MYITKYINA, KACHIN STATE, NORTHERN MYANMAR
Human figures hover ghostlike above the ground. They have no faces, nor do they reveal any emotion. Outlined on canvas, they are cold, detached, lingering motionlessly as if waiting for someone to notice them. The half-dozen works of art hanging on the bare wooden walls depict family scenes—they are painted in bold primary colors with rudimentary strokes.
For the past two weeks, Jubilee Café has served as a venue for the artwork made by Kachin children who have been living in internally displaced peoples (IDP) camps along the Myanmar-China border for the last seven years. The gallery cafe sits atop a promontory above the western bank of the Irrawaddy River, an unassuming tropical sanctuary ensconced by flora and fruit trees.
The children’s paintings evoke haunting sensations and symbolisms. The Prussian blue backgrounds are not the dark evening sky, but the United Nations blue of corrugated roof shelters protecting IDP families from the penetrating sun of the dry season, the unforgiving monsoon rains of summer, and the sight lines of those who would wish them harm. Spread across each painting is a seemingly random constellation of crude blank shapes outlined in pencil. Our eyes are drawn toward the void of random circles, squares, and rhombuses. The empty spaces, we are told, represent bullet holes.
Beneath one of the paintings, a caption by one of the young artists reads: “The broken is not someone, but everyone. The broken part is in everyone. Light comes through the broken part into everyone.”
In Kachin State, where nearly sixty years of civil war and systemic disenfranchisement has left more than 120,000 ethnic Kachin refugees living in camps along the Chinese border, hope can be a dangerous concept.Chapter 2: Beneath the Veil
Within hours of arriving in Myitkyina, we are informed that a meeting planned for later that evening would need to be postponed, and we’re told to stay off the streets after 10pm. A spate of assaults, robberies, stabbings, rapes, and murders have taken grip on the city, and a soft curfew is in place.
During the day there are few signs of Myitkyina’s dark underbelly: the streets are lively in the commercial center, young people gather in Manau Park to practice traditional Kachin line dances, and the tree-lined city’s ubiquitous guard posts sit unmanned. But at dusk—as the smoke from burning leaves and trash wafts through the alleyways and night descends—checkpoints are set up along the city’s main roads and motorists are stopped, questioned, and ordered to go home.
Although Myitkyina has been spared the bombing raids of the resurgent war between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s armed forces), a wave of refugees from war-torn regions have descended on the ostensibly tranquil provincial capital of Kachin State. Mass exodus from rural war zones has led to staggering rates of unemployment, drug addiction, HIV/AIDS, and other manifestations of psychological trauma in the capital of Myanmar’s northernmost province.
In 2011, as the military junta prepared to relinquish control and transition toward democratic reforms, the seventeen-year ceasefire between Tatmadaw and KIA forces disintegrated. Bombs and mortars strafed the countryside as battalions maneuvered for control of strategic targets, sending tens of thousands of villagers fleeing toward the relative safety of Myitkyina, rural churches, and the IDP camps strung along the Myanmar-China frontier.
As the tenuous peace in Kachin State dissolved—reigniting one of the world’s longest-running and least-publicized civil wars—the Tatmadaw instituted its long-standing “Four Cuts” doctrine designed to disrupt critical links between ethnic civilians and the armed wings of resistance movements by cutting off access to food, funds, intelligence, and recruits. In the case of Kachin State, the Tatmadaw’s strategy of attrition has caused a pressing humanitarian crisis.
The Kachin conflict traces its roots to Burma’s independence from the British Empire and the subsequent 1947 Panglong Conference, which attempted to unify the country’s various ethnic groups under the banner of the newly-formed Union of Burma. Kachin chiefs, along with representatives from Shan, Chin, and Karen ethnic nationalities in Upper Burma, agreed to join the unified republic led by Burmese national hero General Aung San, provided that stipulations were included to ensure their political legitimacy and future autonomy. Foremost among these conditions were the “Principles of Equality,” which promised the voluntary right of secession to participating ethnic groups after a ten-year period. The negotiations failed, however, to include Arakanese, Wa, Mon, and Rakhine leaders, among dozens of other ethnic groups, which stoked resentment and gave rise to nascent ethnic rebellions.
The hopes of General Aung San (father of Aung San Suu Kyi) were short-lived, and he would not live to see independence. Just months after negotiating the Panglong Agreement, General Aung San was assassinated by agents of U Saw, a political rival and the former Prime Minister of British Burma. His death left the newly-formed Union of Burma without a unifying leader and gripped by fear that Britain would attempt to retake control of its former colony.
The Kachin conflict officially began fifteen years later in 1962, when General Ne Win led a successful military coup d’état against the democratically-elected government. He disbanded Parliament, declared Buddhism the national religion, ceded part of Kachin territory to China, and formed a military junta that would rule Burma for the next 50 years. In response to this abrogation of the Panglong Agreement, a group of Kachin students and young political leaders banded together covertly to form a rebel insurgency to fight the junta. That protracted war against the Tatmadaw continues today.
Kachin State is home to around one million members of the Jingpho Wunpong (Confederation of Jingpho), which is comprised of six tribes (Jinghpaw, Maru, Lashi, Rawang, Zaiwa, and Lisu) who have ancestral claims to the land. Until recently, the Jingpho lived mainly in upland agrarian hamlets, divided along clan lines and tribal affiliations.
“There are, strictly speaking, no Kachin tribes,” noted Reverend Ola Hansen in his seminal 1913 ethnology, The Kachin: Their Traditions and Customs. “They recognize only different families and linguistic traditions.” He explains that, for convenience, “we may call the group of families that speak the same dialect a tribe or a clan while we employ the name Kachin for the people as a whole.”
Inhabiting a region of almost mythic obscurity, the Kachin dwell in the vast northern reaches of Myanmar, hemmed in by the frontiers of China to the east, India to the west, and the precipitous wall of the Tibetan Plateau to the north.
Only a handful of all-season roads exist in Kachin State, colloquially known as Kachinland, and they are mainly connected to Myitkyina, international borders, and strategic industrial developments. Vast swaths of the region are covered in dense jungle and are almost completely inaccessible for six months of the year. In 1942, construction began on the only “road” ever built across Kachin—the Ledo-Stilwell Road: a supply route carved out of the wilderness between British bases in Assam, India and allied positions in Yunnan, China during the dark days of World War II. Its purpose was to supply munitions, medical supplies, and provisions to desperate Allied fighters in western China to resist the Japanese invasion from Burma. When the Japanese took British Burma in 1941, the Allies lost their main supply train via the Burma Road and so devised an improbable plan to transport goods overland from India across loosely-patrolled Kachin territory to Yunnan. The U.S. parachuted a dozen soldiers into the Kachin jungles to make contact with local tribes and foment a resistance movement. In the ensuing months, thousands of Kachin joined the war effort as spies, saboteurs, and soldiers. Without the Kachin Rangers, as they would be known, China may well have become a Japanese colony.
The Ledo-Stilwell Road project was a notoriously brutal endeavor undertaken by a ragtag band primarily comprised of Kachin natives, Chinese laborers, and African-American soldiers. General Lewis A. Pick, who commanded the road-building effort, called it “the toughest job ever given to U.S. Army Engineers in wartime.” It took 50,000 men three years to complete and cost the lives of more than 1,100 American soldiers as well as countless thousands of Kachin and Chinese. The road was never utilized for its intended purpose, as advances in military aviation saw cargo planes able to ascend the Himalayan peaks, known as “The Hump.” Today, some portions of the Ledo-Stilwell road have been maintained and repurposed by the government, while others are impassable, having been reclaimed by the jungle.
Isolation has been a blessing and a curse for the Kachin. The unforgiving terrain has historically presented a deterrent to invasion, helping local clans resist the advances of powerful colonial neighbors: China, India, Lower Burma, and Tibet. Conversely, the vast expanses of wilderness, a dearth of infrastructure, and internecine conflict among the various sub-tribes has limited the Kachin’s ability to mount a unified defense of their land. External observers are rarely granted access to conflict areas, leaving the international community largely unaware of the war in Kachin. The consequence of inaccessibility has meant that the mist-shrouded mountains and dense rainforests have provided a perfect cover for the horrors of war.
There are no celebrated cultural monuments or glittering ancient capitals in Kachin State, and virtually no foreign tourism. For thousands of years, traders on the Southwest Silk Road steered clear of the malarial jungles and the “fierce Kachins” in favor of well-trodden paths connecting China to the Mogok gem mines and the cities of Lower Burma.
