Dispatch

Myanmar's Last Front

As the conflict in Kachin state wages on, civilians remain caught in the crossfire.

SHAN STATE, Myanmar — Shan, a 53-year-old farmer, wears a blue-and-white button-down shirt over her patterned longyi, a traditional Burmese wrap. She sits quietly with her family, next to the few belongings they were able to carry when they were forced from their home in April.

Shan, who gave only her first name, is one of nearly 1,000 villagers from Myanmar's northern Kachin state who have settled in an abandoned school in the small town of Namkham, in neighboring Shan state. The school is a temporary refuge set up by the Kachin Baptist Convention -- a locally based Baptist denominational body whose mission is to provide aid in Myanmar's ethnic-minority areas -- for people displaced by renewed fighting between Myanmar's army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), an armed ethnic group. The school has 20 or so classrooms, which now house droves of families -- with about 30 people packing tightly into each room for shelter, marking their respective spots on the ground with a few blankets. Nearly 200 other people occupy the concrete grounds of a dilapidated activities hall, where chairs and tables have been pushed to the side to make space.

The displaced fled amid a Myanmar army offensive intended to target KIA strongholds. But, according to Shan, only civilians were under bombardment. "There were no [rebel] soldiers, but they attacked our villages," Shan says. "The government troops shelled our villages."

The displaced Kachin state civilians in Namkham join approximately 120,000 others who have been living in camps in northern Myanmar since 2011, when a 17-year-old cease-fire between the government and the KIA collapsed. Since then, the government has staged a series of offensives against the rebels, most recently in June.

The KIA is just one of myriad ethnic rebel groups that have taken up arms against the government, which has long been dominated by the country's ethnic Burman majority since Myanmar (then Burma) gained independence in 1948. Fueled by ongoing demands for greater political autonomy and the military's brutal tactics throughout the conflict, the rebellions have been waged for decades.

Yet in recent years, most of the insurgent armies have agreed to cease-fires with the government. Today, Kachin is something of a last front in what is often called the world's longest-running civil war -- one that continues to place civilians at risk.

An emergency aid worker with the Kachin Baptist Convention who requested anonymity said the army ramped up operations in Mansi Township on April 10, searching the forests for KIA guerrilla bases and chasing away civilians by firing mortar rounds.

"The people [at the school] are from the villages," he said, adding that civilians fled their homes on foot and hid until aid workers brought them to Namkham. "Fifty are still hiding in the forest."

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Since Myanmar's 2010 elections -- the country's first in 20 years -- the government has instituted a series of noteworthy political and economic reforms. Yet the optimism that emerged with the dissolution of the military regime is fading. The government has largely failed to protect Myanmar's Muslim minority from ongoing sectarian attacks, progress on media freedom is backsliding, and efforts to reform the constitution, which still grants significant political privileges to the military, has stalled.

Meanwhile, the military continues to be implicated in serious human rights abuses in Kachin as it seeks to root out the KIA once and for all.

Two young Kachin men, Sang, 20, and Goon, 21, were among several plucked from in and around the state's Bamuyang and Dingga villages after the military shelled their homes. Standing among the others displaced on the school grounds, they explain how they were forced to porter for government troops, guiding a battalion through forested mountains to rebel positions.

"First they forced us to walk ahead along the path between the farmlands because the army was afraid of land mines. Later, when we reached the front line, the fighting started," says Sang. Goon recalls taking cover with the Myanmar army soldiers in a village during fighting. "We were so scared that we would die," he says.

The two men were released after one day when a local Kachin church intervened by presenting the battalion with a letter petitioning for their release. The young men eventually found their way to the school in Namkham.

Their story is not unique. On June 9, Fortify Rights, a human rights organization based in Southeast Asia, released a report documenting abuses of Kachin civilians by government forces over the past two years, including indiscriminate shelling, forced labor, torture, beatings, rape, and murder. "Most of the torture we documented appeared to occur with the knowledge and consent of commanding officers, in similar ways and in disparate locations, indicating the abuses are being carried out as a matter of state policy," says Matt Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, adding that the president's office in Myanmar flatly denied the report's findings.

