Laiza, Burma – The sharp sound of loading and unloading weapons and the barked orders of the sergeant-major cut through the mountains of northern Burma as the young cadets are put through their morning drills.Their discipline is good, their uniforms smart and there is little doubting their sense of purpose or patriotism towards the red and green flag with crossed machetes they proudly wear on their right shoulders.
They are the next generation of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), and say they are not afraid to be the generation that fights in a civil war many fear may soon be upon them.
“The Union of Burma was formed on the basis of equality for ethnic people, but there has been inequality throughout history and we are still being suppressed,” said cadet Dashi Zau Krang.
He is 26 and has a degree in business studies, but says inequality has stopped him getting a good job and driven him to join the military.
But he is not afraid.
“The Burmese army may be the strongest in South East Asia, while we are very few, but God will help us to liberate our people to get freedom and equality. This is our responsibility,” he said.
It is a war the Kachin people do not want and one they cannot win.
But their generals believe a 17-year ceasefire could soon end as a Burmese army deadline approaches, demanding the forces merge or disarm.
They have already refused, and although their leaders are still pushing for a political solution, their commanders are preparing for the worst when time runs out at the end of February.
“I can’t say if there will be war for sure, but the government wants us to become a border guard force for them by the end of the month,” said the KIA’s Chief of Staff, Maj Gen Gam Shawng.
“We will not do that, or disarm, until they have given us a place in a federal union and ethnic rights as was agreed in 1947.”
The KIA and its civilian organisation have been allowed to control a large swathe of northern Burma as part of a ceasefire agreement with the country’s ruling generals.
Trade with China
They provide power, roads and schools funded by taxes on the brisk trade from China as well as the jade and gold mines and teak.
But now soldiers are being recruited, veterans are being recalled and retrained, and an ethnic army is preparing to fight perhaps the biggest military force in South East Asia.
On the car radio are freedom songs, and at one of the training camps a course in traditional dance is being run – cultural nationalism and propaganda is strong.
A BBC team travelled to an area in northern Burma controlled by the Kachin army and its civilian arm, the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO).
We were taken to training camps and outposts, but could not walk into Laiza town to talk to people on the street for fear of being seen by an extensive network of Burmese or Chinese government informers and spies.
It made forming a balanced view very difficult, but the determination and planning of the military was clear.
High on a vantage point above their headquarters, trenches are being dug and tree trunks are being hauled and hewn into gun turrets piled high with earth.
They can see the Burmese army positions from here and they know this will be just one of the front lines if fighting breaks out.
A well-oiled and highly polished large-calibre anti-aircraft gun is produced, standing on a tripod in a bunker overlooking the lush jungle valley.
The gleaming gun is a statement, a display for the visitors, but the small metal plane stencilled on the sights looks woefully optimistic.
They are organised and say they have heavy weapons, but we did not see them.
There are around two dozen ethnic groups in Burma, mostly scattered around its borders, and the biggest have been in various states of ceasefire or civil war over the past few decades.
The KIA is one of the biggest. Their commanders say it includes 10,000 regular troops and 10,000 reservists, but it is impossible to know for sure.
The Burmese army is huge. It has an air force of sorts and artillery, and the KIA knows the only way to survive will be to withdraw into the jungle and fight a guerrilla war of attrition.
But civil war would create tens of thousands of refugees and create regional instability.
“If we are attacked the other ethnic groups will support us, as they know the same could happen to them,” Gen Gam Shawng explained.
The nearby Wa ethnic group has tens of thousands of troops and resources funded by drug smuggling, and we were told a deal with them had been agreed.
Whether civil war comes here is now up to the Burmese government.
If they use this election year to solve what they see as the “problem” of the ethnic groups they will have a fight on their hands, and the region will have to deal with the consequences.