For all its mystique, it would be inaccurate to cast Kachin State as a remote, tribal hinterland. It is among the most coveted and contested repositories of natural resources on earth, possessing mineral wealth that holds the power to change the fate of nations.
The land is endowed with vast deposits of jade, gold, amber, teakwood, and rare earth elements valued in the tens of billions of dollars annually. Bananas, opium (processed into heroin), and hydro-electric power generate billions more. The promise of staggering profits has lured a cabal of government ministries, armed ethnic factions, drug cartels, and transnational corporations to descend on the land and invest in large-scale operations. Only a fraction of these commodities are taxed—the majority are neither reported nor intended for domestic consumption. They are instead smuggled across the Chinese border using a sophisticated web of shadow companies, corrupt agents and military-protected checkpoints.
Kachinland is marked by a resource curse that has borne fifty-eight years of ethnic violence, economic repression, land seizures, and cultural genocide. Still, it remains a symbol of independence, armed resistance to military rule, and opposition to Sino-Burmese suzerainty.Chapter 3: Rivers of No Return
“The villagers were commanded to clap while the bulldozers destroyed their land,” says Tu Hkawng, a pastor from the Myitsone area.
Painfully, he recalls the sight of people from his village gathered near the banks of the Irrawaddy river in late 2009 for the “opening ceremonies” of the Myistone Dam project. Three villages were “invited” under threat of violence to celebrate the inauguration of the US$3.6 billion project that would ultimately destroy their livelihoods and transform their homeland into a bleak reservoir. They were obliged to feign enjoyment while their ancestral burial grounds were desecrated, their houses razed and their families sent into exile.
The villagers can only imagine the scene inside the nearby dam headquarters: company men, government officials, and military personnel sitting around tables littered with bottles of beer and baijiu (Chinese liquor), platters of grilled Kachin delicacies, and ashtrays overflowing with expensive Chinese cigarettes, while outside thousands of Kachin are organized in rows like prisoners awaiting their grim fate.
“Afterwards, they were ordered to leave their homes and march with the elders in front,” says Tu Hkawng. They were instructed by soldiers to walk in rhythm—right foot or left foot first—and told not to look back. “It didn’t matter if they were sick or too old to walk.”
Before the “ceremony,” villagers scrambled to pack all the possessions they could carry, stacking them on motorbikes, trucks, and boats along with their children, the elderly, and their cattle. Amid the chaos, much was left behind and families were separated.
“I heard a man packed everything he could move from his house onto a boat and made it downriver to the resettlement camp, only to realize he had forgotten his son,” says Tu Hkawng. “When he couldn’t find him, he ran back upriver many miles to his old house to search for his son and found him terrified hiding under a bush.”
The Myitsone Dam has been suspended for seven years, but the impact on the local population has already been catastrophic. “Of course, we need electricity,” he says, “but we do not need the dam. How can we believe this is good [for us]?”
Tu Hkawng’s concern is the ability of Kachin people to cope with the destruction of their spiritual center and the loss of their traditional way of life. He asks: “How do we account for the reversible and irreversible? The tangible and intangible things that could be lost?”
As animist traditions of worship, the “duwa” chieftain system, family structures, and farmland vanish—replaced by Christian dogma and Burmese customs—the cultural foundations of the Kachin also crumble. The loss of age-old traditions helps elucidate the spiritual connection to the river. To many, including Tu Hkawng, the Irrawaddy represents the last pillar of Kachin culture.
Tu Hkawng speaks of the Irrawaddy river in sacred terms: “It is Myanmar’s treasure, lifeblood, sentimental value.” The Kachin believe their progenitors migrated from the Tibetan Plateau into the lowland basins of the Irrawaddy’s tributaries and settled in four ancestral villages. From these ancestral villages, familial lineages proliferated and clans were born.
Condemnation of the Myitsone Dam project, however, is not limited to the Kachin people. The Irrawaddy is the only major river located entirely within Myanmar’s borders, and an estimated forty million people living in the river basin depend upon it for sustenance, transportation and survival. Due to Myanmar’s complex demographics, the Irrawaddy is one of few unifying symbols of national cohesion, independent of the dominant Burman-Buddhist identity.
Criticism is becoming widespread in large part because the economic, ecological, hydrological, and cultural ramifications of the Myitsone Dam leave too many unanswered questions, according to Professor Maung Maung Aye, Chief Advisor of the Myanmar Environment Institute (MEI).
There has been only one comprehensive environmental impact assessment on the Myitsone Dam. Known as the BANCA (Biodiversity and Nature Conservation Association) Report, the study was commissioned by the China Power Investment Company (CPI) in 2009 and conducted by a joint team of eighty scientists and experts from Myanmar and China. Although the 945-page report has never been released in its entirety, excerpts became public in 2011. Those excerpts recommended the Myitsone Dam be scrapped in favor of building two smaller facilities with equivalent combined generative power on tributaries upriver.
The Myanmar central government in Naypyidaw nevertheless insisted on moving forward with the project, imperiling the seventeen-year ceasefire between Kachin and Tatmadaw forces. Border skirmishes broke out in 2010. Then, in March 2011, the KIA issued a warning to the Chinese central government in Beijing directly, stating that construction of the dam would sever peace in the region and result in the resumption of civil war, insinuating that conflict would reap disastrous results on Chinese investment. Three months later, Tatmadaw forces attacked a KIA stronghold near the Dapein (Taping) dam, a Chinese-funded hydropower facility on the Kachin-Yunnan border, officially ending the ceasefire.
China’s stake in the Myitsone Dam goes well beyond electricity. It is part of a larger tactic called “debtbook diplomacy” in which China uses “strategic debts to gain political leverage with economically vulnerable countries across the Asia-Pacific region.” Sri Lanka and Pakistan have already been forced to cede military bases and ports to China, while in Kachin, debt leverage has allowed China to gain unrestricted access to critical natural resources. Furthermore, by forcing the government to acquiesce to the Myitsone project, Beijing receives tacit assurance of Naypyidaw’s willingness to capitulate to its future demands. This strategy is a critical aspect of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, an estimated US$1 trillion global trade route involving seventy-one countries and organizations that will “enhance regional connectivity” and fortify China’s economic supremacy in the eastern hemisphere.
The Myitsone Dam is a striking example of Beijing’s ambitions—and hubris—in Kachin State, where Myanmar’s government and Chinese companies have agreed to cooperate on eighteen joint venture hydropower projects. The Myitsone Dam is considered the crown jewel. It would be Myanmar’s largest hydroelectric facility to date, and the tenth largest in the world. Producing an estimated six thousand megawatts, it would have a greater capacity than any hydroelectric plant in Canada, and rank second only to the Grand Coulee dam in the United States.
There are no estimates as to how much, if any, of the energy or profits generated by the dam would be allocated to Kachin State. China Power Investment Company has reported that 90 percent of the electricity generated from the project will go to China, while 10 percent will be transmitted to the Myanmar power grid. China will receive 70 percent of the annual profits, 20 percent (USD $500 million annually) will go to the Myanmar government, the remaining 10 percent distributed as brokerage fees to development subcontractors, namely Asia World.
Despite the obvious benefits, however, Beijing seems to have been ill-prepared for the refugee crisis precipitated by the reignited war in Kachin. Villagers, whose homes became military targets, streamed across the border in search of safe haven in Yunnan Province, threatening Beijing’s delicately engineered neutrality. Shortly thereafter, in mid-2011, Myanmar’s Prime Minister Thein Sein officially suspended construction on the dam. That moratorium remains in effect today.
Although Beijing’s official position advocates peace and dialogue in Kachin, in early 2019, China’s ambassador to Myanmar, Hong Liang, stated: “If this issue [Myitsone] fails to be resolved…it will seriously hurt the confidence of Chinese entrepreneurs to invest in Myanmar,” going on to claim local political and religious leaders held a “positive attitude“ toward the project.
Semi-veiled threats may cause the government in Naypyidaw to balk, but the ambassador’s attempt to rewrite the narrative has been met with incredulity among Kachin leaders. “We oppose the project now and forever,” responded Gumgrawng Awng Hkam, President of the Kachin Democratic Party. “However, China refuses to give up and keeps trying [to build the dam]. They are giving the reasons that Chinese investors are hesitant to make new investments [in Myanmar] due to the failure of the Myitsone Dam.” KIA leaders have stated that they support the will of the people, who overwhelmingly demand the project’s permanent suspension.
