BANGKOK, Thailand -- In Myanmar, the regime's helicopter gunships, mortars and other weapons are successfully crippling a 52-year-long struggle for autonomy waged by mostly Christian, ethnic minority Kachin guerrillas along the northernmost border with China.
America befriended the Kachin (pronounced: "kuh-CHIN") during World War II when the tough, jungle-savvy men helped U.S. troops infiltrate and survive after Japan invaded and occupied mainland Southeast Asia's biggest country -- which was then known as Burma.
"In the Second World War, we the Kachin fought alongside the U.S. with the 101st [Airborne Division in the U.S. Army] against the Japanese...we want them to be with us in our time of need, when we are in struggle," said Kachin Youth Development Organization activist Hsai Zin on Friday (January 25) during a rally at the American Consulate in Thailand's northern Chiang Mai city.
During the past few days, Myanmar's superior forces steadily advanced against the Kachin rebels after fighting began at the end of December.
Myanmar's Buddhist-majority government said it attacked because the Kachin erected barbed wire barriers near rebel-held Laiza town, which stopped government forces entering and occupying the area, purportedly to distribute food.
In recent days, Myanmar's military used fighter planes -- possibly Chinese-built, light attack Hongdu JL-8 or Karakorum-8 aircraft -- and fearsome Russian-made Mi-35 helicopter gunships similar to the Mi-24 Hind "flying tanks" used by Soviet forces against U.S.-backed Islamist guerrillas in Afghanistan during the 1980s.
The military also used mortars, howitzers and 84mm Swedish-made Carl Gustaf rocket launchers, according to various media reports.
The 15,000 rebels call themselves the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
They wear uniforms and fight from trenches, foxholes and bunkers, laying landmines, carrying supplies on their backs or on animals, and treating injuries without anesthetics.
The Kachin predict they will soon no longer be able to administer the lucrative border town of Laiza as their headquarters.
Myanmar's military wants to dominate Laiza's border crossing with China, and pacify the entire Kachin state.
Laiza is set amid hills and boasts modern buildings, reliable electricity, a local TV station, and a thriving market fed by goods from Myanmar, China and elsewhere.
There were no immediate predictions of a full-scale surrender by the Kachin.
They apparently plan to melt into the forested mountains and try hit-and-run tactics during the next several months to regain lost ground.
The KIA are the armed wing of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), which was created in 1961.
They fought on-and-off against the military before a 1994-2011 ceasefire allowed both sides to exploit the region's natural resources, but grew increasingly competitive over real estate, the mining of jade and gold, logging, agricultural businesses, hydropower and other investments.
Today, the region's one million Kachin are largely ignored by the outside world.
They have also been unable to gain practical support from Myanmar's Nobel Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who said she hopes for a peaceful settlement but was unable to offer a detailed solution.
"This case is being handled by the government at the moment," Mrs. Suu Kyi told Agence-France Presse in January.
In November, when U.S. President Barack Obama visited Myanmar, he hailed Mrs. Suu Kyi as a pro-democracy icon, prompting expectations she would immerse herself in the bloody politics of the country's rebel wars and ethnic discrimination.
During his visit, Mr. Obama also met President Thein Sein who is now telling the international community that he will end the KIA's fight.
"Our government will make genuine and lasting peace with the KIA," Thein Sein said on January 19.
"We plan to hold a political dialogue in early 2013 after signing ceasefire agreements with 10 other armed groups," the president said, referring to a total of 50,000 other minority ethnic rebels scattered elsewhere.
The Kachin are the last remaining big rebel force refusing to sign a peace deal with the regime.
Many Kachin fear a political solution would mean subjugation and end their dream for autonomy in a proposed federal system.
The military's assault is apparently aimed at pacifying them and simultaneously sending a message to other ethnic rebels not to break their delicate cease-fire deals or escalate their struggles for autonomy.
Tens of thousands of residents in and around Laiza meanwhile have fled for safety, attracting concern from international human rights groups and non-governmental organizations.
The Kachin struggle dates back to 1948 when British colonialists granted independence to Burma.
The British crafted a controversial Panglong Agreement, which was signed by various ethnic minorities in 1947.
The agreement could have allowed the Kachin, Chin, Karen, Karenni, Mon, Shan and other minorities to opt out of the new nation, or enjoy enhanced autonomy.
After independence, that deal collapsed.
Ethnic groups have fought for autonomy ever since, mostly in eastern and northern zones which border China and Thailand.
Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978, and recipient of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He is a co-author of three non-fiction books about Thailand, including "Hello My Big Big Honey!" Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews; 60 Stories of Royal Lineage; and Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946. Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the final chapter, Ceremonies and Regalia, in a new book titled King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective.
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(Copyright 2013 Richard S Ehrlich)