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Story Publication logo December 19, 2008

Myanmar: Understanding the Kachin Conflict

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The Himalayan foothills of northern Myanmar form the ancestral homeland of the Kachins, an ethnic...

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"Myanmar politics are the most complicated in the world," said Daw Kong, director of the Kachin research and information network, as we settled down for tea and conversation on a hilltop near the Chinese border.

After three weeks in the small pocket of northern Myanmar held by the Kachin Independence Organization, I still struggled to make sense of the tangled history and delicate balance of power that defines the political landscape of Kachin state.

In the interest of clarity, here are 11 key points that will help a general audience make sense of the drama unfolding in the Himalayan foothills of northern Myanmar.

1. The Kachins are a group of six tribes.

Each of the six tribes collectively known as 'Kachin' has their own language, but they share a common origin myth and many cultural traditions.

Foreign influence on the part of Christian missionaries and British officials, along with the continued threat posed by the Burmese military, helped unify the Kachins as a single nation.

These days most Kachins can understand Jinghpaw, the language of the most populous Kachin tribe, in addition to their own tribal language and Burmese.

The word 'Kachin' is actually a term used by ethnic Shan and Burmese; Kachins use the term "Wunpawng".

2. Blame the British.

Like many ethnic conflicts worldwide, the Kachin struggle for freedom has its roots in the collapse of the British Empire.

Historically, the Burmese kings never controlled what is now Kachin state.After the British Empire collapsed, the new country of Burma included lands, like Kachin, that were outside the historic range of Burmese control.

The Kachins agreed to join the new federation of Burma by signing the Panlong agreement in 1947, which promised them autonomy and the option to secede from the Burmese federation after ten years. After the military seized power in Burma, however, the provisions of the Panlong agreement went out the window and the guerrilla war began.

3. Kachin state is rich in natural resources.

Kachin state is lightly populated, but rich in natural resources, which include timber, gold and the world's only significant deposits of high quality jade. Most of these resources are exported to China, which is the biggest provider of arms to the Myanmar.

Hydropower is another valuable resource in Kachin state. Several dams are under construction near the headwaters of the Irrawaddy River. The electricity from these dams will go to China, with the Myanmar military reaping the profits.

4. The Kachin struggle is separate from Burmese opposition to the military government.

Kachins see their freedom struggle as separate from political opposition on the part of the ethnic Burmese majority. Even if a democratically elected government were to replace the junta, the Kachins doubt any Burmese government would respect their cultural and political autonomy.

While most observers focus on the Burmese opposition, embodied by Aung San Suu Kyi, the struggles of ethnic minorities receive less attention. The tacit assumption that a change of power in Burma would lead to the resolution of ethnic conflicts seems overly optimistic.

5. The 1994 ceasefire did not solve the conflict.

The ceasefire stopped a bloody and brutal conflict, but there has been no attempt at genuine reconciliation. Effectively, the war is on pause, and most Kachins expect another outbreak of fighting in the near future.

There is still an impasse between the Kachin demand for autonomy and the Burmese position that Kachin is an integral part of Myanmarsubject to the complete control of the central government.

"We will never surrender," several Kachins told me. "We will never give up our arms."

6. The Burmese military government controls most of Kachin state.

Trying to break down who controls what in Kachin state is almost impossible, as the power dynamic is constantly shifting and depends on personal relationships and negotiations between various "big men" in both the military government and the Kachin Independence Organization.

The territory under exclusive KIO control is quite small, limited to a few pockets of land along the Chinese border. However, the KIO is influential throughout Kachin state, and KIO officers claim almost every family in Kachin state has some tie to the KIO.

Neither side is shooting at each other these days, but coexistence is tense and the balance of power is never cut and dry.

7. The Kachins were important American allies in World War II.

Kachin rangers fought bravely alongside American paratroopers against the Japanese in World War II.The jungles of Kachin were one of the frontlines of the conflict, and while Burmese accepted Japanese occupation, the Kachins never surrendered.

Even after the British withdrew to India, the Kachins raised the Union Jack in the northern town of Putao.

The infamous Stillwell Road, a military transport route linking India and China that crossed Kachin state, could not have been built without support from Kachin rangers who provided security for the road construction teams.

To this day, Kachins speak proudly of their service in World War II and hope their old allies the Americans will return to help them.

8. The Kachins are predominantly Christian.

Few Christian missionaries have been as successful as Dr. Hansen, a Swedish-American whose work in Kachin resulted in the conversion of almost the entire population to Christianity.

Most Kachins are Baptist, although there are also some Catholics and Anglicans. Christianity helps bind the Kachin nation together and the Church provides social services to the community.

Although the Church is not actively engaged in politics, many pastors support the independence movement and use parables to organize and motivate their congregations.

9. The Kachin Organization is committed to opium eradication.

The Kachins have a reputation as active participants in opium production. The most revered leader of the KIO, a Baptist headmaster named Brang Seng, was once denied a visa to the United States because of his supposed involvement in the opium trade.

Although some opium is grown in Kachin, most of it is in areas controlled by the Burmese military. The Kachins are concerned about drug abuse among their youth, and have made an enormous effort to make Kachin an "opium free state."

"The KIO are one group that is clearly sincere about eradicating drug production," says David Mathieson of Human Rights Watch. "The international community has to recognize the good intentions of the KIO."

10. The role of the international community is vital.

Without active participation by the international community, the conflict in Kachin will not be resolved anytime soon.

In particular, support for the Myanmar government on the part of China and the ASEAN member nations makes it very difficult for the Kachins to gain traction in their quest for autonomy.

11. The elections scheduled for 2010 could spark a new episode of armed conflict.

The Burmese military has scheduled elections for 2010 that no one expects will be free or fair. Many Kachins expect the elections will lead to a renewed outbreak of war, because the military will probably use the (fraudulent) results to justify more complete control over Kachin state.

In particular, the Kachin youth expect more fighting, while the older generation and those who have gotten rich since the ceasefire are more cautious.

"My generation thinks there will be a war," said a young cadet at the Kachin military academy. "We don't know what the leadership will decide. We will follow their orders."

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