Fri 5 Apr 2013
Filed under: Media,Opinion
When residents of this northernmost region of Myanmar talk about the tremendous changes of the past two years, they are not referring to the media freedoms or the economic liberalization transforming other parts of the country.
They mean the radicalization of the Kachin ethnic group, whose members inhabit the foothills of the Himalayas near the borders with China and India and have become more militant than at any time in living memory, Kachin leaders say.
As a measure of the difficulties of national reconciliation in Myanmar, a visit to the Kachin region is a sobering reminder of how much hatred and mistrust exist between the majority Burman and the ethnic minorities who live in the country’s highlands.
After 22 months of resurgent fighting with Myanmar government troops, young people openly talk of independence. Churches across the Kachin region are organizing prayers and 24-hour fasting periods in support of the Kachin Independence Army, which has been retreating in the face of attacks by the Myanmar military.
“People are committed to this fight,” said the Rev. Samson Hkalam, a leader of the Baptist church in Myitkyina. Young men who were previously skeptical of the Kachin Independence Army are volunteering to join, Mr. Samson said. “It’s a miracle — the people’s spirit and motivation,” he said.
Two years ago, when President Thein Sein inaugurated Myanmar’s first civilian government in five decades, he announced he would give top priority to national unity. But religious rioting in central Myanmar in recent weeks and the pessimism expressed by many minority leaders have underlined the depth of the fissures in Myanmar society.
The resumption of fighting in Kachin in June 2011, breaking a 17-year cease-fire, aggravated longstanding grievances, snuffing the flickers of hope that the end of military rule would bring greater autonomy to the Kachin region.
“We are angry, we are sad, and we feel alone,” said Tsin Ja, a teacher in a village outside Myitkyina, the capital of the region. “Democracy has been a loss for us.”
Ms. Tsin says the numbers of students in her Kachin language classes have swelled over the past year as both parents and children champion their Kachin identity.
She teaches the Kachin language at a church in the village because the government bans Kachin-language instruction at state schools, a major source of resentment.
“My students say, ‘We are not going to speak Burmese anymore,”’ Ms. Tsin said. “Young people have so much hate and acrimony toward the Burmese people. It’s dramatically different from when I was growing up.”
Like other minority groups in Myanmar, the Kachin have relatively little in common with the Burman. Their languages are not mutually comprehensible. The Kachin are mostly Christian, while the Burmese are overwhelmingly Buddhist. The Kachin inhabit hills and the Burman the lowlands. They celebrate different holidays. The Kachin were only loosely governed by the British during colonial days, while the Burman areas were integrated into the British empire.
Manam Hpang, author of an English-Kachin-Burmese dictionary, said the Kachin had an acute sense of persecution as Christians in a Buddhist land. During military rule, the government built Buddhist pagodas across the state and tried to censor a Burmese version of the Bible, including a ban on the Burmese word for “Proverbs,” because it was the same word used in Buddhist texts.
“We have different background, different culture — we’re incompatible,” Mr. Manam said. “We have no connection with these people,” he said of the Burman.
“The Kachin have realized that we must have independence. Without it, we will be swallowed up,” he said.
Analysts are divided on what the deteriorating relations between the Kachin and central government mean for the country’s overall moves toward democracy and economic liberalization.
A number of countries in Southeast Asia, including the neighboring Thailand, have become prosperous despite ethnic or religious conflicts.
The Kachin make up a small slice of the Myanmar population — about 1 million out of a population of 55 million. But the Kachin Independence Army, with more than 4,000 men under arms, is a significant threat for the Burmese military, especially if the Kachin rely more on their specialty, guerrilla tactics. Until now the Kachin army has fought a type of trench warfare, retreating mountain by mountain as Burmese troops advanced near its headquarters outside the town of Laiza.
The Kachin have a potential alliance with a neighboring ethnic group, the Wa, who have about 20,000 soldiers and are armed with sophisticated weaponry. A wider war that included the Wa and other ethnic allies would be potentially debilitating for Myanmar.
“There are always going to be tensions, rival nationalisms, debates about discrimination and at least the possibility of communal violence,” said U Thant Myint-U, a scholar of Burmese history and an adviser to President Thein Sein. “But that’s very different than having a significant part of the country being fought over by tens of thousands of armed men, belonging to dozens of different militia.”
There have been attempts by private groups to help reconcile the Burman and Kachin in recent months, including a “Peace March” across the country of about 100 people.
Led by Ashin Thon Data, a 30-year-old Buddhist monk, the peace marchers arrived in Myitkyina in March and traveled to refugee camps scattered around the city, where some of the 90,000 people displaced from the fighting live in thatch huts.
Among them was a 72-year-old Kachin woman, Mahkaw Lu, who still appeared rattled by the rushed exit from her village in October as fighting approached. “We couldn’t take anything with us,” she said. “They burned everything.”
Mr. Thon Data, draped in crimson robes, addressed Ms. Mahkaw and the other assembled refugees.
“As a monk I do not normally get a chance to talk with you — you are from a different religion,” he said.
“But you are our brothers,” he said. “We do not differentiate between highland and lowland. We are one flesh.”
As members of the peace march read poems and sang songs, some refugees wept.
The visit by the peace marchers offers a small measure of hope that Myanmar can overcome its religious and ethnic divisions. But they have had very little support in Burman areas. Many Buddhist monasteries refused to house Mr. Thon Data and his peace activists as they marched through the Burmese countryside, he said. And the march came at a personal price: He was expelled from his own monastery for leading the march.
“People say we are crazy,” he said. “Yes, we are crazy for peace.”
Arrests in sectarian riots
Myanmar’s government has arrested dozens of people for their role in an outbreak of sectarian violence in central Myanmar last month, officials said on Thursday, and some of them will go on trial within days, The Associated Press reported from Yangon.
The city of Meiktila was swept by several days of anti-Muslim unrest in which armed Buddhist mobs burned Muslim-owned homes and shops. At least 43 people died and more than 12,000 others, most of them Muslims, were driven from their homes after the violence began on March 20. State prosecutors are putting together 13 separate cases, and the first two will include three people who worked at a Muslim gold shop where an argument broke out, setting off the unrest, Attorney General Ye Aung Myint said.