The Struggle of the Kachin People in Myanmar
A tough journey towards political settlement
- Part 1 -

Puyam Nongdrei *

A protest rally being taken out by Kachin State immigrants in New Delhi in June 2012
A protest rally being taken out by Kachin State immigrants in New Delhi in June 2012 :: Pix - TSE

"Not only KIO/KIA but also any anti-government armed groups in Shan state and Kayin state can hold talks with respective governments if they really favour peace"--- Myanmar President Thein Sein

"…..without justice there cannot be true peace"—KIO/KIA Major General Gam Shawng

"We have launched our new mission in the war against drugs. Drugs are the common enemy of our Kachin people, and all human beings" --- KIO's Drug Eradication Committee (DEC) spokesperson Naw Bu

The Kachin people live mostly in the Kachin state and northwestern Shan state of Myanmar. Kachin state has a territory of about 89,000 sq km. They also live in Arunachal Pradesh, India and Yunnan Province, China. In China, they are called Jingpo and constitute one of the 56 officially recognised ethnic groups. In India, Kachins are known as Singphos and live in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam as a recognized scheduled tribe. They settle in Tinsukia district of Assam and Lohit and Changlang districts in Arunachal Pradesh which are contiguous with the Kachin hills in northern Myanmar. A large number of Singpho who live in Arunachal Pradesh follow Theravada Buddhism and animism but those who are in Kachin State are mostly Christians.

The Kachins who live in India are victims of opium addiction and their population has dwindled in the past many years to few thousands. In Myanmar, they continue to suffer as victims of resource exploitation, drug addiction and armed conflict. And those in Yunnan Province of China are facing Han-nization threatening their language, and culture. Their struggle to protect and promote their culture, language and tradition against the mighty onslaught of the powerful neighbouring races is clearly evident in all the three countries. However, the Kachins continue to celebrate the annual Manau festival showing oneness of their blood against all odds of history till date.

A Brief History

During the British colonial rule, the Kachin levies were formed to assist the British, Chinese and American forces fighting the Japanese Imperial Army during the WW II. While some section of the Kachin population was well integrated to the state under the British administration, a larger section continued to enjoy high degree of autonomy. But the end of colonial period opened the gates for conflicts between the ethnic minorities in the outlying areas and the majority Burmans in the central valley and delta region of Myanmar.

A very important episode in the history of Myanmar was the Panglong Conference held in February 1947 in Shan state. It was a negotiation between majority Burman (Bamar) led by General Aung San and leaders of the Shan, Kachin and Chin ethnic minorities to fight together for Burma's independence. The Panglong agreement remains the core issue in Myanmar's political history. Failure to implement the agreement has put Myanmar in a difficult course of history with many ethnic armed groups fighting against the highly nationalist Myanmar military for decades.

The formation of Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO/KIA) in early 1961 and the Ne Win's military coup in 1962 marked significant increase in the intensity of conflict between the two sides. A large number of Kachins serving in the Myanmar military withdrew and joined the KIO. The period of 1961-1994 is known as the first conflict in the history of Kachins. This period also had seen high tension between the Chinese government and Myanmar junta over China's support to CPB.

However, the coming of Deng Xiaoping and the end of Beijing's support to Communist Party of Burma (CPB) in the late 1980s marked a new shift. The CPB disintegrated into dozens of ethnic armed groups and under the leadership of Khin Nyunt, SLORC managed to bring many of them into the legal fold by signing cease-fire agreements.

The increasing military capabilities of the Myanmar Tatmadaw (armed forces) mostly with Chinese military and economic assistance to Myanmar led to the expansion of Tatmadaw's areas of control in the China-Myanmar border areas. The signing of ceasefire with many of the ethnic armed groups helped SLORC to strengthen its position vis-à-vis the KIO. Like many other groups, KIO signed a ceasefire agreement with the military junta in February1994 which continued until the breakdown of ceasefire on 9 June 2011.

The Cease-fire Period

The opening of the China-Myanmar border since late 1980s led to expansion of relations in various fields. However, the greater opening of the border has led to expansion of Chinese investment in northern Myanmar extracting resources. The signing of ceasefire between the KIO and Myanmar regime on February 24, 1994 did not change the situation for the betterment of the people living in Kachin state.

It had aggravated the situation by strengthening the presence of Tatmadaw in Kachin areas, increasing exploitation of natural resources, construction of dams, and ensuing hostilities between the two sides. Moreover, this period also experienced heightened infrastructure development in the Kachin areas thus enhancing connectivity with China. These developments without addressing the core problem worsened the situation for the Kachins as their land becomes the ground for greedy forces.

The KIO lost huge revenue from jade mining as major jade mines were taken control by the Myanmar junta. The world famous Hpakant jade mines fell into the junta hands in 1994 and only four jade mines in Hpakant are owned by Kachin businessmen out of the total of 164 companies in total according to Kachin sources. Therefore, logging, mining and hydropower concessions were given to the Chinese by the KIO to finance the modernization, upkeep and expansion of the KIO/KIA.

Did the cease fire serve both the parties? The success of the SLORC/SPDC in modernizing its military, importing sophisticated weapons and arms, increase area of control, ceasefire with other armed groups speak volumes about the strategy of the Myanmar junta to 'weaken and win' the armed groups. The old colonial 'divide and rule' policy still finds its place in the minds of the military strategists and policy makers to deny or weaken any common forum to gain strength.

Since early 1990s, the strength and capability of Tatmadaw have increased by leaps and bounds. Moreover, drugs trafficking, opium cultivation, illegal timber trade, jade mining and other lucrative businesses have corrupted many armed groups and the state agencies operating in these areas ruining the economy and social fabric of the society. Despite the rich natural resources, larger section of the population continues to live in poverty. In short, the rape of Kachin state was facilitated by the ceasefire process.

