LAIZA, Kachin State — The sound of gun and mortar fire can be heard sporadically in the distance, breaking up a dark, pensive silence in this small valley town which is separated from China by only the 20-meter-wide Jeyang River.
“The fighting is just six or seven miles from here,” says Fr. Joseph Nbwi Naw, a parish priest at Laiza’s Catholic Church. “Early this morning, I think before sunrise, I could hear the explosions.”
Eighteen months of fighting between government troops and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has pushed tens of thousands out of their homes and into cold, under-resourced camps along the Sino-Burmese border.
Ethnic rebels from the KIA say they seek greater autonomy for the one million or so Kachin people in Burma’s northernmost state, echoing the demands of other ethnic minority militias in the country. At present, however, most of the other groups are not fighting the government.
For Joseph Nbwi Naw, war means a busy Christmas. There are just over 2,000 peacetime parishioners in and around Laiza, he says, but nowadays he preaches to three times that number, as he welcomes an influx of refugees from the conflict and makes regular trips to the frontlines, where he serves as a chaplain to KIA soldiers.
People in the town, which serves as headquarters for the KIA, talk about digging bunkers amid growing fears that the Burmese army is building up arms and troops nearby.
Despite mounting tension, locals seem keen to focus on Christmas in this mostly Christian region of Burma, where people decorate their walls with religious images or posters of pouty young Kachin musicians, rather than the photos of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi that are popular elsewhere in the country.
Red and green ribbons drape with blue Christmas lights on the town’s main buildings, while groups of schoolchildren go door-to-door singing Christmas carols at night.
Joseph Nbwi Naw says his message at Christmas mass will be “a reminder that Jesus came to us to bring peace, first to our own hearts, and then to the world. Without peace in our hearts, we cannot have peace with others.”
Up a hillside overlooking the town, Pastor La Htoi gives a regular Sunday service for KIA soldiers, around 90 percent of whom are Baptist. Like his Catholic counterpart, La Htoi peppers his discourse with Christian references and imagery, words that play well with his audience.
“Right now we are in a serious situation, secularly speaking, as we are surrounded by government forces. But spiritually we are strong, as God is with us,” he says as the congregation choir runs through hymns inside the hall.
Outside the town, reports of skirmishes come daily from scattered frontline outposts where the KIA and the Burma Army face off. KIA officials say government soldiers are using helicopters to fire on KIA positions.
“They made four passes with the helicopter yesterday [in Gang Dau Yang village]—that’s the word from the frontline,” says one KIA soldier.
A careful, bumpy drive out from Laiza, along a knee-deep river and past a KIA-built power station, sits the northern headquarters of the All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF), a controversial rebel group whose leaders have been accused of murdering former colleagues in an internecine dispute.
“Around 70 soldiers have gone to the frontline near Lajayang,” says La Seng, a 47-year-old Kachin who is one of several among Burma’s bigger ethnic groups to fight for the ABSDF. Lajayang is a 25-minute drive from Laiza.
“Here we are mostly Burman, but we also have Shan, Rakhine [Arakanese], Kachin and Karen,” he adds, looking down from the ABSDF hillside outpost over a majestic green and blue vista of mountains, valleys and streams.
The group, mostly former student demonstators who took to Burma’s streets in 1988 to protest against the then-military government, has fought the central government on and off for the intervening quarter-century.
“We started fighting again here in July 2011, soon after the KIA ceasefire ended,” says La Seng, referring to the June 2011 resumption of war in Kachin State between the Burmese army and KIA.
“The current government is the same as the old regime; they say they make changes, but there is no change,” he adds, explaining the group’s decision to fight alongside the KIA.
He runs a hand across a Burmese military map he says was seized in March this year after his unit overran a police station. “I will spend my Christmas here,” he says.
But for La Htoi, the holiday could mean more death and sadness.
“I saw many wounded brought back here from the frontline on Dec. 14 and 15,” the pastor said with lament. “So many young men were hurt.”
Although casualties are said to be lower among Kachins than the Burmese, who are fighting far from home in unfamiliar, rugged terrain, Joseph Nbwi Naw, the parish priest in Laiza, says he will ask his parishioners to pray for soldiers.
Casualty figures are difficult to verify as the Burmese authorities do not discuss such numbers.
Joseph Nbwi Naw’s Christmas message will also be tinged with loss.
“My nephew La Ja was killed on Sept. 26 last year, fighting on the front,” the priest says. “They never found his body. The officer with him when he was shot could not drag him away, as they were under fire. A few months later they found his boots and hat. That is all we know.”
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