When evaluating the proposed dam site from the banks of the river, the question that immediately comes to mind is: “Why here?” Few natural features suggest an ideal basin for a reservoir or the 500-foot-tall dam itself. The contours of the valley are rung by broken, low-lying mountains and rolling farmland. The area’s geographic features tell you this isn’t the place.
Perhaps even more problematic is the site’s proximity to the Sagaing Fault, which lies just fifteen miles to the west. A significant earthquake and subsequent breach of the dam could result in a catastrophic incident, potentially releasing a wall of water that would engulf Myitkyina with the force of a tidal wave.
Professor Muang Muang Aye’s team from the Myanmar Environment Institute found that “the conditions of the Myitsone area and its environs are actually not suitable for the construction of large dams and dam-cascade.” They point out that the area in question is largely composed of serpentine, which when exposed to water from the reservoir can become dangerously unstable.
Although Tu Hkawng advocates for Kachin State’s self-sufficiency, he agrees with the BANCA and MEI reports that call for a network of micro-dams to be built on tributaries of the Irrawaddy instead of one mega-dam project. As noted by CPI-commissioned scientists, this strategy would mitigate safety concerns surrounding the Myitsone Dam’s ecological and social impact.
Tu Hkawng believes opposition to the dam is growing across Myanmar and that the government should permanently suspend construction and allow local villagers to return home. Such a gesture could have a unifying effect politically and might help improve Myanmar’s global image. “The NLD [National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi] is our elected leadership. If they refuse to listen, it will break trust and cause doubt among the people who voted for them [in 2015]. This will become a big problem for them [NLD] in the 2020 national elections.”
“We need the right to mandate it [micro-dam project] ourselves,” he continues. “But Kachin are not ready for this while we are still transitioning to a democratic system. It is not conducive to peacemaking.”
As the suspension of the Myitsone Dam continues into its eighth year, thousands of Kachin languish in IDP camps and resettlement colonies. Stripped of their land, livestock, and livelihoods, they live without political agency or viable economic opportunities. A grave, suffocating despair has settled upon these displaced peoples, and Tu Hkawng explains that the damage wrought upon the social fabric of Kachin culture is difficult too exaggerate. “One-third of the youth in the resettlement camps are drug addicts,” he says.Chapter 4: Uprooted
The entrance to the Aung Myin Thar resettlement village appears suddenly on the side of the main road that runs north out of Myitkyina. The shady two-lane road winds around green hills and past quaint hamlets marked by church steeples, tracing the contours of the Irrawaddy River toward the Tibetan Plateau.
A freshly-painted public health clinic situated upon a recently shorn lawn appears on the left, marking the entrance to the government-run displacement camp. Beyond the clinic lies a broad, flat, dirt plain and the hundreds of row houses where two thousand displaced Kachin villagers have been relocated, including Tu Hkawng’s brother and family.
Seven years ago, the government announced the mandatory relocation of six villages near the Myitsone Dam construction site, and subcontracted Asia World to build a makeshift town to house the displaced. The site has been constructed haphazardly with substandard materials, resembling little more than a Potemkin village built for show.
“The houses look almost identical to the traditional houses in our old villages,” Tu Khawng explains as he swings the car onto one of the side-streets of the gridded community. He drives past blocks of empty, lifeless houses until we approach a bamboo storefront framed by a clear-cut mountain in the background.
The two-story houses were constructed with poor quality wood and sit atop mounds of debris and loose clay soil that wash away in the rains. Built to last only three or four years, they leak during the four-month-long monsoon season. When the winds drive across the treeless floodplain, the houses sway and lurch. Fearing that they will topple over, families huddle together on kitchen floors, prepared to run, should these shelters fail them during a storm.
“During the windy season, no one dares go upstairs,” we are told.
There is little space between the houses and no room for vegetable gardens, nor land to graze livestock. No one in the camp actually has a deed to the land, nor do they have rights over their houses. They are forced to live here, but they are not permitted to truly set down roots.
“We are prohibited from building new structures,” says Seng Hkawn, a young mother of three. “The government only allows us to modify existing structures.” Lacking resources and viable sources of income, locals have few alternatives but to make their way back to their villages to collect materials from old homes to brace the new houses before they collapse.
Should gusting winds cause these structures to buckle and crush families, the news could tarnish public support and thrust the controversial Myitsone project into the global spotlight. This might compel the international community to pressure the government in Naypyidaw to take a harder stance against one of Myanmar’s signature infrastructure projects. Mitigating negative optics makes it critical for the government to maintain the veneer of humane living conditions in Aung Myin Thar, if suspension is to be lifted and the Myitsone Dam to receive final approval.
“Twice a year, representatives from the China Power Investment Company arrive to hand out rations,” Lahtaw Jan, an older mother with ten children explains. “For every six family members they give us three, 20-kilogram sacks of rice.”
There is no commercial life in Aung Myin Thar, just a smattering of corner stores stocked with the few precious commodities that make life here bearable: eggs, cigarettes, ramen noodles, alcohol. No one walks by the store during the hour we are there, nor does a single car pass. Sitting around a flimsy, low-lying plastic table, drinking tea, cartoons play on the television in the background. “People [here] don’t know what to do. They are wandering,” says Lahtaw Jan.
One can imagine parallels to the Biblical exodus being drawn during Sunday sermons in Aung Myin Thar, where ninety-nine percent of the population is Christian. Though the Kachin may wander like the Israelites, their prayers seem destined to fall on deaf ears.
Tu Hkawng believes that the mentality of the Kachin people is changing. “We used to work together, to help each other.” But as people are forced into unfamiliar terrain, “they struggle and don’t know how they will survive.”
Seng Hkawn explains that she lost her husband to a heroin overdose two years ago. “He did not use drugs when we lived in our village,” she laments. “It only started when we were forced here.” After he died, she found herself dispossessed, with no livestock, farmland, income, or support. To make ends meet, she runs a noodle shop in one of the twenty or so bamboo shacks set-up on a sandbar next to the confluence of the Irrawaddy during the dry season.
Each morning she leaves Aung Myin Thar around 4AM and rides her bicycle an hour to work: she exits the resettlement camp, pedals over a series of small mountain passes, passes her ancestral village—taking stock of the house she once shared with her husband in better times—and makes her way to the riverside tourist destination popular with domestic tourists. Kachin clothing and textiles are valued highly throughout Myanmar, fetching exorbitant prices in the retail shops of Mandalay and Yangon. And so, to supplement her income, she rents traditional Kachin dresses to tourists who want to have their pictures taken dressed as locals with the source of the Irrawaddy in the background.
During monsoon season, when the sandbar vanishes beneath the river, Seng Hkawn packs up shop and moves to the semi-annual restaurant she runs near the headquarters of the Myitsone project. Concrete offices now reside atop villages that some of her neighbors in the resettlement camp once called home, while the burial grounds, churches, and gardens now buried under assembly halls and restrooms remain fresh in the peoples’ memories.
Imagining what comes next for the residents of Aung Myin Thar leaves little room for optimism. Will these displaced Kachin ever be allowed to return to their land? And if so, what will remain and how will they afford to start over?
Seng Hkawng tells us she hopes that the IDPs who fled to the camps far along the Chinese frontier can return to their villages. She dreams of the dam project failing—of returning home with her children to her land and the house she once shared with her husband. Perhaps there, the man who boiled up his despair and shot it straight into his veins can be buried with some dignity. And she can begin to heal.Chapter 5: The Box
Nkhum Brang stands before an awning-sized canvas outside the Manau Park Cultural Center. He is working with a group of assistants to create a live painting depicting the headwaters of the Irrawaddy from a photograph he took in the 1970s. Inside, dozens of high school-aged students pose for selfies in front of his paintings, while well-to-do locals peruse the cavernous hall filled with dozens of paintings propped up on easels. Nkhum Brang has displayed his work in Yangon and abroad, but this is the first time he has exhibited it in his home town.
The following day, we are driven to his house to meet him in his studio. Nkhum Brang’s son informs us that his father has gone back to the exhibition hall. He does not carry a cell phone, so he walks over to Manau Park where we find him at the end of the hall speaking with colleagues.
As his wife, a stately former Member of Parliament, brings us tea and sunflower seeds, Nkhum Brang explains his artistic motivation: “I see beauty in people and nature. But the beautiful things in my eyes are disappearing.” He points to the massive mural he co-created with students the day before, which now dominates the back of the exhibition hall, and speaks of lost ways, lost memories, lost youth, which he refers to as “rivers of no return.”