Such allegations, however, are not limited to the military. The KIA has also been cited for abuses. A 2012 report by Human Rights Watch, for instance, implicated the rebel army in the use of child soldiers, as well as the use of unconventional weapons, such as land mines, over the years.

Wartime abuses are compounded by the dire humanitarian situation in Kachin, particularly for those displaced within KIA-controlled territory. In June 2013, the government allowed the United Nations to deliver aid to those displaced in rebel-held areas -- the first time in nearly a year. But despite the official easing of aid restrictions, in practice government checkpoints continue to largely restrict access to Kachin villages affected heavily by conflict. Thus local organizations, as opposed to international ones, play a significant role in documenting abuses and providing aid to the displaced. The Kachin Baptist Convention, for instance, relies on informal relationships with personnel on both sides of the conflict in order to anticipate when skirmishes will take place and to either help deliver supplies or escort villagers out of the area. Despite its efforts -- alongside those of several other smaller aid groups -- there is an undersupply of provisions to support the ever-increasing number of displaced civilians.

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The government has upheld its pledge to hold talks on a nationwide cease-fire with an alliance of ethnic groups. Yet agreement with the KIA and the Ta'ang (Palaung) National Liberation Army, a rebel group in northern Shan state, have proved elusive. And the April clashes between government forces and the KIA, which together reportedly killed at least two dozen soldiers and rebels, could undermine the government's hopes for a nationwide truce that would bring all civil conflict to an end. (It's uncertain how many civilians were killed in the attacks.)

The government and the KIA did meet in May and June for bilateral negotiations, and the two sides established a peace-monitoring commission intended to help prevent further clashes. And a government advisor involved in Myanmar's peace process said he is confident tensions are going to recede. "Whatever the current situation is in Kachin state, both the government and KIA are committed to the peace process. Nothing is big enough to derail it," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Yet there is little evidence to support his optimism. The bilateral negotiations have not brokered any lasting de-escalation in hostilities, and there is no real timetable for the conclusion of talks. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of civilians remain uprooted from their homes, with little hope of returning anytime soon. For the displaced, the prospect of future peace is overshadowed by the reality of what they have already lost.

Standing at the school in Namkham, Shan recollects how several people living near her have gone missing since the government shelled her township.

"Four persons are still missing. We don't know if they are still alive of dead," she says. "We need to find out."

Photos by Philip Heijmans

Dispatch

A Foothold on the Euphrates, a Boot Heel on the Tigris

Before ISIS stomped Mosul and turned Iraq upside down, it slowly crushed its enemies to death in Raqqa.

A peculiar scene marked the moment when the first provincial capital in Syria, the city of Raqqa, fell to rebel forces. While clashes for control of the city were still raging, a video was released showing rebel commanders from little-known Islamist battalions, which have since faded into oblivion, questioning two nervous high-ranking officials from President Bashar al-Assad's regime in the governor's palace.

The stilted exchange captured on camera was a foreshadowing of what was to come. The rebel leader interrogating the captured officials appeared reluctant to give any credit to the Western-backed Free Syrian Army for the victory, instead attributing the victory to groups that were the precursors of the various Islamist battalions that later took shape.

"Praise be to God, the operation was conducted successfully by the Islamic fronts and with the lowest number of losses. Praise be to God," he said.

When Raqqa was seized by the rebels in March 2013, anti-government Syrians hoped the city could serve as a successful model for a future democratic and pluralistic Syria. In a cruel twist of fate, however, a new authoritarian force soon came to power: In the mayhem that characterized the transitional period, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham gradually emerged as the strongest force in the city and transformed Raqqa into its de facto capital, using it as a base of operations to launch an offensive that has captured large swaths of territory across Iraq and eastern Syria. The story of how the jihadi organization gained one of its most important footholds in the Middle East shows its patience in coexisting with other groups while it established itself -- and its ruthlessness in crushing them once its strength grew.

