Photo: Ryan Libre
After almost two decades of uneasy peace, war has returned to Kachin, in the north of Burma. The Burmese military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) have been fighting for almost a week in an area close to controversial Chinese hydro-electric projects. Both sides have suffered fatalities, civilians are fleeing to the Chinese border, and the Kachins are accusing the Burmese of torturing and killing prisoners of war.
The fighting in Kachin is not unexpected. The Kachin people - who are predominantly Christian - insist on a political role within a federal union of Burma, while the Burmese government attempts to exert exclusive economic and political control over Kachin's rich natural resources. Tensions have been rising in recent years, and many observers felt that only China's watchful and wary presence had kept the two antagonists at bay until now.
Although the Burmese government and media has been silent about the fighting in Kachin, the news is hitting worldwide media, helped along by a very savvy media relations campaign within the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO). The KIO's policy of promoting a free media and inviting foreign journalists (like myself) into their territory stands in stark contrast to the fierce repression that muzzles the media in most of Burma.
In my opinion, the one thing that some foreign media is getting wrong, however, is the framing of this conflict, which is too often portrayed as tribal and remote - fighting between tribes in a lawless land. Kachin is not a remote jungle backwater, the Kachin people are not tribal head-hunters, and Kachin soldiers do NOT hack the ears off their enemies. The territory at stake is one of the most economically important and politically open parts of Burma, and the Kachin people are fully aware of their situation and how it fits within a contemporary global context.
Many Kachins can speak eloquently about their political dilemma in at least four languages, including English, Chinese, Burmese and Jinghpaw. The political leadership is expert in diplomacy and eager to develop and democratize.
Kachin leaders like Gun Maw, a chief negotiator for the KIO, embody an alternative leadership for a new Burma that recognizes human rights. Unlike the sclerotic and ineffective domestic opposition, embodied by the National League for Democracy, the KIO leadership is seasoned by the experience of governing through challenging times.
Historically, the Kachin quest for international recognition and political legitimacy was hamstrung by involvement in the drug trade, but since a 1994 ceasefire, and especially in the past three years, the KIO has campaigned extensively against the cultivation, distribution, and use of opium and other illegal drugs. The Kachin gamble was that political legitimacy and international awareness would prove more valuable than money from the drug trade.
"We need a lot of help," commented a Kachin leader during my visit in 2008. "We need moral support, material support, political support, and legal support."
Much is at stake in Kachin. The KIO is calling for Beijing to mediate the current conflict, but the Chinese are in close communication with the Burmese military. Whether or not the conflict spreads may depend on the extent to which the front line units of the Burmese army will answer to the military command. It may also depend on the willingness of the international community to address a conflict that is playing out in China's backyard.
For updates, visit The Irrawaddy
and the Kachin News Group
. For more photos by Ryan Libre, visit his gallery, Inside the Kachin Independence Army
Labels: Burma, Kachin