Growing up in Myanmar’s Kachin State capital, Myitkyina, Hkun Sai didn’t think much about being Kachin. That changed in 2011, with the collapse of a 17-year ceasefire between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Myanmar military (also known as the Tatmadaw). At the time, Hkun Sai was 21.
“When conflict broke out, I understood more about my identity and realised my love for my ethnic group,” he says.
June 2019 marked eight years since conflict resumed in Kachin State, in a civil war that has been ongoing since 1961. The conflict stems from a struggle for political autonomy for the Kachin, as promised under the Panglong Agreement of February 1947, a year before Burma gained independence from Britain. Negotiated between General Aung San and Kachin, Shan and Chin ethnic leaders, the agreement promised “full autonomy in internal administration for the Frontier Areas”, including Kachin State, upon joining the Union of Burma. Aung San was assassinated that July, and the autonomy which Panglong promised has never been realised.
From December 2018 until September 2019, the Tatmadaw announced a unilateral ceasefire towards the KIA and allied armed groups known as the Northern Alliance. Intermittently throughout 2019, both the Tatmadaw and the KIA expressed intent to reach a bilateral ceasefire agreement. If signed, such an agreement could accelerate returns of the estimated 100,000 displaced Kachin civilians—most living in camps and relying on humanitarian assistance—to their places of origin, and provide a more stable environment for business and investment.
Those interviewed by New Naratif, however,show limited faith in a ceasefire’s ability to bring meaningful change. They speak of eroding trust between Kachin and the country’s majority Bamar, and, having seen the 2011 ceasefire fall apart, doubt that a new ceasefire will hold. Kachin also have mixed views on whether a ceasefire will help or hinder progress towards autonomy from the central government. Meanwhile, Kachin and non-Kachin alike express fatigue with the long-term impacts of war, and a desire to achieve lasting peace.
Divisions and distrust
The conflict, in which the Tatmadaw committed a range of abuses against civilians, has left many Kachin wary of the state military, and, by extension, the majority Bamar ethnic group. Demographic data by ethnicity from the most recent national census, conducted in 2014, has not yet been released. However, it can be inferred from census data showing Christians at 33.8% and Buddhists at 64% of Kachin State’s population that ethnic Kachin, who are predominantly Christian, are a minority even in Kachin State.
According to Hkun Sai, “Because of [the Tatmadaw’s] acts towards civilians during the conflict, bitterness increased… Hatred became more common towards Bamar people.”
Hkun Sai thinks that ill sentiment goes both ways, with many Bamar looking down on Kachin. He recalls conversations with Bamar peers from outside Kachin: “I’ve been told that Kachin people are rude, stubborn, Kachin State is a scary place, and Kachin people are responsible for the lack of peace… It makes me feel like peace talks are all for nothing.”
“I’ve been told that Kachin people are rude, stubborn, Kachin State is a scary place, and Kachin people are responsible for the lack of peace… It makes me feel like peace talks are all for nothing.”
Although Hkun Sai sees a bilateral ceasefire as an essential step towards peace, he says the 2011 collapse of the ceasefire and attacks during the 2019 unilateral ceasefire period have left him sceptical. “I don’t think [a ceasefire] will last in the long term. I don’t have any hope and I don’t trust it.”
This distrust is shared by 80-year-old Zau Jum, who requested use of a pseudonym prior to illuminating his bitterness towards the Burmese: “The Burmese aren’t trustworthy; they don’t keep their promises,” he says.
Zau Jum, who is Kachin, served nearly three decades with the Tatmadaw, reaching the level of major, but is deeply suspicious of the Burmese military’s intent in working towards a ceasefire. “Signing [a ceasefire] is a set-up by the Bamar. If they truly wanted peace, they should not wage fighting,” he says.
