In the northernmost region of Myanmar, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has been fighting for regional autonomy from the central government for most of the past 50 years. But people in Kachin state have been battling to maintain their independence for much longer than that.
After resisting several invasion attempts by Burmese kings, the Kachin were wisely granted regional autonomy by British colonialists. In 1947, the leader of the anti-colonial movement, General Aung San — father of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi — convinced the country's ethnic groups to join a post-colonial, unified Burma in exchange for “full autonomy in internal administration” in their respective regions. The Kachin did so, but following a military coup, the KIA was founded in 1961 to defend the region from the junta that sought complete control over the country. With the exception of a ceasefire from 1994 to 2011, the KIA has been fighting the government ever since.
Earlier this month, an offensive by the Myanmar Armed Forces, known as the Tatmadaw, reportedly displaced 8,000 civilians — about 100,000 civilians have been displaced in total — and put peace talks in jeopardy. Some reports have indicated that the Tatmadaw has indiscriminately bombed and shelled KIA positions and civilians alike.
Photographer Niels Larsen recently spent two months in Kachin's rebel-controlled regions, where the $8 billion worth of jade exported every year — there are also sizable gold and timber industries in Kachin — helps fund both sides in the conflict. This is what he found.
KIA soldiers on a daily patrol near the rebel stronghold of Laiza. Patrols often hike through the jungle for 15 hours a day.
Kachin people were animists before missionaries converted them to Christianity during the 19th century — today, they are overwhelmingly Baptists. Here, two rebel fighters on a long-range patrol through the jungle wander by a wooden cross, a fairly common site in the region.
This Kachin rebel was the fastest person in his unit, and so he ran point on patrols. He often had to wait for his comrades at the top of the tougher climbs.
An entrenched KIA soldier monitors a road controlled by the Tatmadaw near Majayang in the south of the rebel-controlled region.
Small seven-man squads patrol the jungle for weeks at a time, and the risk of ambush is constant. This soldier belonged to a squad that was sent as reinforcements to the village of Namlim Pa, where a battle against the Tatmadaw was raging.
Most of the territories controlled by the KIA are spread out around Kachin. To reach the areas where fighting breaks out, rebels often have to walk through the jungle for days, crossing government-controlled territories only at night. This man was a civilian who volunteered to drive a KIA unit to a combat zone.
Members of a squad relax in a KIA-controlled outpost after three days of hiking through the jungle.
The KIA generally enjoys support form villagers — the patrol I accompanied was welcomed, and the soldiers were invited to drink tea and beer and sit by the fire for the night.
Two KIA soldiers survey a gold mine operated by a Chinese investor. At the time, Tatmadaw forces controlled the hills in the background.