Hundreds of thousands of residents in the capital and surrounding areas of northern Burma’s Kachin state have gone without power for a month amid fighting between government forces and rebel troops, according to sources in the area.
The blackout affecting Kachin’s Myitkyina and Waingmaw townships was caused by facilities damaged in clashes between the Burmese military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) that escalated in late December.
Myitkyina township hosts the state capital, with a population of 150,000.
The KIA-affiliated Bukha Electricity Company which supplies the two townships is unable to conduct repairs in the area and the blackout will likely continue until the fighting abates, company manager Zar Mea Khin said.
“Getting normal service back depends on the fighting between the Burmese military and the KIA. We can’t go freely in this area because we are civilians and there are landmines,” he told RFA’s Burmese Service.
But the KIA, which is fighting for greater autonomy in Kachin state, said government forces continue to pound rebel positions despite President Thein Sein’s announcement of a unilateral ceasefire last week.
Zar Mea Khin said the company had made preparations for replacing damaged equipment and would be able to return power within a week after the end of fighting.
“All we can do is get ready and wait for the right time. We can try to get the electricity back within a week once the fighting stops,"
“In the meantime, we are planning to serve the area with part-time power from three 500 kilovolt-ampere generators."
Communication towers lacking electricity have also cut off service for cell phones and land lines in the area.
Electric cables from the company’s hydropower plant on the Malikha River were damaged by a government air strike on the plant on Dec. 24, according to Burma’s Eleven media group.
The power plant, north of Myitkyina in the headwaters of the Irrawaddy waterway, is controlled by the KIA.
Last May, nationwide electricity shortages that the government blamed on the Kachin conflict sparked Burma’s largest protests in years, with residents in the biggest cities staging candlelit demonstrations.
The year before, the government had halted the planned Myitsone megadam—located upstream from Myitkyina near the headwaters of the Irrawaddy in Kachin state—in a rare policy reversal following opposition to the project, which would have produced electricity for sale to neighboring China.
Natural resources including hydropower and jade mines have played a role in fueling the decades-old conflict in Kachin, which was reignited when a 17-year ceasefire agreement was shattered in June 2011.
Clashes intensified in late December near the rebel headquarters of Laiza along the border with China, sparking international criticism for the Burmese military’s use of air strikes on KIA positions.
Following calls from parliament for an end to the conflict, last week Thein Sein ordered a unilateral ceasefire that began from Jan. 19.
But rebels said attacks on their positions have continued since then, including a bomb that fell in downtown Laiza on Wednesday.
On Thursday, rebels said the Kha Ya Bum hill near Laiza was pounded by government troops.
Colonel Ye Htut, a spokesman for the president’s office, rejected rebel claims that Burmese military was continuing offensives after the unilateral ceasefire.
“There are no offensive attacks on any KIA outposts by government forces,” he told RFA’s Burmese Service, adding that government forces had defended themselves against Kachin attacks.
Official denial of air strikes in December had sparked questions about how much control Thein Sein’s government, which came to power after Burma’s military junta stepped down two years ago, exerts over military’s actions in Kachin.
“The military is listening to the President’s order, which is to fight only in defense,” Ye Htut said.
“It can be seen that the government army has stopped its offensive fighting as there are no air strikes anymore.”
He said the Burmese military was working to repair infrastructure damaged by the KIA, including fixing bridges and reopening routes near the jade-mining town of Hpakant damaged by the KIA.
“The government army came in this area to protect the security of the region,” he said.
Several rounds of peace talks held since the fighting broke out in June 2011 have yielded little outcome.
Ye Htut said authorities were waiting for the KIA and its political wing, the Kachin Independence Organization, to respond to the government’s invitation to negotiations.
“The government is ready to hold any discussion with them if the fighting can be decreased and if we can create any opportunity for better care and transportation for the victims of the fighting,” Ye Htut said.
Reported by Kyaw Myo Min and Thuzar for RFA’s Burmese Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.