The Kachin Conflict and Public Social Movements

On 15 November 2017, the LSESU ASEAN Society invited Ms Ja Htoi Pan, the Associate Director of Kachinland Research Centre in Myitkyina, Kachin State, Myanmar, to give a presentation about the ongoing Kachin conflict.

Ms Ja Htoi started off with a brief introduction on the Kachin people, noting that they are made up of six different linguistic groups, but are united under one cultural identity in the Kachin state. The Kachin state is located at the northernmost part of Myanmar, with Kachin diasporas in Yunnan, Southern China, and Arunachal Pradesh, India.

The Kachin people (in the Kachin Hill region) were governed directly by the British administration, separate from Burma proper, which was managed as a province of British India. This thus laid the foundations for the distinction of the Kachin people from the majority Burmese, as they were a significant Christian minority where Buddhism was the dominant religion in the majority.

She highlighted the importance of the Panglong Agreement signed during Burma’s decolonisation process in February 1947, as it accepted full autonomy in internal administration for the Frontier Areas in principle, and brought the Kachins, Shans and Chins to a consensus with the central government under Aung San. However, she argued that this was to be the root of the present conflict in the Kachin state, as the Panglong Agreement remains an ideal across the period of military rule, and in the present civilian government.

She noted that the most prominent resistance movement in the Kachin state was the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), which held a political stronghold and effectively controlled the Kachin state from 1961, the time when it was established, to 1994. During this time, the KIO staged revolutions and militant uprisings against the military junta, the Tatmadaw, with a significantly large proportion of them being from the rural sector. This reslted in increased urbanisation of the Kachin people from rural to urban areas, and hence laid the foundations for the spread of state education to them, which raised awareness of the conflict. It has to be noted that this resettlement was aligned with the Tatmadaw’s blueprint of creating a Burmese nation, a vision that critically guided their policies up till the 2000s.

She then observes that the 1994 ceasefire established between the KIO leaders and the junta brought to the forefront the rampant corruption within the KIO, and precipitated the loss of identity and solidarity amongst the Kachin people. Since 2011, the ceasefire had broken down, and the KIO, in expediently building back trust from the Kachin people, once again became their recognised representative. It not only remains engaged in the peace process with the Tatmadaw, but is also actively involved in social movements and development within the Kachin state.

Ms. Ja Htoi places great emphasis on the current, prevailing social movements in the Kachin state especially ‘Alternative Education’ movement. This movement aims to provide an alternative source of education to the state-imposed curriculum. Its objective was to veer away from the mainstream state education and be localised to the Kachin state.

She also shared about the concept of the ‘New Kachin Sphere” (NKS) which has emerged in Kachin society after the resumption of the conflict in 2011 and described its scope, which encompasses research and social development efforts aimed at providing targeted social services to ethnic-Kachin areas. It is under this concept that the Alternative Education Movement operates.

Ms. Ja Htoi notes that education is perceived as the key to the reforming process in Kachin. Hpaji gaw anhte a lawt lu lam, which means ‘education as a means to our freedom’, is the adopted slogan for the ‘Alternative Education’ movement. The province of Mai Ja Yang became the hub of higher education within the Kachin state, with four present tertiary education institutions, such as the Kachinland School of Arts and Sciences and the Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences. The access to education to this generation of Kachin people strengthens their negotiating posture vis-à-vis the central government and the Tatmadaw. Ms Ja Htoi expresses conviction and hopes that the latter two would recognise the social mobilisation in the minority ethnic regions, and work towards fulfilling the 21st century version of the Panglong Agreement for peace.

When asked about the Kachin people’s sentiments towards Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, she laments that they were largely disappointed. This was especially pertinent in the political resistance by the various ethnic groups against the Tatmadaw. In the name of seeking peace, the Tatmadaw’s strategy was to deal with each ethnic group separately, which was a move largely seen by the ethnic groups as a move to hinder them from the search for common ground across all the remaining ethnic groups. She notes that the ethnic leaders and representatives had initially looked to Suu Kyi for support for a more consistent approach when engaging them. However, after the National League for Democracy (NLD) was elected, to the dismay of ethnic people, it became evident that the ‘national reconciliation’ proposed in the NLD manifesto was not meant for amending the country’s divided societies, but to make a deal between NLD and the Tatmadaw.

In light of the ongoing Rohingya crisis, we must not forget the displacements and humanitarian crises happening in other parts of a country consisting of more than 100 ethnic groups. The sheer magnitude of minority groups demands a long-term political reform agreed by the Tatmadaw, the NLD and including the minority ethnic groups. We are thus thankful to Ms Ja Htoi for taking time out to enlighten us on the very real struggles being felt on the ground in Myanmar. It was truly a fruitful session.

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