His works are vibrant, exotic reflections of a bygone era in Kachinland. He hopes that by sharing his art with young people “they will see and feel beauty and understand how people used to live and what nature used to look like.” Amid the harsh realities of life in Myitkyina and the difficult decisions facing Kachin youth today, Nkhum Brang sees engaging young people with creativity as his contribution to their “moral development.”
The erudite elder Kachin artist doesn’t conform to ethnic tropes: he is neither a resistance fighter nor a political artist. Nkhum Brang is simply a painter—one whose collection of work makes it clear he is desperate to ensure that what has been lost is not necessarily forgotten.
Nkhum Brang tells us he never became involved in the conflict, or with the KIA, because of his singular desire to create art. Thirty years ago, in the aftermath of the 8888 revolution, he watched his father get beaten with the butts of rifles by the military for speaking up on behalf of the Kachin. His father fell sick for five years and eventually died. He is well-aware of the consequences that come with armed revolt, and the risks of speaking out against the Tatmadaw.
“Many people in Myanmar want to make art or poetry. But it’s dangerous,” he says. “You can touch the government, but not the military.”
The future in Kachinland feels bleak to Nkhum Brang. “I have no idea what will happen tomorrow; I can’t tell what comes next. I feel like I’m in a box and it’s exactly the same size as my body. There is absolutely no space above my head. It feels narrow, heavy, dark.”
“In Myanmar, we cannot speak freely yet. In Myanmar, it takes time to reach the truth.”
In the meantime, he paints the vanishing touchstones of days gone by: a Rawang mother in traditional dress with her child strapped to her back looking over her shoulder; a feather-clad Lisu warrior holding an opium pipe with an impenetrable stare; elephants crossing a narrow tributary of the Irrawaddy.Chapter 6: Conflict Bananas
East of Myitkyina, in the lowlands near the Chinese border, where farmland and forests stretch as far as the eye can see, agricultural communities have been reduced to ghost towns by bombings and landmines. The resurgent war has depleted the local populace in the border areas to the extent that once-thriving villages are now unable to resist the illegal appropriation of their land caused by a lucrative and growing black market trade in bananas.
Some of those who fled sought shelter in the nearby Zai Awng and Hkau Shau IDP camps, only to flee again after being bombed again in 2017. The few who have remained on the land do not have the manpower to cultivate the vast fields, even if they had the basic material resources.
In 2010, representatives from the New Democratic Army—Kachin (NDA-K), a communist faction of the KIA that broke away and allied themselves with the Tatmadaw as part of the Border Guard Force (BGF), began arriving in these villages. They struck a deal with Chinese fruit companies to profit from the vacant land. Villagers were handed seeds to plant in their quarantined fields, while farmland that had fallen into disuse, as a result of the disappearance of their owners, were allocated to Chinese investors. To sweeten the deal, the villagers were assured that everything they grew would be purchased.
In less than a decade, the eastern Kachin borderlands have been transformed into an ocean of bananas. The plantations are located almost exclusively in areas controlled by either the Tatmadaw, the KIA or the NDA-K, and the rule of law is lax, at best. Deserted villages have resulted in vanishing marketplaces. Debt and economic desperation have made ripe the conditions for forcible land seizures. Add to this, the constant threat of imprisonment or violent reprisals by BGF soldiers should villagers refuse to grow bananas, and it is hard not to see the eastern Kachin frontier as a post-colonial banana republic.
Kha Dau is a Project Coordinator for Metta Development Foundation, an NGO that provides social services and advocates for the Kachin people. He explains the mechanics of the industry: Chinese investors create dummy corporations based in Myanmar as front operations to conduct business. They pay off the BGF to coerce local land owners into ceding control of their farms. Forests are razed and subsistence crops eradicated to expand fields for banana cultivation, which cuts off villagers’ access to critical wild food supplies and destroys their source of firewood. This means villagers must travel even further to collect wood for cooking or to heat their homes during cold winter months. The land is mono-cropped, leaving no alternative source of income other than the sale of bananas to the Chinese companies who provided the seeds.
Once the bananas are harvested, they can be transported across the border to China by truck in around nine hours. Once across the border in Ruili, the bananas are “laundered” and labeled Chinese-grown, before being shipped to markets across the country and exported to Europe. Masking the true origin of Kachin “conflict bananas” solves a few problems by eliminating tariffs, environmental regulations and labor laws. Chinese banana companies operating in Myanmar are never officially registered, so they leave neither a paper trail nor are they accountable for human rights abuses or public health violations.
“Soil pollution, air pollution, and fish kills are common due to the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizer,” says Kha Dau. “Livestock are also dying. The water systems create a much larger impact because the virgin forests and other farmlands are destroyed by the chemicals.”
According to Metta’s research, there is growing evidence that the chemical fertilizers and pesticides used on the banana plantations are causing mutations and facilitating the spread of invasive insect species which destroy subsistence crops. Kha Dau sees land disenfranchisement—the demise of seasonal and rotational planting techniques, mono-cropping, chemical pollution, and political coercion as “a food security crisis” in the making.
Local farmers lacking the knowledge or skill to cultivate the new demand crop are being replaced by laborers from lower Myanmar, especially Rakhine State. Though they are aware of the health hazards—impaired vision, miscarriages, and in a few cases, amputations resulting from untreated infections—migrant laborers have few alternative options for employment.
A rough estimate from information gathered by Metta adds up to banana sales of US$800 million annually. China’s Agricultural and Financial Network website reports that more than two hundred trucks cross the border into China daily. In late March and April, during harvest season, an endless convoy of Chinese eighteen-wheelers filled with fruit brings traffic to a standstill for hours at a time on the road between Myitkyina and the Chinese border towns of Ruili and Tengchong.
Kha Dau estimates that around forty Chinese companies operating plantations in Kachin control more than 146,000 acres of farmland scattered across the border regions east of Myitkyina. Some of the plantations are situated near BGF-controlled IDP camps, with owners unable to return to their land, while other parcels are rented directly from the owners lacking the means and manpower to tend the crops and become sharecroppers. The land is typically leased for two to six years by Chinese operators at between 50,000-100,000 Myanmar Kyat (US$33-63) per acre annually.
Once the lease period ends, however, rights over the land do not revert to the owner. Operations continue under the protection of the military, KIA, or BGF, who work together to safeguard these Chinese investments. Bananas are the latest example of Kachin commodities fueling the ongoing conflict.
There are no accurate statistics on the migrant laborers. Kha Dau says, “On one plantation there could be forty to fifty people working on 100-200 acres.” Interviews with farm workers reveal that daily wages range from 4000-8000 Myanmar Kyat (US$3-6), depending on the area.
War and human displacement have allowed Chinese fruit companies to take advantage of an unregulated industry, cheap land, and an exploitable labor force. Nevertheless, there are inherent risks to their operations. The area is laden with landmines and bombings still occur sporadically. Kha Dau doesn’t know how the Chinese companies protect their investment. He can only say they have connections with both local and national politicians. “We don’t know what’s behind it,” he shrugs. “But we can see the [plantations] are unsafe for locals, yet safe for Chinese investors.”Chapter 7: Imperial Bling
It is an open secret that jade funds the war in Kachin, which sits atop the largest, purest deposit in the world and accounts for nearly ninety percent of global jade production. The bulk of exports are transported from the mines in H’pakant to China along protected smuggling routes and with the aid of a network of stake-holders comprised of government ministries, international mining companies, development subcontractors, ethnic militias, and drug cartels.
According to Global Witness, Myanmar’s jade industry is valued at an estimated US$31 billion annually, which, if accurately reported, would equal nearly half of the country’s official GDP. The Myanmar government’s “official” jade revenues average around US$1.2 billion annually, a fractional estimate of its actual value, which has left the government’s coffers bare and rendered economists unable to produce receipts for more than six to seven percent of its GDP, as reported by Asia Foundation.
The majority of Kachin jade makes its way to the Chinese border towns of Ruili-Jiegao and Tengchong. These “special economic zones” spill over the far southwestern border of Yunnan into Myanmar, functioning as weigh-stations for jade, teakwood, heroin, methamphetamines, and humans smuggled into China. Three decades of free-market liberalization in China has increased prosperity and bolstered China’s middle class, whose wealth now fuels a torrid jade market.