Today, Raqqa serves as a military staging base for the group formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), now just the Islamic State, as well as a testing ground for its harsh interpretation of Islamic law. Following its capture of the Iraqi city of Mosul in early June, the group staged a military parade in Raqqa featuring tanks, a Scud missile, howitzer artillery pieces, and U.S.-made Humvees, presumably captured in Iraq. One video showed ISIS fighters doing doughnuts with a BMP infantry fighting vehicle in Raqqa's city center.

But the seizure of power -- and its cruel application -- came slowly. Back in the middle of last year, several months after it took control of the city, ISIS announced that male Christians would be forced to pay jizya, a tax levied on non-Muslims, as in the times of the Prophet Mohammed. The move foreshadowed the jihadi group's implementation of jizya in Mosul, where it also publicly marked the houses of Christians to identify them -- measures that caused most Christians to flee the Iraqi city. According to a Human Rights Watch report, ISIS has also established a network of prisons in Raqqa governorate, where it has tortured detainees -- including children -- by flogging them with cables and administering electric shocks. Some of those imprisoned by ISIS were members of rival armed groups, while others were accused of such "crimes" as smoking cigarettes. ISIS even created an all-women brigade in charge of monitoring and disciplining other women.

When Raqqa first fell from regime hands, it was far from obvious that jihadi groups were poised to gain the upper hand. In fact, ISIS had not yet come into existence in Syria -- the men who would become its fighters were still an indistinguishable part of the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra. As soon as government forces were rooted out of Raqqa, a diverse array of rebel military formations rushed to establish their presence in the newly liberated city. Jabhat al-Nusra and the Salafi Ahrar al-Sham were the strongest military formations, but several other independent battalions were operating in the city, such as Ahfad al-Rasoul, the Raqqa Revolutionaries Brigade, and Jabhat al-Wahda al-Tahrir al-Islamiya. Several of these smaller secular-leaning battalions struck an alliance in July 2013, raising some citizens' hopes that this alignment would help offset extremists.

The multiplicity of rebel groups in Raqqa in those early days acted as a check against abuses, as each faction had to be concerned with running afoul of the population and other militias. "When all those brigades were sharing power, they each had to make calculations before every move," said a 17-year-old Christian high school student from Raqqa who goes by the pseudonym George.

Even after ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the existence of his group in April 2013, one month after Raqqa's capture, the jihadi group's fighters remained quite approachable. At least in the beginning, George says. There was a sense that one could have a reasonable conversation with them, at their own headquarters, without incurring their deadly wrath. While Tunisian, Egyptian, and other foreign fighters openly mocked George's Christian beliefs and tried to get him to convert, he never felt threatened.

George said that a young Tunisian fighter even seemed to have been watching out for him until, one day, George exclaimed in gratitude: "You and I are like brothers." The fighter replied solemnly, "We can never be brothers, because you're Christian."

ISIS fighters did not initially interfere in citizen's lifestyles, said Haya, a 26-year-old activist who recently sought refuge in Turkey because she is wanted by the Islamic State for being active in a secular youth group. "They started with the real challenge to their authority posed by other armed factions; then they turned their attention to us weaklings."

Raqqa's residents did their best to adapt to life under their new rulers. A new, uncertain chapter in civil-military relations emerged as various rebel groups tried their best to take over state institutions and provide public services, while refraining from meddling too much in civilian affairs. A local council, funded in part by a number of local NGOs, such as the Ahl al-Khair Foundation, and in part by the political opposition, was allowed to set up shop. However, it remained severely underfunded and was subject to harassment by radicals.

For months, ISIS remained inconspicuous -- a hidden part of Jabhat al-Nusra, which the local populace found more amenable as its members were largely Syrians, who were thought to be more receptive to criticism.

Haya was part of a secular group that asked the jihadists outright to take down the black al Qaeda flag, three months after the city was liberated, as the group considered it at odds with the values of the Syrian revolution. The jihadi fighters were startled by the demand and responded tongue in cheek that current windy conditions would probably blow it away soon anyway.

"I approached one of them and explained to him that we didn't fight for this," said Haya. "He shrugged and told me that the wind would take care of it and that I was free to raise whichever flag appealed to me once that happened."

