities appears to have lessened.
"We ran away with only the clothes we were wearing. We are afraid to go back," said Pa Phit, a 45-year-old woman who fled with all other 60 residents when government troops entered Ho Nam village while firing their guns. "We have nothing left, not even a small spoon."
Among more than 1,400 refugees encamped on a bare hilltop was 102-year-old Nai Nang, carried over the hills by grandchildren after the troops occupied her village.
With such acts, the insurgents do not lack for fresh recruits to their cause, even if a private in the Shan army earns just $8 a month.
"We have been facing injustice, bullying and oppression since I was young," said Sao Siha as he walked around a Wan Hai monastery where damage from mortars and air-launched rockets had been freshly repaired.
After years of witnessing killings of innocent people, he finally had enough when in October the military attacked his town of Maing Naung. The abbot of a Buddhist monastery and a monk for 36 of his 45 years, Sao Siha made what he said was a wrenching decision – to exchange his robes for a Shan army uniform.
"I wanted to take action against injustice," he said. "I had no choice."
Story: Denis D. Gray / Associated Press
Additional reporting Esther Htusan