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A land the world forgot: A photojournalist sneaks into Myanmar to report on the Kachin freedom movement

The car came to an abrupt stop. "Get out," the driver said. My friend and partner in journalism Tim Patterson and I stumbled in the moonless night through an uneven, bulldozed field toward the sound of a river. When we reached the river, we crossed a creaky bamboo footbridge and scrambled up a loose-dirt hill to an older SUV with its lights off.

"Welcome to Free Kachin," our contact said, smiling broadly.Former KIO headquarters, high in the mountains near the Chinese border

It had been a long trip. After flying from Thailand to Kunmin, the capital of Yunnan Province in southwestern China, where I had met Tim, we had boarded a bus for a 20-hour overnight ride to western Yunnan, where we had planned to meet our Kachin contact. It was November 2008, and with the rainy season over, our trip stood a better chance of success.

After crossing the river from China, we finally reached northern Myanmar, in the Himalayan foothills. We had come here to spend three weeks with the people known as Kachins, an ethnic and religious minority that for decades fought a war of independence against the brutal military junta that rules Myanmar, or Burma. The Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting covered the costs of our trip so that we could tell the story of these remarkable people.

We were among the only foreign journalists who in recent years have reported from rebel-held territory beyond Myitkyina, the Burmese-spy-filled capital of Kachin State. One was a freelancer who was deported in just a day. Another was Mark Jenkins, an adventure columnist at Outside magazine, who left under threat of death after being drugged and beaten. Tim and I knew we had a rare opportunity—and a potentially dangerous one.

We climbed in the SUV. Our driver then followed the river to a small but lively town fueled by border trade. We drove though the central market, our tinted windows up. We stopped at a building, where we were served a delicious dinner of traditional Kachin spicy noodles and soups. Three smiling men—the Kachins, we began to realize, were remarkably cheerful people—joined us for dinner. We feasted, introduced ourselves and were shortly brought to our room to get some rest.

The next day we remained confined to quarters, with armed guards standing duty outside our door. Since we were planning a three-week trip, not a three-day one, we remained patient.

We later learned that, in the very next room, the head of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) was meeting with Chinese authorities about border issues. Fortunately, Chinese guards hadn't spotted us crossing the river, or the meeting might have been about whether we would rot in a Chinese or a Burmese prison.

Finally, around dusk, we were driven to our new home overlooking the town and border, where we would live for three weeks.

Soon after that we had a chance to talk at some length with our driver, who turned out to be not only a Baptist minister, but also the head of the Kachin National Library.

"Ninety percent of Kachins are practicing Christians," the driver said. He then pulled out a newspaper. "Here it says that most Kachins are animists," he said, in a serious tone. "Can I sue this author?"

It quickly became clear that much of the little amount of information that gets out about the Kachins is incorrect.

Throughout our trip we could see how happy and optimistic the Christian faith made them. It reminded me of the stories of early Christianity. Most Kachin pastors don't lend explicit support to the armed struggle from the pulpit, but they aren't shy about preaching of the many struggles for freedom described in the Bible.

I had wanted to go to Myanmar since I first visited Southeast Asia in 2001, on a year-long leave from my teaching job, but only if the trip would be more than sight-seeing and giving money to the junta.

An opportunity finally came seven years later, when I encountered a group of about 20 Burmese students at the Wongsanit Ashram outside Bangkok, a major hub for social and environmental work in Asia. During dinner, I struck up a conversation with one of them. He immediately impressed me with his curiosity, sincerity and politeness. Eventually he introduced himself as a junior intelligence officer with the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the civil and political arm of the independence movement.

"I hate war, but we have to prepare," he said.

"Prepare for what?"

"Well, you know our [Burmese] government is crazy," he replied. "Nobody knows what they will do next or why, so we have to be prepared for anything."

We ate meals together for the next few days, sharing our stories. I learned that, while a university student, he had attended a KIA boot camp to become a reserve KIA officer. After university he decided to join the KIO instead.

When he learned I had taught a two-day photography workshop for a group of Myanmar activists and refugees through Earth Right International, we began talking about how, when and where I could do that on the inside.

At the time, I was 30 years old, had a degree in Peace Studies from Chico State University, and had been a soldier in the National Guard, a trail builder for the national parks, and an environmental educator before and during university. After I finished my degree, I landed a job as a public-school teacher in Japan, which is where I met Tim and our collaboration as journalists—he as writer (except this time), I as photographer—began.

