A Fragile Peace
On a blustery afternoon last December, senior officers in the Kachin Independence Army gathered for lunch in the Himalayan foothills of northern Myanmar, just a stone’s throw from the Chinese border, at a wartime military base called Pajau.
Lunch was a classy affair, served outside on a picnic table next to the liaison office. The officers ate and drank with the mountain sun on their faces. They were in their 50s and 60s, and had fought the Burmese military in these mountains since their teenage years.
Ever since a ceasefire agreement was signed in 1994, there has been peace in Kachin land. On this December day, the officers attended a graduation ceremony for Kachin army clerks, followed by lunch in the sun with two American journalists.
The food was rich and fatty, and attentive young soldiers stood by with Merlot and Johnny Walker Black. The officers leaned back in their chairs, loosened their belts and soaked it all in.
Zeng Haw, a 61-year-old colonel wearing a U.S. Army jacket with BATMAN on the name badge, commented happily on the scene.
“Before the ceasefire, we never had enough rice. There was no salt, and we were always cold. Life was hard. Now we have wine and pork and American guests.”
After lunch, two of the officers drove down the switchbacks from Pajau to Laiza, the Kachin’s peacetime headquarters. On the way, they stopped at Victory Hill.
“Four-hundred of our soldiers died here in ’91,” one said. “We killed eight-hundred Burmese and took the hill.”
Down in the valley there was no wind and military academy cadets practiced advancing under fire, a sort of one-legged crab run through the dust.
These cadets were polite, smooth-skinned and eager for war. They wanted freedom. They wanted development. They wanted to fight Burmese.
“I have a degree in economics, but there is no job for me,” said a 22-year-old, his AK-47 loosely slung over his shoulder. “There are no good positions for Kachin people. There is oppression and exploitation everywhere.”
“My generation thinks there will be a war, but we don’t know what the leadership will decide. We will follow their orders.”
There is no freedom in Kachin land. Ordinary Kachins are mired in desperate poverty. Heroin use is epidemic among the youth.
Has the Kachin leadership gone soft and sold out their nation?
Some think so. Others say peace is a blessing in any form. Most agree that good or bad, the peace is fragile, and cannot last for long.
The Kachin flag displays a pair of traditional crossed swords on a red and green background. The red represents the blood of martyrs who sacrificed themselves for freedom. The green represents the natural beauty of the Kachin homeland.
Young Kachins like the man in this photo tend to support a renewed struggle against the Burmese military, but their elders are tired of fighting. As the natural landscape of Kachin is despoiled through jade mining, logging and hydro-power projects, the anger of the youth becomes harder for their leaders to contain.
The generation who fought in the jungles were hailed as masters of guerrilla warfare but crippled by a lack of sophisticated military hardware and communication technology.
In this photo, the head of the Kachin military academy stands in a brand-new computer center located on the edge of the jungle near the Chinese border. The Kachins are desperate to engage with the outside world and keep abreast of modern trends.
One military academy cadet described his generation's desire for development and frustration with the lack of opportunity since the ceasefire:
"Internationally, this is the era of economic development. But if we look at the economy in Kachin, it’s been over ten years since the ceasefire and nothing significant has changed. We try to develop in many ways ourselves, but the Burmese military government hasn’t given rights to Kachins. They gradually restrict our rights more and more. "
Possession of the Human Rights Watch report on the 2007 crackdown on Buddhist monks by the Myanmar military would be grounds for arrest, interrogation and imprisonment in most of Myanmar, but not in the small pockets of territory controlled by the Kachin Independence Organization.
Although indigenous Burmese opposition to the Myanmar military government has drawn attention in recent years, the ethnic insurgencies on the fringes of Myanmar are largely ignored by aid organizations and Western media alike.
These are the 5 pledges Kachin military academy cadets repeat everyday at dawn and dusk.
1. “We will keep our promise to the nation and people for all eternity.”
2. “We will fight for the independence of our nation and people.”
3. “We will follow the leadership of the Kachin Independence Organization without deviation.”
4. “We will always keep our promise to the martyrs who sacrificed their lives for the nation and people.”
5. “We will never give up our arms.”
The graves of the founders of the Kachin Independence Army are located just a few hundred yards from a Burmese military position. Many of the original Kachin patriots are now dead. For young soldiers, war is an abstract idea. For the veterans who survived, the memories of death, cold, hunger and fear are still present in every hill along the Chinese frontier.
photos and video by Ryan Libre
project funded by the Pulitzer Center.
for more: "Myanmar: The Kachin Struggle For Freedom"