Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin state, is the country's northernmost river port and railway terminus. Image by Jason Motlagh. Burma, 2012.

At first glance, Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin state, seems like a busier version of any other river town in northern Burma. Flat barges and sampans pull up to the jetty with their dry goods and fish. Stalls in the central market hum with chatter. And trains rumble in from the lowlands to their last stop, halting the swarm of trishaws, mopeds and the odd American jeep salvaged from World War II.

Then one notices the frequent power outages; the passing troop carriers; the sleek white SUVs of the United Nations’ refugee agency; the ambivalence of locals, at once curious and timid about talking with the rare foreigner in town. While tourism to Burma is up 40 percent compared to last year, Myitkyina sees few visitors. With a brutal war grinding on in the surrounding countryside, the government wants to keep it that way.

Officially, Westerners are not forbidden to show up, but they may as well be. Air is the only mode of travel permitted and, monsoon rains permitting, there are only a handful of flights a week, on a national carrier with a dismal safety record. Roads and river cruises are out of the question. Tourist attractions are limited and accommodations even more so. Other than the Chinese merchants who dominate trade in the region, most establishments are off-limits to foreign guests.

The YMCA is an exception. Opened in the 1940s, it’s a spartan compound with rain-stained walls and ceiling fans that creak as they cut the tropical heat. Over the years it’s become a hub for travelers and unaccredited journalists who come to report on the plight of the Kachin minority. As such, it tends to attract plainclothes security agents who were once omnipresent in Yangon and Mandalay but have receded of late.

“Nothing has changed here for us; we still live like second-class people,” says a thirty-something ethnic Kachin man who works in the neighborhood. We sat at a café one muggy afternoon and he scanned the street for spies, assuring me it wasn’t hard to tell. “We know who they are and what they look like. Like a sixth sense.”

He talked of bombs. A series have exploded at odd hours of the day, sometimes in remote parts of town, giving rise to conspiracy theories. One held that the Burmese military was using the attacks as a pretext to crackdown on the Kachin community. Indeed, several men had been rounded up recently at some of the displaced persons camps around town in connection with the bombings. “People are terrorized here,” he says in crisp English. “We’re tired of this war.”

But he echoed the same hope as most fellow Kachin living inside Kachin Independence Army-held territory: to remain a part of the Union of Burma with equal rights, as decided in 1947 between Kachin leaders and Gen. Aung San, the country’s hero of independence (and Suu Kyi’s father). Before it was scuttled by a military coup, the Panglong Agreement had guaranteed “internal autonomy” for ethnic states like Kachin in a system similar to the US and European Union. “There is strength in diversity,” he adds.

My new friend was striking all the right notes and fast, which made me a bit suspicious. He’d sized me up in a second, asking what media outlet I worked for, how long I’d be staying, whether I’d already traveled outside of town to see a controversial dam site at the Irrawaddy’s confluence, about 40 kilometers to the north. He was direct yet casual, critical of the government but not overly harsh. Could he be a more refined agent of the state?

A whiff of paranoia was dispelled when he told me people at the Catholic mission a few blocks away would put me in touch with “the right people.” Sure enough, a senior clergyman greeted us at the large church compound. He served us tea and biscuits in an office festooned with photographs. In one, he knelt before Pope John Paul II; on the opposite wall, he stood grinning next to Gen. Theing Zaw, a northern Army commander of ill repute. The arrangement was diplomatic, nothing more.

“We have no rights … the so-called reforms are political theater,” the clergyman says without any prompt. If there was any doubt the same military generals were not still in control of the country and its resources, he went on, one only needed to travel around Kachin state, which of course, was not allowed. The war was intensifying and so were its symptoms, including a surge in hard drug use among Kachin youth and a concurrent rise in HIV infections. “I’m worried about the survival of our people.”

I pointed out that President Thein Sein, a former general, had ordered a halt to construction last year on the nearby Myitsone dam project in response to a massive public backlash over its social and environmental impact. This was unprecedented -- didn’t it mean something? He smiled and leaned forward. “Even if [the president] is serious about reforming this country, his power is limited; he can be removed at any time,” he says. “How do we really know he’s not just being used by the military leaders to extract more money and prestige from the West?”

Like many Kachin in the area, the clergyman asserted that the dam project had never really stopped. Trucks were seen moving around at night, and lights in the workers’ barracks were on. What’s more, he noted, timber and mining projects operated by companies connected to the military had ravaged Kachin farmlands in the flood area since thousands were forcibly relocated. Two of his trusted associates would take us right away to see for ourselves. They did so at great personal risk.

When we returned to the YMCA later that evening, a clerk informed us that plainclothes agents had stopped by to inquire about a pair of Westerners. Apparently, two other foreign males had checked in that afternoon. We weren’t sure it was us they were looking for.

Project

After decades of isolation, Burma is taking fresh steps toward democracy. The West has strengthened diplomatic ties and trade, but familiar fault lines still threaten prospects for lasting stability.

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