The army, like the rebels, insists it fought only in self-defense.
On Wednesday, government envoys resumed talks in the Thai city of Chiang Mai with the United Nationalities Federal Council, an alliance of 11 ethnic militias, including the Kachin, that banded together last year. Few expected any breakthroughs, and no cease-fire was reached with the Kachin, which have met the government more than a dozen times since war in the north reignited in 2011.
The talks are ‘‘only about the framework of future discussions,’’ said Hkun Okker, a senior alliance member. ‘‘We’re demanding a political dialogue, and the government agrees, but real dialogue hasn’t started.’’
Last week, Thein Sein acknowledged that his country’s history of ethnic conflict has been a major barrier to progress, and that achieving stability is crucial as it pursues a democratic future.
His words, though, were delivered on an occasion infused with bitter irony: Union Day, which commemorates the 1947 deal between Suu Kyi’s father, independence hero Gen. Aung San, and ethnic leaders to break away from Britain’s colonial arms together.
The so-called Panglong agreement also granted ethnic minorities autonomy, but it fell apart after the assassination of Aung San.
The Kachin, who are predominantly Christian in a majority Buddhist country, first took up arms in 1961. A 1994 truce with the army lasted 17 years, but during that time, rebel demands for rights and a federalist system were never addressed.
Instead, the junta in 2008 forced through a new constitution. The nation’s minorities say it places enormous power in the hands of the central government and the military, which rights groups say has orchestrated a campaign of discrimination, forced labor and abuse against the Kachin and other groups for decades. The constitution can be amended only with approval of the armed forces, which even now control 25 percent of parliament.
Tensions rose further in 2009, when the junta tried to persuade ethnic armies to join a new border guard force. Most, including the Kachin, refused.
Two months after Thein Sein took office in 2011, the Kachin truce finally broke down when the army bolstered its presence near a hydropower plant in Dapein that is a joint venture with a Chinese company, and rebels refused to abandon a strategic base nearby.
Since then, more than 100,000 Kachin civilians have been displaced, and the rebels have progressively lost territory, pressed closer and closer against the Chinese border.
Only one major mountain ridge now separates Laiza from Myanmar’s army, and a grim mood has settled over the town.
At the main cemetery, workers are erecting concrete tombstones for rebels who died in the latest fighting. At least 23 are buried here under mounds of red dirt, though rebel officials declined to say how many were killed altogether.
Every night, a single-file candlelight peace vigil organized by a Catholic priest snakes through Laiza’s darkened and nearly deserted streets. Shops are closed. Displaced people crowd camps perched on a rocky river that marks the border with China.
The rebels, clearly outgunned, say they will not even try to retake lost ground. There is talk of the rebels abandoning Laiza if need be, of shifting their headquarters to a secret location if the army makes a push for the town. Most of their offices on a hillside overlooking town already appear empty, and the rebels’ most senior leadership is no longer here.
‘‘For a guerrilla army, what matters most is not holding ground, but maintaining the support of the people,’’ Zaw Taung said, speaking at a Laiza hotel the rebels use as an office that is decorated with wall-to-wall maps.
Judging by comments from many Kachin, across many levels of society, they overwhelmingly support the rebels, whom they see as protectors and their legitimate government, perhaps now more than ever.
Asked why the rebels were the only armed group that has yet to sign a truce with the government, Zaw Taung was dismissive.
‘‘We tried that for 17 years. What did it get us?’’ he asked. ‘‘The only thing that will end the war is a political solution. Without that, a truce means nothing. The fighting will go on.’’