By Tim Patterson
February 21, 2009
MYANMAR — Campfires twinkle along the Chinese border as soldiers sing raucous freedom ballads and strum beat-up old guitars. They sing in Jinghpaw, the main language of the Kachin people, and their joy is irrepressible on this cold night in the Himalayan foothills of northern Myanmar.
The far north of Myanmar — formerly Burma — is home to the Kachins, a group of predominantly Christian tribes whose struggle against the military government of Myanmar is now in its fifth decade. As ethnic and religious minorities in one of the most repressed and impoverished countries in the world, the Kachins are fighting an uphill battle to achieve political autonomy throughout their homeland.
The Myanmar military government, dominated by ethnic Burmese, has long sought to suppress insurgencies led by ethnic groups such as the Kachin, Karen and Shan. Like many conflicts worldwide, the struggles between Myanmar’s minority ethnic groups and the central government are exacerbated by the inherent wealth of the contested lands.
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 military. Ordinary Kachins must look on while the wealth of their land is sold out from under them, financing their oppression.
“The prosperity of Kachin state has been seized by the junta,” said Seng Maw, 23, one of two female students at a leadership training academy run by the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO). “We don’t own the rights to our own resources.”
A 1994 ceasefire agreement between the KIO and the Myanmar military ended active hostilities, but the political situation remains tense. The ceasefire froze the conflict in place without addressing any of its causes. Many civilians anticipate a renewed outbreak of war in 2010, when the government has scheduled elections that few believe will be free or fair.
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 autonomy.
“The Burmese political system has always been top down,” explained Daw Kong, a KIO volunteer. “Democracy will be very hard for them to put into practice.”