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.”
Anger at the Myanmar government runs deep, especially among young people.
“I have a university degree in economics, but there is no job for me,” explained a 22-year-old who joined the Kachin Independence Army after failing to find employment in the state capital of Myitkyina. “There are no good positions for Kachin people.”
For now, the KIO maintains a shadow state in pockets of territory along the Chinese border. Although the area under exclusive KIO control amounts to less than 10 percent of Kachin state, peace has provided the breathing room to build institutions of self-government and civil society. The KIO has its own police department, education system, television station and immigration department, and levies taxes at border crossings with China.
Much of the KIO’s funding comes from business deals that facilitate the exploitation of natural resources by Chinese and Burmese companies, and its own human rights record is mixed.
According to a 2007 report by the monitoring organization Human Rights Watch, the KIA accepts minors who volunteer for military service, but no longer recruits soldiers who are under 18 years old.
The KIO’s opium eradication program has drawn recognition from international observers.
“The KIO are one group that is clearly sincere about eradicating drug production,” said David Mathieson of Human Rights Watch. “The international community has to recognize the good intentions of the KIO.”
The KIO leadership has relocated from a windswept mountaintop base to modern headquarters overlooking the bustling border town of Laiza. The new facilities feature concrete office buildings equipped with internet connections and a large meeting hall used for Sunday church services.
The 5th brigade of the Kachin Independence Army is stationed near Laiza, next to a golf course where KIO officials host members of the Myanmar government’s northern command. A misplayed shot here could end up in Chinese territory — totally out of bounds.
This fairway diplomacy is a meager substitute for genuine political dialogue, but the Kachins take it seriously. Golf is taught alongside jungle survival skills at the Kachin military academy, where a putting green is just steps away from a map depicting fortified positions.
Veterans of the guerrilla war attend officer training school at the military academy, alongside a new generation of soldiers who profess an eagerness to fight for their nation. Soldiers are paid 10,000 kyat per month, less than $10.
“My generation thinks there will be a war,” said a young academy cadet. “We don’t know what the leadership will decide. We will follow their orders.”
Some Kachins feel the KIO sold out by agreeing to a ceasefire.
The ceasefire “was the best chance for KIO leaders to corrupt the natural resources such as gold mining, jading and logging for their own comfort,” wrote a former KIO official who requested anonymity.
Such high-level corruption might hamstring the KIO’s ability to rally support among ordinary Kachins.
“In Myanmar we have three in one – government, military and business,” explained Dtoi La, a trainee journalist. “That’s true for the junta and the KIO.”
For now, Kachins prepare for the future as best they can. Their dream is not a return to the old ways of subsistence agriculture, but rather a chance to develop as other nations do.
“We don’t want to be left behind,” Dtoi La said. “Keep an eye on Myanmar. There will be war in the future.”