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Conspiracy, God’s Plan, and National Emergency: Kachin Popular Analyses of the Ceasefire Era and its Resource Grabs

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This chapter draws from periods of ethnographic field research in the Kachin region from 2010 to 2015, covering the lead up to the breakdown of the ceasefire and the discourses that emerged in relation to it subsequently. It therefore discusses in critical terms how large parts of Kachin society understand the ceasefire era and the reasons for its collapse in 2011. It focuses particularly on popular understandings of the large-scale resource grabs that defined much of that era. The chapter lays out a dominant Kachin nationalist-theoretical framework by discussing three core terms: Wunpawng Mungdan (territory/ ‘Kachin country’), Wunpawng myusha (people/ ‘Kachin nation’), and Karai Kasang (divinity/ Christian ‘God’). The chapter then tackles how Kachin nationalists deploy these terms in specific ways to understand their 1994-2011 ceasefire experiences; in doing so, they express ideas of ethno-national emergency, divine predestination, and ethnocidal conspiracy. These understandings guide many people in Kachin society to commit to resistance and the ethno-patriotic project of co-building a ‘land yet-to-be’, instead of engaging in a ceasefire based on compromise. Amid the current battles, anger and humanitarian crisis, the question of whether one wants ‘our Kachin nation’ to pursue full state independence or merely federal autonomy within Myanmar has become a sensitive and barely voiced debate inside Kachin society. While exploring these theories and popular analyses, this chapter steps into an open critical dialogue with Kachin nationalists themselves, suggesting ways in which these understandings are contradicted or complicated by other social realities. This is to draw a fuller, fairer, and more balanced picture of the complex social dynamics in this region. Simultaneously, the chapter cautions against the tendency to make homogenising claims about Burma’s minority ethnic nations, as if these were simple, monolithic entities rather than the internally diverse, class-stratified and complex societies that in fact they are. * In book: War and Peace in the Borderlands of Myanmar: The Kachin Ceasefire, 1994-2011. Copenhagen: NIAS Press. See more at: http://kachinceasefire.weebly.com/laur-kiik.html
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CHAPTER EIGHT
Conspiracy, God’s Plan and
National Emergency
Kachin Popular Analyses of the Ceasefire
Era and its Resource Grabs
Laur Kiik
Introduction
Visiting Yangon in 2014, I noticed some well-meaning locals
refer to the dragging Kachin military-political impasse by stat-
ing: ‘The Kachins are being too stubborn, too emotional now’.
Other observers find such talk belittling. They respond by emphasising
how ‘The Kachins merely demand that Myanmar begin genuine political
dialogue on federalism’ and ‘are thus correct in refusing simply to sign a
new ceasefire’. This oscillation between explaining the Kachin impasse
either through collective emotional trauma or through formal political
discourse misses what Mandy Sadan identified in her monograph on
Kachin histories as ‘social worlds beyond.1 As this chapter tries to show,
these are diverse, contradictory, and ambitious social worlds that people
live within. They cannot be encapsulated by inaccurate and homogenis-
ing expressions like ‘the Kachins’, ‘are emotional’, or ‘want federalism.
It is the argument of this chapter that the way people in these worlds
understand their ceasefire experiences to express ethno-national
emergency, divine predestination, and ethnocidal conspiracy influences
directly their contemporary responses to ceasefire politics.
1. Mandy Sadan, Being and Becoming Kachin: Histories Beyond the State in the Border-
worlds of Burma (Oxford: The British Academy and Oxford University Press, 2013),
455–60.
War and Peace in the Borderlands of Myanmar
206
Many chapters in this volume refer to a hardening of Kachin na-
tionalist rhetoric in recent years, in particular the chapters by Mahkaw
Hkun Sa, Nhkum Bu Lu, Jenny Hedström, and Hkanhpa Tu Sadan.
