The Burma Army has ordered more than 1,000 Kachin villagers to leave three villages near the jade mining town of Hpakant, Kachin State, warning civilians that there be could fighting between the army and Kachin rebels soon, local sources said on Wednesday.
Residents of the villages of Kanzihall, Aung Bar Lay and Tang Kaw, located about 16 km (about 10 miles) from Hpakant, were told by Light Infantry Division 66 to leave their homes by Tuesday 6 pm, according to Hla San, a National League for Democracy (NLD) member based in Hpakant town.
“They told villagers to leave by 6 pm. They are worried that the villagers will be hurt if there is fighting. That is why,” said Hla San, adding that some villagers had moved to nearby towns and villages, where they would be safe from an outbreak of violence.
He said the three villages are located in an area under control of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and that a local army commander had ordered the KIA units to leave the area.
“We heard that the KIA will defend their area of control, that they will fight this war. The villagers who are staying on their [KIA] side, we heard that they [KIA] are preparing to resettle them for their safety,” Hla San said.
KIA spokesman La Nan confirmed that the group had received a verbal order by a local army commander to vacate their base in the area.
“Col. Kyaw Zay Ya from Light Infantry Battalion 11 [which falls under Division 66] told us to withdraw from our base, but we did not get any written order from them, it was just a verbal instruction,” he told The Irrawaddy.
La Nan said the KIA would try to meet with Burma Army officers in the Conflict Negotiation Committee to defuse the tensions. The committee, which comprises officers from both sides, was formed last year during ceasefire talks between the KIA and the government and army in the Kachin State capital Myitkyina.
Fighting erupted in mid-2011 in the region in northern Burma after a 17-year-old ceasefire between the KIA and government broke down. In early 2013, fighting quieted down and there have been several rounds of ceasefire talks since, but the sides have failed to come to an agreement.
Conditions in Hpakant town were reportedly normal on Wednesday morning, although residents were scared to leave the town, said Hla San, of the NLD. The army deployed soldiers along the road from Hpakant to Myitkyina, while KIA fighters had taken up position on the other side of the Uru River, he said, adding that the sides are reportedly several hundreds of meters apart and able to see each other.
Hpakant is situated amidst a mountainous landscape rich in jade and most of the world’s high-quality is mined in the region. Around the town there are four camps that are home to some 2,000 internally displaced Kachin civilians.
Licensed jade mining operations were suspended in 2012 after fighting escalated. During the suspension, thousands of small-scale miners and hand-pickers moved in illegally to try their luck.
The government recently announced that small- and large-scale mining operations would resume per Sept. 1 after the rebels reached an agreement with the government to allow 10 companies back in.
According to some sources in Hpakant, the recent rise in tensions was related to complaints by companies over KIA demands for bigger payments for access to mining areas.
“The KIA asked higher taxes from mining companies. Some companies went to complaint about this to the government troops. This is why tensions have grown,” said a local mine worker, who declined to be identified.
La Nan, the KIA spokesman, said only the large companies were asked to make payment to the KIA. “Our troops only asked companies that have 30 to 40 mining blocks mining. We did not ask taxes from normal people who just come to collect some jade stone. But, based on their jade finds, if they found a large raw jade stone, we take tax from them too,” he said.
In early August, there was also a clash between the Burma Army and the KIA at a ruby mining town not far from Hpakant and some 200 villagers were displaced at the time.