Shipments of jade have flowed into China since antiquity, yet the trade was only normalized during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor in the late eighteenth century. During the height of the Qing Dynasty, jade exports from Myanmar were primarily destined for imperial cities and the country’s wealthiest citizens. Today, jade stones are piled in warehouses in the border towns of Ruili-Jiegao and Tengchong, where they are processed, cut, and sold to traders for transport to markets in Eastern China.
Mining jade is treacherous work, even during dry season. Technological advances have done little to improve conditions in the mines of H’pakant. In late April 2019, fifty-four people were buried under one hundred feet of mud when a reservoir collapsed in the middle of the night while miners and their families were asleep in their tents. The scale of the mines explains why disasters are so commonplace. The H’pakant mining region stretches fifty kilometers from north to south and five to ten kilometers from east to west, an industrial scar more than five times the area of Manhattan.
Relentless dredging creates a barren landscape of earthen skyscrapers and pock-marked quarries prone to collapse in the monsoon rains. Unregulated working conditions result in many independent laborers camping in the mines and dying in landslides.
The H’pakant mines are a frontier outpost populated by around 200,000 company officers, businessmen, migrant workers, Kachin laborers, prostitutes, and drug dealers. Heroin addiction is rampant, as is the transmission of HIV/AIDS, and it is not uncommon to see prostitutes and dealers soliciting clients in public. The government is aware that the optics could damage its investment, so it restricts access to the mines. A series of checkpoints on the only road between Myitkyina to H’pakant ensures that unauthorized outsiders are prohibited from entering the area.
Ja Jum Maran is a twenty-eight-year old Kachin man who spent three months working in the KIA office at the H’pakant jade mine. He describes the camp as common ground for Chinese, Burmese, KIA, UWSA (United Wa State Army), and a host of other ethnic groups who have a stake in the jade trade. Some of the mining zones are inclusive and mined by multiple companies, while others are exclusive and based on affiliation. The workers come from Kachin, Rakhine, Chin, Shan, Sagaing, and Wa States—all over Lower Myanmar—and typically find housing in sprawling, company-built dormitories. A small town center has built up over time and everyone in H’pakant is involved in the jade industry in one way or another.
Every day at 4PM the jade rush begins. Companies cease mining, laborers take a dinner break, and independent miners—digging in the dirt with their hands, shovels, and pick-axes—are permitted to excavate specific zones for two hours. The scene is one of opportunistic frenzy in which thousands of (mostly young) people are held at bay by armed company guards until a whistle signals the beginning of the free mining period and a horde of people are unleashed. Miners delirious with dreams of wealth pour over gates and around the guards, jumping off dirt walls adjacent to the entrance of the quarry, tearing across the earth seeking their fortune.
Prior to working in the jade mine, Ja Jum Maran spent five years as a teacher in the KIA-controlled IDP camp in Laiza, as part of a Kachin Baptist Church (KBC) delegation. He graduated high school at the time the war resumed. He and his peers were shocked to witness the mass displacement and inhumane conditions in camps, and decided to stay and help. Ja Jum Maran taught at the only high school for IDPs, close to the frontlines. He recalls broken windows and flooded classrooms. On nights when fighting broke out near the camp, he says: “We felt the bombs, the house was shaking.”
Ja Jum Maran sees a glimmer of hope: “The conflict brought people together.” He sees the potential for a more unified ethnic identity and an alternative education system that is more attuned to Kachin culture and identity—one that may contribute to the betterment of his people.Chapter 8: Under the Unforgiving Sun, With You
Kaw Seng has just returned from the Je Yang IDP camp to her house in Mangshi, the prefectural capital of Dehong, a little over an hour northeast of Ruili-Jiegao. It’s getting late and her fatigued voice suggests she is happy to be home. She was born here in the far southwestern corner of Yunnan, about fifty miles from Laiza, where she has spent the last five years working with refugee children in the IDP camps. She is Chinese Jingpo, a sub-sect of the Kachin Confederation who centuries ago settled the eastern flanks of Kachinland near the Salween river.
At home in Mangshi, she represents one among dozens of ethnic minorities native to the Myanmar-Yunnan borderlands. When in the camps, she is absorbed into the Kachin diaspora. People refer to her clan name, Luhpai, and she goes by Kaw Seng, which conceals her Chinese name to avoid questions regarding her movements.
Since 2007, Kaw Seng has been working with children on art-based health and healing projects in China’s marginalized Jingpo and Yi ethnic minority regions. She remembers one of her students vividly: a Yi girl from Liangshan, Sichuan who like many of Kaw Seng’s pupils, was born HIV-positive. Kaw Seng was her painting teacher for a year before the young girl’s health suddenly took a turn for the worse. She was moved to intensive care and died within three months. She recalls visiting her in her final days: Although she could only paint for 15 or 20 minutes, her eyes were filled with tears of joy.
“Her name was Songzha, and because of her I was drawn to make art with people in pain.”
Years later, in 2014, when the Laiza IDP camp art project was still in its infancy, Kaw Seng arrived in Je Yang with an idea to re-create the work she had done in Liangshan. But she found herself confronted by the magnitude of a task unlike anything she had undertaken in China. The thousands of children living in the camps lacked even rudimentary education. The youngest had been born in exile and knew little to nothing of the outside world. In many cases, their teachers were young part-time volunteers like Ja Jum Maran, who were endowed with energy and positive intentions but lacked basic training and materials. Art classes were a luxury the KIA-run schools could ill afford, and Kaw Seng realized she couldn’t work the same way she had in China.
“The first time I visited the camp I brought my camera, but I didn’t take any photos. I felt so rude, just watching people.” The realization hit her hard and she decided that it was her responsibility to spend more time in Laiza: “to rise together in the early morning, share meals, and see how people felt on hot days.”
“I told myself if I wanted to work with children [in the camp], I needed to be a part of their lives. So I decided to base myself in Laiza and I’ve been there for over four years now. I live with fear, just as they do. I feel hopeless when the fighting gets intense. I have come to know the rich and painful experiences in the camp, and I’ve tried to transform these experiences, along with my colleagues at Airavati, into artwork. But it [the conflict, the camps, the desperation] has been going on for too long. It’s filled with too much pain and hopelessness.”
“At first, I didn’t have enough materials or paint, so I bought A4 paper and some pencils. I asked the students to write down their feelings; they didn’t have to write their names. After the second class, I remember a boy writing: ‘Today I wasn’t happy, but I painted until I felt happy.’”
Another student wrote: “Today, the painting teacher really came back to our school.” It was during their second class, and it broke Kaw Seng’s heart.
Kaw Seng sees three primary functions of the Laiza children’s art project: “Most important is the equality of happiness,” she says. No one has a greater claim than another to joy. “Secondly, when we create, we are freed from our fears and sadness, at least in that moment, because we need to concentrate in order to create. We need to be strong to create. When children learn to deal with their emotions through art, the practice becomes a very important tool to transform deep emotions into energy and strength. “Lastly,” she explains, “after being with these children for five years, I see their resilience, their resistance. At exhibitions, people can see what the children are really trying to express. What they see in the paintings is their hope.”
Without the intervention and support from the international community, it is unlikely that her students will have any new opportunities by the time they reach sixteen—the age of conscription. Solutions, according to Kaw Seng, must be sought from within.
“The children working with us (Airavati’s art program has grown to 7,000 participating students) have been living in these camps for seven years. They receive rations from various organizations—food, shelter, clothing. But it’s not just about trying to survive in the camps. It’s about one day going home and having a future,” she says. “That’s the problem: they cannot leave. They have limited education. They can’t attend university. So it’s particularly important that they have an outlet to deal with the feelings and contradictions and conflicts inside them.”
When Kaw Seng started the project, many of her students were hesitant to speak about their past. Over the last five years, she has seen artistic expression become a conduit through which their fears and self-doubt can be validated. Although the children’s art project does not offer solutions, the classroom is a refuge of hope in which her students feel empowered and free to engage their traumas directly.
“We keep telling the children and families that if we stop speaking out and expressing ourselves, we will be left with even fewer opportunities and less hope,” she explains. “We can’t close our eyes. This is happening. It’s happening in our lives, and we need to feel sad, angry, to express ourselves, to speak out, to take action.”Chapter 9: In the Dead of the Night
Traffic lurches along the congested streets of the old colonial capital as we near Shwedagon Pagoda and stop a few blocks from a hole-in-the-wall Shan noodle shop. A glance down the bustling alleyways of Yangon reveals the stasis and progress of Southeast Asia’s least developed country. Myanmar’s largest city has not aged gracefully since the British departure seventy years ago, but this multi-cultural metropolis has enjoyed an economic revival in recent years and this is still where most political and social activists flock to push their agendas.