These chapters often refer to the sense of fear and threat that runs
through popular discourses on why the Kachin should support a return
to conflict following years of ceasefire. They also reflect widespread
concerns about what a peace might bring should a ceasefire be restored
too easily. Many contributors also discuss the role that experiences of
large-scale land and natural resource grabbing have played in sharpening
the resistance. Later in this volume Reshmi Banerjee mirrors many of
these concerns in her discussion of similar conflict settings in north-east
India, and we see this also in the chapters by Meehan and Gravers de-
scribing conflicts elsewhere in Burma. This perception of threat in eth-
nic Kachin society in turn has contributed to a situation in which most
Kachins have supported the KIO’s military resistance to the Myanmar
Army’s provocations and, just as importantly, it has made an easy return
to ceasefire more difficult because of a lack of popular support in Kachin
society for doing so.
Figure 8.1: Many Kachin patriots are working for a future Kachin national modernity
– a homeland yet-to-be (photo Hpauyam Awng Di).
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Conspiracy, God’s Plan and National Emergency
This chapter, therefore, tries to take seriously and to discuss in critical
terms how large parts of Kachin society understand the ceasefire era and
its 2011 collapse. It focuses particularly on popular understandings of
the large-scale resource grabs which defined much of that era. However,
my approach is different to that which explains the current Kachin
armed conflict primarily as two armies battling each other over rich
natural resources; neither do I seek to reduce Kachin popular theories
of nationhood and homeland simply to ‘resource nationalism’. Such re-
ductionist approaches continue historical misrepresentations of Kachin
society, making it appear devoid of political ideologies and led by an
‘inauthentic insurgency’.2 Karin Dean has called out similar state-centric
discourses for belittling the popular legitimacy of the KIO.3 What this
chapter explores, then, are the politicised social worlds beyond KIO-
and-State relations and beyond these persisting misrepresentations.
The chapter proceeds by discussing first some currently prevailing
forms of Kachin ethno-nationalist ‘theory’. The term ‘theory’ is meant to
signal this chapter’s cultural-anthropological approach of foregrounding
evolving native terms, through which large parts of a society understand
the world in the broadest, ‘cosmological’ sense. Expanding upon Sadan’s
historiography of how Kachin ethno-nationalism evolved, I extend
the treatment of Kachin political theories to the ‘cosmological’, mainly
by showing how the ‘political’ and the ‘religious’ (Christian) cannot
be completely disentangled. After briefly describing some collective
Kachin experiences of the ceasefire and concurrent resource grabs, the
chapter then focuses on those experiences and processes as an object
of what I call ‘popularised analyses’. The term ‘analyses’ expresses this
chapter’s goal to take seriously the thought projects that people engage
in actively, both individually and collectively, to make sense of the world
and its developments. These analyses are co-produced and circulated
by Kachin-identifying national leaders, activists, educators, religious
figures, and crucially, by the whole society at large. Their conclusion
deduces that, even though there have been 17 years of ceasefire, Kachin
society is facing threatening conspiracies and a national emergency. The
chapter concludes by showing how these native theorisations and popu-
2. See Sadan’s critique of colonial era discourses and of Robert Taylor ’s misrepresen-
tations of ethno-national insurgencies in Ibid., 65–74, 260–270, 319–21, 466.
3. Karin Dean, ‘Peace Means Surrender in Myanmar’, Asia Times (24 January 2013).
War and Peace in the Borderlands of Myanmar
208
lar analyses presently guide many people in Kachin society to commit
to resistance and the ethno-patriotic project of co-building a ‘land yet-
to-be’, instead of engaging in a ceasefire based on compromise. Much of
this argument can be extended to other minoritised ethnic nations in
Myanmar and beyond.
The following discussions draw primarily from periods of ethno-
graphic field research in the Kachin region from 2010 to 2015.4 To
protect the security of my Kachin collaborators, who come from a
relatively wide range of social backgrounds, I do not give their names
here. In terms of my other ethical commitments, I work by assuming
that creating more public understanding will ultimately help to bring
better solutions, but that this might include revealing issues that some of
my informants and friends would prefer to remain beyond open public
debate.5 Thus, I avoid the censoring of internal conflict and other forms
of ‘ethnographic refusal’, which sometimes characterises studies about
social resistance.6 While exploring the nationalist theories and popular
analyses, I will throughout this chapter step into a kind of open critical
dialogue with them, suggesting ways in which they are contradicted or
complicated by other social realities. This is to draw a fuller, fairer, and
more balanced picture of the complex social dynamics in this region.