Another important problem which cropped up during this period was the rising economic crimes and other criminal activities. Drug money, gambling, prostitution, human trafficking and other economic crimes has flourished along the border. Many of the criminals continue to evade arrest from the law enforcement departments taking advantage of porous border, weak or negligible administrative control, and corruption in the system and transnational ethnic mobility.

Myanmar stepped up opium eradication campaign since 1991 with the cooperation of Chinese authorities through alternative crop cultivation programme and other economic and technical assistance. As a part of promoting alternative economy, cross-border tourism flourished along with gambling industry. Thus border areas in northern Myanmar became tourism hubs in the 1990s with gambling, prostitution and money laundering.

Casino gambling centres were opened in Kachin state at Maijayang and Laiza catering to many Chinese visiting across the border after Chinese authorities cracked down on the gambling in Ruili. Chinese-owned casinos along the border towns of Maijayang and Laiza in Kachin state have led to many cases such as murder, suicide, torture, kidnapping and missing.

Later on the Chinese authorities became concerned about such illegal gambling, prostitution, human trafficking, and drug trafficking across the border. Chinese casino owners in Maijayang and Laiza were protected by the KIA and they got their share of profit out of the flourishing gambling industry with little interference from the Chinese and Myanmar authorities. However, the Chinese authorities have launched series of campaign against gambling targeting border areas and overseas locations online gambling besides measures taken to block channels through which many Chinese go abroad for gambling.

Another problem affecting the Kachins is the cross-border spread of HIV/AIDS and other STDs. There have been changes in the lives of the civilians which affect them without bringing much improvement in their living conditions. The trade routes along China-Myanmar border are also acting as routes for the spread of diseases, social ills, vices and other transnational security issues.

The Myanmar government alleged that KIO violated the ceasefire agreements by attacking development projects and Tatmadaw positions. On the part of the government, KIO was provided with rations, vehicles and cash worth K 145.329 million as formally agreed after the signing of ceasefire agreement in 1994. In addition, for the development of Kachin state, K 5475.45 million was channeled through border development funds and K 52521.30 million through budgets of Ministries totaling K 57996.75 million. Of the total funds of over K 433 billion for regional development in the whole country, the government reportedly spent about K 58 billion for Kachin state. Besides, businesses were permitted for KIO/KIA funds.

Exploitation of Natural Resources

The Kachin dominated areas in Myanmar has rich natural resources such as timber, gold, gemstones, rare earth metals, hydropower potential etc. However, the people living in these areas are not economically advanced as in the case of many other places where poor inhabitants sit on rich mines of resources.

It has been reported that before the ceasefire agreements, there was no problem of large scale deforestation in Myanmar. But after the ceasefire, many Chinese companies came to Myanmar for logging. Logging and mining have been two important factors causing environmental degradation in Myanmar. Use of intensive and unsustainable forms of resource extraction to finance the conflict situation and competition over resource control causes large-scale destruction.

Hydro power projects, oil and gas exploration and the pipelines project and dam constructions in Myanmar are also other major causes of environmental degradation besides displacing thousands of people, forcing many to work as forced labour and living in unhealthy environment. Most of the gold mining companies use mining agents like mercury and hydraulic mining practices causing environmental harm and public health problems for the inhabitants.

The rich natural resources are exploited by three major parties namely the Kachins under KIO's control, the Myanmar government and outsiders under the protection of KIO or the Myanmar government. The rape of Kachin to exploit its rich resources has done much damage to the environment which cannot be replenished for all time or for a long period. The fight against environmental degradation has to be an integrated strategy which involves poverty alleviation, sustainable economic development, social and political stability and public health issues.

These activities with or without the support of the Kachin people will have far reaching consequences for the people. The economic development and sustainable use of natural resources to improve the living conditions of the people call for political settlement. Without it, Kachins and other forces will continue to rape the land thereby causing immense loss in terms of environmental degradation, soil and water contamination, impoverishment and humanitarian disaster.

As policies made in Naypyitaw, Beijing and New Delhi hardly address the issues afflicting the ethnic minorities like the Kachin who live in this part of the world, the plight of the minorities are more or less similar in the three countries. Is the world only for bigger races like the Hans, Burmans and Mayangs (?)? If the Asia-Pacific region is becoming the centre of the world, where do the Kachins and other similar ethnic groups stand?

Great civilizations like China and India are also burning the ends of the candle to destroy and plunder the habitats, resources and livelihood of the smaller races threatening their existence. Keeping the rhetoric apart, this shows the real practices of the races of man controlling the world stage in 21st century. The powerful countries talk about the future of mankind but they work tirelessly to eliminate smaller groups who struggle hard to stick to the ground. The advanced races are thinking to fuel their cars, light their skyscrapers and build the modern infrastructures at the cost of these marginalized peoples.

The decades-long armed conflict and displacement of people in such areas have made them vulnerable to further exploitation of these wretched races. It is nothing but throwing the hapless people out of their homes, fields, work places and turning them into expendable creatures for others to buy their services and bodies as commodities in the market. This is true for the case of Kachins and true for all those who are the targets of plundering section of the mankind.

Displacement, economic deprivation, trafficking and other forms of sufferings are the tell tale signs of the underlying tensions of human civilization in a wider frame. The greedy foreign companies, silent spectators and the policies framed by the powerful groups to seal the fate of such weaker and smaller races are reflected in the stories of the Kachins people's struggle.

to be continued...

* Puyam Nongdrei wrote this article for
The writer can be contacted at nongdreijing(at)gmail(dot)com
This article was posted on June 20, 2013.

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