Being a teacher was a good experience overall, but the long hours indoors and lack of freedom in what to teach and how to teach it had me thinking of a new career soon after my contract started.

Freelance photography seemed to satisfy my desire to be outside, creative and independent. The day my contract expired, I headed to Japan's largest national park, Daisetsuzan. For the next two years I called it home. I enjoyed every minute of it and grew a lot as a photographer and as a person.

But I was beginning to realize that photojournalism made better use of my Peace Studies degree and could better accommodate my varied interests. So I decided to head back to Southeast Asia, where interesting stories are abundant, and the cost of living is low.

I worked on a variety of interesting projects there, including a book series about intentional communities in Thailand, but spending a month with an armed independence movement in Myanmar was the big chance Tim and I were hoping for. Free Kachin is rarely reported on in the mainstream media and gets very few mentions in any English-language source, so we were intensely curious and eager to go despite my concerns about funding and Tim's fear of finishing up his 20s in a Burmese prison.

For months, we exchanged communications about the details, such as authorization from the KIO leaders and funding from the Pulitzer Center. The trip wasn't fully nailed down until three days before I got on that plane to Kunming.

Most oversimplified headlines about Myanmar suggest that all its people are united behind Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi in opposition to the so-called State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the military junta that has ruled the country since 1962. The situation is actually far more complicated. There are many ethnic groups and factions, each with its own leaders and sub-factions reaching for a piece of the power and wealth, and alliances are in constant flux. Even the head of the KIO was once a powerful colonel in the junta.

"Myanmar politics are the most complicated in the world," said Daw Kong, director of the Kachin Research and Information Network and one of our main go-to men for information, favors and access.

Within Kachin itself are six ethnic groups, all with unique languages, traditional clothes and first names. However, they share family names, a common origin myth, Christianity and the manuo, a large communal dance festival in the dry, cool winter months. They use Jingpaw, the language of the most populous tribe, as a de facto common language.

The combined population of the Kachin tribes is around one million. The word "Kachin" is actually a term used by the lowland Shan tribe and the Burmese. Kachins use the term "Wunpawng" when referring to the tribes collectively.

The landscape of Kachin is as beautiful and diverse as the people, ranging from subtropical lowland jungles to the glacier-covered peak Hkabororazi. On one long, windy mountain ride to the Laisin KIA base with Daw Kong, we stopped to stretch our legs and take in the scenery. "This land has never been controlled by anyone but the Kachins. How beautiful is that?" he said, choking up slightly. The oak-covered rolling foothills were indeed beautiful, but the real beauty was that the Kachin people could call them their own.

The Kachins don't trust the SPDC, but they would feel only slightly more comfortable with a democratic government of primarily ethnic Burmese calling the shots in their homeland. The Burmese have never historically controlled Kachin. It was not until 1947 that Kachins voluntarily joined Burma by signing the Panlong Agreement, which clearly states they could opt out at their discretion.

When the Kachins decided to exercise their right to revert to independence, the Burmese military tried to stop them. The KIA fought an armed insurgency for more than 30 years. Despite being outnumbered and out-armed, the KIA was never fully defeated. Nor were they able to win full autonomy for the Kachin people.

In 1994, the KIO leadership signed a cease-fire agreement with the SPDC. However, the Kachins still demand the autonomy promised them in the 1947 agreement, or at least serious state rights. The junta insists that Kachin, with its valuable natural resources, is part of Myanmar and that the central government should reap the profits from Kachin's jade, timber and hydropower.

High-quality jade can be found only in the Kachin State. "The junta takes it to Rangoon, sells it at the auctions and buys arms with the jade money," said Daw Kong. A single stone of the right color sells for $2.8 to $4.2 million.

Most of the jade and other resources are exported to China, which is the biggest provider of arms to the Myanmar military. The ceasefire has paused the fighting, but there have been no attempts at a lasting peace.

In an effort to pressure the junta to relax its Orwellian tyranny over the country, Congress passed the US-Burmese Jade Act, making it illegal to import jade into the United States. The new law had little impact, since most of the Kachin jade is sold to China. The Burmese junta may not have many allies, but with China's UN veto and growing economic and political clout, they picked the right one.

We were never totally free in "Free Kachin," but for three weeks we toured the KIO-controlled areas of Kachin, had access to all KIA training facilities, and conducted open interviews with commanders, soldiers, teachers, students, civil servants, farmers and ministers. While our contacts in the KIO and KIA clearly wanted to show us their best sides, they were also quite honest about their mistakes and shortcomings.