Ah Lung arrives a few minutes after we arrive, and we quickly order three bowls of the popular noodle dish served in thick, viscous sauce for breakfast. She is introduced as an “organizational development ninja,” someone uniquely able to build alliances among sometimes adversarial stakeholders—rival clans, militias, and government agencies—and coordinate projects aimed at strengthening civil society in restive regions across Myanmar. She speaks with authority and seems accustomed to running between meetings, juggling agendas effortlessly.
Ah Lung is originally from a village near the Myitsone Dam, but working in Yangon has not desensitized her to the realities of life in Kachinland. She has received updates from her sister twice in recent months, regarding her family’s old home and farm: she learned that one of their cows had stepped on a landmine, and that another cow was shot and stripped of its meat.
War has limited, and in many cases ceased, the mobility of local Kachin who live near the Chinese border. Both the KIA and Tatmadaw utilize landmines as territorial boundaries and to dissuade locals from returning home. Immobility and disillusionment are manifest in a culture of addiction fueled by cheap heroin.
“My brother was doing it secretly. He tried to quit many times. Now it’s alcohol,” Ah Lung says. “My dad also used for many years and then stopped. Now he uses alcohol, too.”
Until recently, methadone was virtually nonexistent in Kachin State. The church is seen as the only viable antidote to addiction, and so the clergy, without expertise or proper medicine, has implemented draconian therapies that prioritize isolation and prayer to help addicts get clean. Families reason that handing over their loved ones to the care of the church is preferable to standing by while they contract HIV or go to prison, where drugs are easily accessible.
The Kachin Baptist Church (KBC) is considered the most stabilizing and effective force working to protect Kachin social structures during war time. It plays a pivotal role in treating drug addiction and provides much needed health and human services in Kachin State: safe spaces for victims of sexual violence, post-secondary school education, professional training for youth and women, housing for internally displaced people, and even conscripts for the war.
In addition to the myriad social services the church provides, a portion of its funds support the efforts of Pat Jasan, a vigilante anti-drug organization that is controversial, even among devout Kachin Christians.
Pat Jasan regularly torches poppy fields, even those belonging to poor, subsistence farmers. They attack drug traffickers, although most are vulnerable mules driven to work by desperation. While the curfew is in effect, Pat Jasan members prowl the back alleys of Myitkyina—knocking on doors in the dead of night, ambushing unsuspecting users, and seeking addicts at the bequest of desperate family members who feel they have nowhere else to turn. Those caught in Pat Jasan’s sting operations find themselves involuntarily admitted into the church’s treatment centers.
With few options for families, it is no surprise that the methods of the church, though unorthodox and archaic by modern standards, go unquestioned. “Almost every family in Kachin has been affected by the drug trade,” says Ah Lung.
The KBC is among the most respected and influential organizations in the north. “We donate one-tenth of our income, or commodities, to the church through tithes. Some of it goes to support the KIA: rations, medication, money, even Pat Jasan. We know this, but we can’t tell anyone,” she admits.
“My church has seven hundred household members,” she continues. “All the IDPs in my area are housed in various churches. Most of them [IDPs] are widows, women and children, and elderly people. Some of their husbands are KIA. They are supporters of the KIA. Even in my church, some of the [clergy] are serving the KIA. It’s hard to separate them.”
All wars have two basic requirements: money and fighters. Widespread unemployment and social malaise in Kachin State are among the primary reasons that there is seldom a shortage of young conscripts. “After students pass their Standard 10 exams [at age 16], they have three choices: one is to join the KIA; a few people go to bible school; the others are mining—they go to H’pakant or cut timber. As for the rest, most of them are drug users.”
The KBC and other civil society organizations understand that limited employment options for recent graduates helps groom another generation of soldiers. In response, they have focused efforts on providing scholarships for young people to pursue post-graduate studies and vocational training elsewhere. Without alternatives, says Ah Lung, once students graduate their perspective is: “Let’s go and fight.” According to Kara Wong, a colleague of Ah Lung’s, “the model for response is to militarize.” This is evidenced by the proliferation of ethnic militias throughout the country, which by some estimates has risen to forty-five armed groups.
“I want them to think in different ways,” says Ah Lung, “to see the situation from a different perspective. I understand their feeling, but there is more than one solution than going to fight. The church glorifies the fight. The KBC compare our struggle to the Wa military [UWSA]. They say: ‘The Wa [a notoriously militarized ethnic group] have power and weapons and no one touches them.’ That’s why we need to have dialogue. I ask the students if it’s enough to hold the weapons and the power? Aren’t there other forms of power that we need to create?”Chapter 10: Fearless
At first glance, Khon Ja is unassuming, barely five feet tall and imbued with a warm smile. When she speaks, however, you realize desultory introductions are unnecessary. She launches into a discourse on her work in Yangon and Kachin State, revealing a detailed topography of issues that leaves you feeling like you’re drinking water from a fire-hydrant.
Khon Ja is originally from Bhamo, the second largest town in Kachin State. Having worked with grassroots organizations and donor agencies for twenty years, she resigned from her job in Yangon and returned to Kachin to assist the IDPs. In 2011, she helped found the Kachin Peace Network (KPN), a collection of unpaid professionals and volunteers dedicated to a creating a safety net for Kachin people that she calls a “civil society forum for peace.” The efforts of the KPN are a set of practical responses to the escalating violence in and around IDP camps.
“In Bhamo, there is still a lot of killing,” she says, almost casually. Some are extra-judicial killings. Others are villagers or IDPs killed while collecting firewood at night.
In response, Khon Ja attempts face-to-face conferences with the military, using her limited recourse to report the killings to police and to initiate investigations rather than making direct accusations. In 2017, after three IDPs were found dead, her group successfully advocated for the arrest of the six soldiers who were responsible. They were sentenced to ten years in prison, but the motive for the murders was never established.
“We recently had a case in which four people were arrested near their villages. Two were detained and released; the other two had disappeared and we suspected they had been shot. There were no bodies. We had nothing to go on. The case hung on whether we could determine cause and prove who was involved. With the help of those released, investigators found the location where it happened. They discovered brains on the ground and some skull fragments. Nearby they found the bodies buried in a shallow grave. There were bullet holes in their foreheads and their hands had been bound behind their backs. We established that they were from Mangsi Township, but without the help of eyewitnesses we would never have found the bodies or been able to bring the case to the police to prosecute.”
The risk of reporting from the ground makes solving these cases difficult. The KPN promotes “citizen documentation,” which involves reporting verifiable information, constructing sound narratives, connecting with mainstream media, testifying in front of juries if necessary, and “teaching [media literacy] to avoid bias, fake news, and conjecture.”
The KPN works with “individuals and organizational leaders, oftentimes deacons from the Kachin Baptist Church, who act as advocates for a case,” says Khon Ja. This may begin with the advocate providing captions for any available photographic evidence. If that person is brave enough to speak with media representatives, Khon Ja’s network puts them in touch with reporters and coaches them to effectively communicate with international agencies. Witnesses to crimes frequently disappear after they present evidence against the military, leaving Khon Ja and her colleagues the task of gathering outside support.
“We need uncontaminated information,” insists Khon Ja. Proper reporting is critical, lest the witness or victim find themselves accused of misrepresentation and unable to defend their claim. This puts both their credibility and safety at risk, and compromises the legitimacy of the KPN. Should the accused receive a guilty sentence, it may carry with it several years in jail, while uncorroborated or spurious accusations—despite overwhelming secondary evidence substantiating the crime—can have terrible consequences for the accuser. Even when the scales of justice are balanced, the process of retribution is not.
Perhaps wary of delving too deeply into the human rights violations of the Tatmadaw, Khon Ja abruptly shifts the conversation towards an unexpected, if equally disquieting, conundrum. It is unscripted moments like these that reveal her unwavering commitment to the betterment of society. She is a community-builder working to create a more just and humane Myanmar. She refuses to shy away from the dark, inconvenient truths others might prefer to leave unmentioned.
“We were not clever enough,” admits Khon Ja, referring to the dynamics of aggression and victimhood inside IDP camps—violence against women in particular. The threat in the camps is both external and internal. External threats set the stage for internal violence by limiting individuals’ freedom of movement and erecting spatial barriers. In order to maintain personal safety, the individual sticks close to the center of the known world. Without means of communication with the outside world or the ability to flee to nearby forests, internal aggression becomes emboldened. Fueled by psychological trauma, alcoholism, drug addiction, and dystopian realities, victims can quickly assume the role of aggressors.