Before the opportunity to eliminate its military counterweights presented itself, ISIS would often coax others into acquiescence by reaching compromises. In lieu of radically revamping government institutions, the group left them to be managed by the invisible vestiges of the Baathist state or by other powerful military brigades. The Salafist Ahrar al-Sham movement, which was the other major force on the ground until last summer, shouldered a great deal of the responsibilities early on -- especially in terms of health services in Raqqa. The movement's leaders exhibited a certain willingness to cooperate with local councils and often spoke on record of the necessity of creating viable institutions to replace the absent government.

Two states seemed to coexist in the city for a while: Some governmental institutions were still functional, as government employees kept receiving their salaries from the central government in Damascus, while the rebel groups were in charge of security and military matters.

The turning point that brought ISIS out of the shadows came in August, when the jihadi movement became embroiled in a battle with the Ahfad al-Rasoul battalion.

Elexender, a young fighter with Ahfad al-Rasoul at the time who is now staying near the Bab al-Hawa crossing with Turkey, said that the sheer arrogance of ISIS fighters had antagonized locals.

"We stopped one of their so-called emirs at a checkpoint last August and asked for the ID of the woman who was accompanying him," he said. "He looked me in the eyes and told me, 'We are the state. This is our ID.'"

The long-standing tensions came to a head on Aug. 14, 2013, when ISIS detonated a car bomb at Ahfad al-Rasoul's headquarters -- obliterating the group as a military force. A day later, when activists staged a demonstration asking ISIS to stop clashing with other groups, they were met with a volley of machine-gun fire.

From that point on, ISIS was methodical in its assassinations. Fighters from Ahrar al-Sham and other brigades often complain that, whenever rebels would attempt to set limits on ISIS at meetings during that tense period, its fighters would casually let their hands linger on the suicide belts they always wore. The jihadi group quickly moved to neutralize its most prominent rivals -- either executing them or demanding allegiance -- and then began to abduct influential activists and implement its strict version of Islamic law.

One by one, rebel forces left the city and abandoned its citizens to their fate. After ISIS's split with Jabhat al-Nusra, the al Qaeda affiliate left Raqqa at the end of last summer and settled in the nearby town of Tabaqa. Ahrar al-Sham was also driven out within weeks, following sporadic but costly clashes. Some activists suspect that, in an attempt at pragmatism, Ahrar al-Sham struck a secret deal with ISIS, promising to hand over Raqqa to the group if it, in return, was allowed to stay in Aleppo and some parts of Idlib governorate.

In February of this year, a document bearing ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's signature announced the implementation of the jizya tax. But when it became evident that most disadvantaged Christian families in Raqqa simply could not afford to pay the required sum, an emir requested a meeting with Christian figures to inform them that they would not be taxed after all, as ISIS couldn't return their churches to them or promise them protection from outside aggression, which are requirements under Islamic law.

Public displays of violence have been central to the Islamic State's hold on people's psyches. According to Meizar Matar, a 30-year-old independent filmmaker from Raqqa, even the way the group first announced its existence was a brazen display of power, meant to strike fear in their opponents' hearts.

"They announced that they were the Islamic State the same day they executed the three Alawite people in the clock square [at the center of the city]," said Matar. "But people didn't quite know who they were and kept referring to them as Jabhat al-Nusra for quite a while after that."

Now that it is firmly in control, the Islamic State, much like the Assad regime, at times appears deliberately ambiguous toward small acts of dissidence. It's never quite clear to residents what transgressions might elude its fighters' vigilance, and which could result in their heads getting severed. The jihadi group has sometimes turned a blind eye to small infractions, such as wearing slightly improper attire -- but at the same time has staged public crucifixions of its supposed enemies in the center of Raqqa, as its supporters proudly tweeted out the gruesome images to the world.

"It's a way to stay on top of things," says Elexender, the young fighter who had been with Ahfad al-Rasoul. "You never know what could get you in trouble with them."

Elexender claims the extremist group was always more interested in triumphing over its rivals than paving the way for a better life for the citizens of Raqqa.

"The public had leverage before and was one of the determinants in whether a certain group was popular or not, and that kept us all in check," he said. "But with ISIS, they just rely on their brutality."

MEZAR MATAR/AFP/Getty Images