On one occasion Tim asked a Kachin jade dealer where the KIO got its money and whether there was corruption. The dealer's expression became pensive. He looked us up and down for a moment. Then his eyes went to the KIO contact minding us, who nodded.

"Most of the jade mines have been taken by the junta, but the KIO still owns a few of the lower-quality mines," the dealer said. "Some of the KIO leaders work closely with the junta and have their own jade mines, so they can live well beyond their official salaries and send their children to private schools and universities outside Burma."

I was shocked by his honesty. The KIA and KIO genuinely want to improve their micro-nation, and they seem aware that openness and honesty about their shortcomings is the best way to achieve real progress.

In World War II the Kachins, then independent, were an indispensable help to U.S. Army rangers fighting the Japanese. They provided security for teams constructing the Stillwell Road, a military transport route linking India and China that crossed Kachin State. While the Burmese accepted Japanese occupation, the Kachins never surrendered.

Most Americans, except for a few military-history buffs, have forgotten the Kachins' support and sacrifice. The Kachins remember it like yesterday, however, and believe now is a good time for the United States to repay the favor. "We need moral support, legal support and financial support," an animated Baptist minister and Kachin cultural historian told us.

During the 15 years of precarious peace since the 1994 cease-fire, the KIO has been trying to build a civil society in addition to the army. Creating it from scratch after a generation of war, isolated from the world at large and with scarce resources, is a daunting task.

The Kachins know it will not be easy, so they are working extra hard and making good progress. Free Kachin now has native-language schools, a TV station, intensive English colleges, a civil-service academy, regular native-language publications, a media center, several websites and a national library. Most institutions, however, are still in their infancy.

For nearly a week of our stay, Tim and I tag-teamed, teaching 15 Kachin youths everything from photography to journalism ethics to website tips as part of my new nonprofit organization Documentary Arts Asia. When it was finished the students made their own printed magazine and got certificates.

Kachin youth are eager to learn, and we gave the two best students cameras and left several others for community use. Documentary Arts Asia plans to keep working with the Kachins by trying to publish their photos and stories and teaching more media workshops.

The workshop was a success, but a whole lot more needs to be done. It is possible to buy guns and train soldiers to fight in a matter of weeks. But it can take much longer to forge a group of people who can fight effectively armed with only laptops and cameras.

Before we knew it, our 30-day Chinese visas were almost up. Hong Kong, four days by land travel away, seemed the best exit option.

Again we left under nightfall. It was nearly Christmas, and we could hear the Kachins singing carols as we moved out.

The bulldozed field we had crossed entering Kachin was now a "mini-Great Wall," we were told, so this time we would have to wade across the river farther upstream. The rainy season had ended, so water levels were low, and everything went without a hitch.

As soon as we entered China, however, the atmosphere changed. The raw materialism of "modern" China felt bleak and soulless. We could still see the Christmas lights of Kachin, yet we were already missing it.

About n hour later we rounded a corner to find a huge house fire. The area was crawling with soldiers. The police had stopped all traffic and were checking cars while the soldiers searched for water.

"Pull your hats over your faces and don't say a word," our driver said nervously. We could hear sobbing and screaming. Not everyone had made it out of the house.

Two police officers approached our car. Our driver was ethnic Kachin but had grown up in China and was able to quell the officers' curiosity quickly. We remained silent, with beanies pulled over our faces, as the flames and screams continued to rage. Finally the roadblock was removed, and we drove on through the night.

Now the real work begins. As part of the Pulitzer Center's grant, Tim and I have to make the Kachins' story known to as large an audience as possible. Dispatches and photos from Free Kachin have now been shown on the BBC and published in the Washington Times, the Kyoto Journal, and the Burmese exile magazine The Irrawaddy. A short documentary I filmed will show on PBS in the near future.

My Free Kachin photo essay has been shown in California and will possibly be exhibited at the Visa L'image photojournalism festival in France this summer.The fate of the Kachins remains up in the air. Burmese elections scheduled for 2010 will most likely end the current delicate balance of power in some way. State rights and semi-autonomy for the Kachins or a renewed outbreak of war are two distinct possibilities. History and recent events have shown the military junta will not just hand over power, no matter how great the domestic demand.

"My generation thinks there will be a war," said a young cadet at the Kachin military academy.

Given how paranoid the junta is and how little the United Nations and the world's media and citizens are pressuring the junta, positive change from the elections seems a long shot. The Kachins—and all Burmese people under the boots of the junta—need international support.