Zau Jum believes that Kachin’s jade and other natural resources make conflict more favourable to the Tatmadaw than peace. A Global Witness report valued Kachin’s jade industry at up to US$31 billion in 2014, or nearly half of Myanmar’s GDP, and found that the Tatmadaw holds official stakes in the industry. Kachin’s lucrative amber mines came under control of the Tatmadaw in 2018 following an armed offensive.
“The Tatmadaw know they cannot make a profit if peace prevails, so they deliberately destroy any chance of building a federal democratic nation,” says Zau Jum. “Their main agenda is to cause complexities and chaos while benefiting from natural resources.”
International criminal hearings
Some Kachin have expressed speculation that since November, talks of a bilateral ceasefire have diminished due to ongoing international criminal cases lodged against Myanmar for the Tatmadaw’s 2017 military campaign against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State.
Many within Myanmar have rallied behind State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, who defended charges of genocide against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice in The Hague in December. Yet several ethnic civil society groups, including groups from Kachin, have spoken out in support of the charges, as have some ethnic armed groups.
The Kachin Independence Organisation, the political arm of the KIA, has so far stayed silent on the issue. Kachin interviewed by New Naratif say this silence might be due to the organisation’s delicate position in the peace process. New Naratif contacted the KIO for comment on the current status of bilateral peace talks and its position in relation to the criminal hearings through its Technical Advisory Team in Myitkyina but was informed that no spokesperson was available.
Those interviewed hope that international justice mechanisms will send a message that the Tatmadaw must be held accountable for violence towards ethnic minorities. According to Kachin researcher Hkalen Tu Hkawng, 48, “Killing, raping, torture and discrimination to minorities—I never agree with that kind of behaviour as a basic principle.”
In late December, the Japanese government and the nonprofit Nippon Foundation pledged $5 million to help 3,000 people return to their villages in the first half of 2020. Following the pledge, the Japanese embassy in Yangon announced on Facebook that it “hopes that this assistance will contribute to improving the humanitarian situation in Kachin State and reaching a cease-fire agreement as soon as possible.”.
“I don’t dare to go back home at the moment… I don’t trust a bilateral agreement. Conflict can resume, and I don’t want to be displaced again.”
A key impediment to returns has been a fear for long-term safety. Yet Nam San Yang native Nu La, 21, says he doesn’t expect this to change with a ceasefire, and has no current plan to return home despite the challenges of life as an IDP.
“I don’t dare to go back home at the moment… I don’t trust a bilateral agreement. Conflict can resume, and I don’t want to be displaced again,” he says. “It’s been eight years, and I am familiar with this uncomfortable living condition… I don’t want to see a ceasefire that is signed in order for IDPs to return home. I can keep enduring until lasting peace occurs.”
In the middle
The conflict has cast a broad shadow over Kachin, including its diverse ethnic minorities. “We are the third people in the middle,” says 26-year-old Ve Ve Singh, from Myitkyina’s small Sikh community, numbering less than 300. “Everything is like a supply chain. If the big holder is impacted, the retailer is also impacted.”
When conflict reached his native village of Talawgyi, 40km south of Myitkyina, Nir was in the ninth grade. Like many of Kachin’s Gurkha—who are estimated to number roughly more than 27,000 according to the All Myanmar Gurkha Hindu Religious Association—Nir’s family earned their livelihood tending cows and buffaloes. With forced recruitment by ethnic armies reported throughout Myanmar, Nir, who requested use of a pseudonym, says fear of conscription motivated some of the Gurkha from Talawgyi to flee. His family were no exception, choosing to sell their livestock cheaply and move to Myitkyina around 2011.
Although Nir’s family has since returned, Nir, now 23, instead graduated from Myitkyina University and opened a small business in the nearby town of Waingmaw. Nir supports a bilateral ceasefire, but doesn’t expect much from it. “Something is better than nothing…[but] I don’t have much confidence,” he says. “If conflict happens, we will have to suffer a lot like in the past. It disturbs me mentally… I want permanent peace.”