Forced proximity in the camps has led to predatory behavior, and according to Khon Ja, there is no measure to the sexual violations taking place in the camps. Incidences of violence against women in IDP camps have highlighted the need to re-envision the design and security within these intended safe havens. Bathrooms once located on the edge of camps for the purpose of privacy and hygiene must be moved closer to the center of the camps for greater surveillance. The placement of lights throughout the camp must be repositioned both as a precaution against sharp-shooters posted on the camp’s periphery as well as to illuminate dark recesses where internal violence might go unnoticed.
IDP camps are disproportionately populated by children and women, who make up seventy-seven percent of the population. Adult men are conspicuously absent due to army conscription, addiction and death. Khon Ja’s team discovered that the monochromatic color of tents and mosquito nets, for example, played a factor in the violence. It is not unheard of for an inebriated man to stumble into the wrong tent among the hundreds of identical shelters, and take advantage of a woman sleeping under cover of darkness. Those returning from war carry back to the camps addictions and traumas that too often lead to sexual violence against women. The frequency of these painful realities prompted Khon Ja and her team to devise tools for creating safe spaces for women.
There are other factors that must be taken into account when designing IDP camps. Many of the refugees are children who have spent seven years living next to one another in tents. They have grown and, in some cases, found a partner, but there is simply not enough space to build a house in which they might start their own family. Uncomfortable and unfamiliar family dynamics arise within these confined spaces where children, adolescent newlyweds, in-laws, and step-parents are thrust into communal living spaces together.
Posters warning of the dangers of pregnancy for young girls are posted around the camps. As young people fall in love, the tent village grows, and the camp expands. The management and protection of those housed within becomes more challenging. The longer the refugee crisis goes on, the more children will be born in the camps, and the more normalized the horrifying conditions will become therein.
Because macro-perspectives of humanitarian aid, like public health, security, and enforcing the rule of law within the IDPs camps are virtually impossible for outside organizations to achieve, Khon Ja focuses her energy on training IDPs about safe conduct and legal reporting. Once systems are in place, the KPN can then propose a conciliatory approach to stakeholders aimed at minimizing violence in the camps—efforts that Khon Ja says have been supported during recent Chinese and UN-sponsored agreements.
The fundamental goal for the KPN is to keep KIA and Tatmadaw soldiers away from one another. “From my perspective,” she says, “this is not a ceasefire agreement, but it is still very strong.” The second act is advocacy for established military codes of conduct that both the KIA and Tatmadaw forces ostensibly accept. On occasion, Khon Ja works directly with soldiers, but admits “it is hard to build positive relationships with the military.” The final piece is establishing an enforceable recognition of international humanitarian law.
Although it’s doubtful she’ll see the day when these goals are implemented, the woman sitting across the table is an indefatigable pragmatist. And so, she redirects the conversation toward what is not only possible, but what has proven effective.
“We’re focused on implementing information sharing systems. If someone disappears, immediately someone else [in our network] will be made aware and report it. If someone sees unusual signals or movements among armed groups, they inform villagers to stay away from roads, forests, and villages in those areas.” So far, she’s found internal systems of support are key to limiting unwanted interactions.
One of the reasons for the military’s continued and seemingly random acts of violence against villagers is the influx of soldiers from elsewhere. A steady stream of enlisted men from Lower Myanmar means local battalions are comprised of soldiers with shifting loyalties. Some are committed to the government’s Northern Commander in Kachin. Others are loyal to leaders from their ethnic militias or central command in Naypyidaw. If an individual or group of soldiers commits a crime—rape, murder, or torture, irrespective of orders or lack thereof—the perpetrators have historically been relocated to some other conflict zone in another corner of Myanmar, of which there are many. Until recently, any form of legal redress or indemnity was unthinkable.
Within this landscape of futility, the KPN works to ensure the “basic security of the most vulnerable Kachin through an informal safety network and formal government advocacy.” Experience has imparted a healthy distrust of authorities and led the organization to champion the idea of “communities protecting communities.”
In order for any of this to matter, Khon Ja maintains that IDPs must return to their land. She does not support relocation strategies. “We are not working class. We are farmers. Without access to nature, we cannot survive. For us it [nature] is like a supermarket, and there is no replacement for that supermarket in their lives.”Chapter 11: Road to Nowhere
The headquarters of the Kachin Independence Army are located in Laiza, a dusty border town with a single main road, hidden within a lush subtropical valley. Foreign visitors and Chinese lacking official border passes are prohibited from entering town, regardless of whether they come west from China or east from Myitkyina. For those able to access Laiza from the Chinese side, a short bridge stretching across a shallow tributary of the Irrawaddy marks your arrival.
Our heads shrouded to obscure our faces, we switch vehicles for the second time—a necessary precaution given China’s obsession with surveillance and the likelihood that CCTV cameras have been installed on lampposts along the road. Minutes after turning onto the main road a young man wearing fatigues comes into view ahead of us, brandishing a semi-automatic rifle. Somewhere in the distance we hear the shrill voices of children role-playing with toy guns in a concrete lot.
Laiza is ground zero in the war for Kachinland. Everywhere in town there are KIA soldiers in fatigues, bearing side arms and machine guns. It’s not just a show of force. The most recent spate of bombings occurred April 2018—mortars rained down for a week.
Seng Bu, a local activist with Airavati, a service and advocacy organization, explains that the Tatmadaw deliberately target locations as close to civilian populations as possible. They seem to be orchestrated to occur at moments that will strike the deepest fear.
“It was real close,” she says. “Children were playing outside around six or seven in the evening. Another time, it was around three or four in the afternoon, while students were leaving school.” Luckily, no one was hurt. But casualties from bombings and land mines are commonplace.
Je Yang IDP camp. Population: 6000 refugees. An elderly man walks by with arms that end at the wrists, two stumps dangling by his sides. Gasung, a KIA solider who came to fight in 2006, lost his leg to a land mine and has a swaggering limp. He is formidable, soldierly: tall and broad shouldered, but with a gentle disposition and a resonant kindness. Gasung says that until recently it was unsafe to return to Myitkyina where his wife and child live; he could easily be recognized and imprisoned. For years his family has had to travel to Laiza to visit him, something he described as a kind of purgatory. Only recently, by a favorable twist of fate, did he receive an approval notice permitting him to legally and safely return to Myitkyina without fear of reprisal.
The twenty-two camps in and around Laiza are home to tens of thousands of refugees from Kachin. Too many people have been recirculated between camps to keep track of the actual numbers. The camp is a desolate ghetto—a collection of ramshackle buildings and bare infrastructure. The houses are “boxes made of wood, all the same size, same color. One family per box.” The only solid structures belong to the Kachin Baptist Church, which plays an integral role in organizing relief efforts in addition to acting as an intermediary advocate and advisor to the KIA.
Higher up in the hills, just above Je Yang camp, lies the Hpun Lum Yang IDP camp, home to around 4000 refugees. Daily life is a mixture of active camp maintenance and shiftless idling about in the dense heat. Temperatures at night can drop dramatically, so chopping and stacking firewood are primary activities. Children carry large baskets of firewood strapped to their heads or resting on their backs to shelters covered by tarps bearing UNHCR (United Nations High Council on Refugees) insignias, and those of other international NGOs, commonly used as window coverings and awnings. A family squats in the shade, sharing a freshly split watermelon. They extend their hands and offer us a slice, smiling in unison.
“It has been eight years. People have the basics—they don’t starve to death—but nothing more,” says Seng Bu. “Generations of young people have been impacted.” Sadly, there is no way to provide healing in Hpun Lum Yang. Beyond the bombings and land mines a vicious psychological war is being waged against the Kachin people.
“It’s not just to keep Kachin people at the bottom [of society],” laments Seng Bu, “it’s to make them disappear. The war has disconnected Kachin people from the normal world. Living in Laiza, your age increases, but your connection with the world stops.”Chapter 12: What Happened to the Lady?
Twenty-one years after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, she stepped to the podium in Oslo to accept the honor. Fifteen years under house arrest had cemented her reputation as a global symbol of human rights and resistance to authoritarianism. She seemed impervious to criticism, and her character became unassailable. During that long-awaited speech, she invoked a passage from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “It is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law.”
Moments later, she sought to address the divisions and ethnic conflicts that have wrought so much bloodshed and sectarian violence upon her nation: “Burma is a country of many ethnic nationalities, and faith in its future can be founded only on a true spirit of union. In recent months, negotiations between the government and ethnic nationality forces have been making progress. We hope that ceasefire agreements will lead to political settlements founded on the aspirations of the peoples, and the spirit of union.”
An intoxicating optimism swept the nation following the November 2015 elections, when Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party took 255 of the 440 parliamentary seats to gain majority control of the government. But it quickly gave way to concern as horrifying images of the violence perpetrated by the military against Rohingya Muslims were splashed across the world’s newsfeeds: smoldering villages, forced exodus, systemic rape, torture, mass executions. Rather than condemning the human rights abuses, The Lady, as she is known, unexpectedly defended the abhorrent actions of the Tatmadaw.
How could this global beacon of hope, a potential savior, transform so quickly into the public face of oppression? How could The Lady, of all people, succumb to the will of the military after decades of resistance? How could she defend the indefensible? Had the military legitimized the NLD as a ruse only to consolidate their power and use Aung San Suu Kyi as a scapegoat whenever it became politically expedient? How could the godmother of democracy, irrespective of military pressure, turn a blind eye to such obvious and grave injustices?
The Kachin, like millions of others belonging to various ethnicities throughout Myanmar, were devastated by the harsh realization of The Lady’s human frailty and the limitations of her political authority. “Their expectations were so high,” explains Tu Hkwang while seated on the floor in a bamboo restaurant overlooking the Irrawaddy. “Before the election, she made promises about [ending] civil conflicts in Myanmar. Afterwards, she did nothing. People no longer trust her.”
Tu Hkwang explains that Aung San Suu Kyi’s reticence to address the conflict in Kachin has led many to question both her political prowess and her moral compass, something unthinkable just a few years ago. But there are well-founded reasons for their wariness. The NLD-led government has held three peace negotiations with Kachin leaders since 2017, but solutions for a cease-fire have never emerged and continued talks are now in doubt. In early 2019, Aung San Suu Kyi arrived in Myitkyina to celebrate All Kachin Day. Her visit was marred by outrage when she suddenly instructed the Chief Minister of Kachin to order three top Kachin ministers to resign their posts without conducting independent investigations as required by the 2008 constitution.
Few would argue that The Lady has any influence over the Tatmadaw. Military control rests in the hands of the commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing, who exerts a Byzantine degree of power over the country’s body politic and military-industrial complex. Hlaing regularly meets with top military counterparts in the region, and yet his influence is not limited to defense. When in India or China, respectively, he meets with Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi. His position allows him to wield control over the majority of Myanmar’s land, industry, and human and natural resources, including the jade mines, banana plantations, and the Myitsone Dam in Kachin State. Hlaing not only profits personally from these enterprises, they have made him Myanmar’s most powerful person.
The complicated dynamics of authority are familiar to those in Myanmar. “I still trust Aung San Suu Kyi,” says Chaw Ei Thein, a Burmese performance artist, social activist, and former political prisoner who sought asylum in the United States a decade ago.
“Everyone [in Myanmar] knows the military is still powerful,” she adds. “They still run the country. Aung San Suu Kyi doesn’t want people protesting and dying in the streets. We want to hear more from her, but she prefers to remain silent.”
Chaw Ei is critical, but empathizes with The Lady’s impossible role. The problem, to her mind, isn’t a broken moral compass so much as her silence and reluctance to show the world what she’s dealing with.
Some believe that Aung San Suu Kyi’s reticence is directly related to her fear that widespread protests could lead to bloodshed and potentially open the door for the military to reclaim total control of the government by force. Others fear she’s being deliberately kept in the dark about what’s really happening throughout the country, now that she serves as State Counselor in Naypyidaw and has been separated from her trusted confidantes and advisors in Yangon.
There may also be an element of face-saving. “Burmese people have been brainwashed by the military since 1962,” says Chaw Ei, describing a condition that evokes a nationwide Stockholm Syndrome. “Even among influential members of the NLD, the mindset has not really changed. They don’t want to be critical.”
Chaw Ei explains that writers, artists, and activists are calling for nationwide conferences to discuss the military’s actions in ethnic regions. She admits that it seems little has changed in the years following the transition from military dictatorship to democracy. “The government divides and rules in the same way the British did,” she says. “We know how difficult resistance is. We have five percent of the power and the military has the rest.”
According to Khon Ja, Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s stance too often wavers depending on who has her ear at a given moment, and her speeches espouse contradictory values from one day to the next. “As a charismatic leader, no one can compete. Many are against her, but still many support her.”
Khon Ja acknowledges the obstacles that The Lady faces daily, and is empathetic to the travails that Aung San Suu Kyi has endured. Even for a revered figure, trauma is not a light switch that can be turned on and off. “But I would like to see her stand strong against the Tatmadaw. She should work with integrity.”Chapter 13: Promises Kept
Back across the border in Laiza, school is out of session for the summer break and the art project will resume when the children return to classes near the end of the monsoon season. Kaw Seng had hoped to work on a painting project on the Myitsone Dam, but with time on her hands, she focuses on her own sketches and plans next year’s curriculum.
Despite the absence of her students, Kaw Seng finds relief knowing that she is where she belongs. True to the promise she made to herself five years ago, she lives among the displaced Kachin peoples in the camps, shares their experiences and lives as they do—one day at a time. If she has been afforded one luxury, it is never having to question whether her decision to commit her life to the betterment Kachin society was worthwhile.
In a slightly different world, with slightly redrawn borders, Kaw Seng’s life would not be demonstrably different than life in the IDP camps. Her brother succumbed to heroin addiction as a young man and only recently got clean. The villages around her hometown, Mangshi, are ravaged by drugs and HIV/AIDS, and thousands of children have been orphaned as a result. Her Jingpo ethnicity is marginalized in China, known more for its poverty and social disintegration than its rich customs or cultural contributions.
In moments of quiet repose, she reflects on the achievements of the children’s art project in Laiza, where she has helped carve a pathway to the “outside world” from a valley of suffering, stasis and captivity. That path has led a handful of young artists to galleries in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and Yangon.
“They were excited to go somewhere they had never been before, particularly because it was due to their artwork,” says Kaw Seng, referring to a recent exhibition held in the old colonial capital. “They have been trapped in camps for so long—some since their birth—and had no idea about the so-called “normal” world. To travel to the exhibition from this isolated area was a chance to get out of the camps, out of the trap for a moment, and see the outside world. The process of travel—the distance between them and the world, to compare what’s happening inside and outside the camps—made something happen within them.”
“The children see people cry in front of their paintings,” continues Kaw Seng. “They are asked by some [attendees] if it’s alright to take pictures of their art. It shows them respect. In those moments, the children feel that people care about them. Even if we [as educators] say that to the children, it’s hard for them to understand without witnessing it themselves. To see people’s reactions gives them belief that the world wants to do something.”
Kaw Seng recalls the children staring in awe as crowds of people, with lives of distant privilege, quietly observe their artwork. Their sense of pride was palpable.
“I’m proud of them,” says Kaw Seng. “When they spoke at the exhibition, I was nervous. I was trembling. My voice was trembling. I knew their bodies were shaking, so I put my hand on their shoulders to be with them. The children and me, we are together. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished. We are more confident. We are assured about what we are doing.”
The project and its message have evolved in the past few years. “It’s now about sharing the life, difficulties and hopes of IDPs as a vulnerable group. Even more importantly, when we exhibit the great art we are making, we also convey the power of beauty and the power of creation.”
The power of creation is not to be taken lightly in the camps, and Kaw Seng is aware that the children’s paintings have a cultural significance beyond art. Each work of art is an expression of humanity, an act of healing, and an homage to what has been lost.
“Something is developing in Kachin,” says Kaw Seng. “[The war] has united people. There are now self-protecting, self-creating structures in place, and many Kachin people believe this is a special moment. They are thinking about ethnicity, identity,and relationships between themselves, the community, and the country. I think the conflict has brought Kachin people together and made them think more deeply.”
Fifty-eight years of war have left more than one hundred thousand Kachin struggling to survive in the purgatory of IDP camps along the Chinese border. Their life in exile is an example of the human cost of a resource curse on their homeland. And yet, in Kachinland the spirit of resilience and resistance is palpable, and hope is not a dangerous concept. For Kaw Seng’s young artists, hope is a symbol of survival.