Anonymous sources have also pointed to a tax levied by the KIA on businesses, a practice of ethnic armies throughout the country, according to a 2017 Amnesty International report. Paying the tax can be dangerous, as unlawful association with the KIA carries a prison sentence of up to three years. According to one source, “If we don’t pay the tax, we have a problem; if we give the tax, it’s also a problem with the government, because we are supporting [the KIA]. It’s really complicated.”
Ashin Vijaya, a prominent monk in the town of Washawng, from the ethnic Shan community in Kachin—numbering approximately 500,000, according to the Northern Burma Committee of the Shan Nationalities Affairs—says he hopes a ceasefire can enable Kachin and Shan communities to “go hand in hand for peace.” But he also compares a ceasefire to a medicine which may have unintended side effects. “I believe there will be positive changes, but we cannot say whether some bad things will happen… what is important is to sign first.”
Stabilising business and increasing investment
One point of optimism is that a ceasefire could improve local business prospects. Zaw Min Thein, who opened his teashop in 2009, says that business has slowed since the conflict resumed, but hopes it will pick up with a ceasefire.
This sentiment is shared by Kul Deep Singh, who has run an electronics shop in downtown Myitkyina since 1979. “We need a ceasefire so we can go any place, any time, and anyone can do business,” he says.
But a ceasefire wouldn’t only affect local business; it could also further open the door to development from neighbouring China— at the expense of local communities, some fear.
During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Myanmar earlier this month, he and Aung San Suu Kyi signed 33 agreements under the Belt and Road Initiative, and agreed to speed up implementation of a China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, for which a memorandum of understanding between the two countries was signed in September 2018. The corridor includes a special economic zone, estimated at US$400 million, 24km from Myitkyina. China is heavily involved in jade and other extractive industries in Kachin, and in recent years has increasingly invested in banana plantations, fraught with a range of land rights and environmental concerns. Its hydropower mega-dam project known as Myitsone was halted in 2011 amid widespread public dissent; diplomatic engagement earlier this year left locals fearing the plans could resume.
Kachin often view Chinese business interests with skepticism. As researcher Hkalen Tu Hkawng says, “Many Kachin are concerned that the ceasefire will allow Chinese to come and invest and [Kachin people] will lose everything… As soon as there is a ceasefire, oh! They will freely go. Kachin State, hallelujah!”
Between a rock and a hard place
When conflict resumed, 35-year-old Ja Htoi Pan was director of the only institute of higher education in KIO-controlled territory open to the general public, in the border town of Mai Ja Yang near the KIO headquarters in Laiza.
“We were right in the middle of the war, but our school could not close down,” she recalls. “There were mortar sounds very close to us, but we had to continue… to make sure young people could receive education in their own place despite the fighting.”
Today, three other schools have opened, but none offer university degrees and barriers remain for youth from KIO-controlled areas to pursue further education.
“It’s between a rock and a hard place. Ethnic people have a lot to compromise…”
Ja Htoi Pan says that, in order to last, a ceasefire should address the concerns of Kachin civilians, including a desire for political autonomy. “It’s between a rock and a hard place,” she adds. “Ethnic people have a lot to compromise… If you set aside the political stuff and just sign a deal, you will never have another chance to correct the grievances, to have [what] you feel should happen. On the other hand, because this process has been stalling, there are people who are continuing to suffer.”
Zau Jum, the 80-year-old former Tatmadaw major, says that despite his wariness of the Tatmadaw, he supports a bilateral ceasefire as long as it’s accompanied by transparent dialogue towards political change. “I am hopeful to see a genuine federal union in which sovereignty is divided and practically exercised among states and the central government. Then this country will see peace.”
Story by Emily Fishbein Illustrations by Cecilia Ja Seng
Emily Fishbein is a freelance journalist based in Myanmar.
Artist: Cecilia Ja Seng
Cecilia Ja Seng is a Kachin freelance painter and artist living in Myanmar.