However, the primary point to understand about the given popular
4. The fieldwork sessions were made possible financially by an Estonian Institute of
Humanities (EHI) Research Grant (with Karin Dean and Mart Viirand) in 2010;
by a Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellowship Fund (SYLFF) Grant in 2011; and as
part of the project Integration in Southeast Asia: Trajectories of Inclusion, Dynamics
of Exclusion (SEATIDE), funded by the European Commission’s 7th Framework
Programme, in 2013–2014 and 2015. Support has also been provided by a
Fulbright Grant, by Columbia University and its Department of Anthropology.
Karin Dean, my colleague at Tallinn University, first introduced me to the Kachin
region and has been steadfast in her support of my efforts ever since. Also, I thank
Mandy Sadan for her committed editorial work which has been extremely helpful.
Finally, I owe enormous gratitude to my Kachin friends and colleagues whose
support and knowledge have made my study altogether possible.
5. For a reflection on ethical dilemmas faced by foreign researchers who study
Myanmar minority ethnic nations, while their native colleagues are engaged in
nationalist projects, see Patrick McCormick, ‘Ethnic Histories: Reflections from
the Field’, The Journal of Burma Studies 18, no. 1 (2014).
6. Sherry Ortner, ‘Resistance and the Problem of Ethnographic Refusal’, Comparative
Studies in Society and History 37, no. 1 (1995).
209
Conspiracy, God’s Plan and National Emergency
interpretations is not whether they match neatly a reality on the ground,
but that they exist in the form that they do, that they are widely circu-
lated, and that they evoke and express a tangible sense of threat.
Kachin nationalist theory and its discontents
This chapter shall focus on the dominant forms of popular analysis that
circulate most widely and publicly inside Kachin society. In order to
explore how ceasefire era developments have been understood in con-
temporary Kachin society, I will begin by outlining some of the nation-
alist-theoretical frameworks of a dominant Kachin political discourse.
I will do this by discussing three core terms. These are Kachin versions
of three globally circulating, basic ontological categories that are very
much in the tradition of 19th century European, modern nationalisms:
Wunpawng Mungdan (territory/ ‘Kachin country’), Wunpawng myusha
(people/ ‘Kachin nation’), and Karai Kasang (divinity/ Christian
‘God’).7
I will highlight some very sensitive, but crucial, discontents, as they
relate to Wunpawng Mungdan, Wunpawng myusha, and Karai Kasang.
I do this to emphasise the core complexities, contests, and variations
within Kachin society and in the current political impasse. I hope to
caution against the tendency to make homogenising claims about
Burma’s minority ethnic nations, as if these were simple monolithic
entities and not internally diverse, class-stratified, and complex socie-
ties. Not least, too often these national societies are falsely equated
with prominent ethnic armed organisations, as when calling the
United Wa State Army ‘the Wa’, the KIO as ‘the Kachin’, or indeed the
Myanmar Army as ‘the Burmans’. Simultaneously, some elite voices
within the minority societies routinely exaggerate their capability to
represent a heterogeneous populations experiences and perspectives.
Yet, their discourses sometimes get transmitted uncritically to outside
audiences. Similarly to how Campbell has articulated that there is no
7. I will hereafter write these three Jinghpaw language terms un-italicised and
intermixed with English equivalents. Their disruptive presence is to establish
throughout the text an intellectual register for engaging a social world and cer-
tain perspectives on their own terms, cognisant of the limitedness of all cultural
translation. This choice is inspired by Ty P. Kāwika Tengan, Native Men Remade:
Gender and Nation in Contemporary Hawai‘i (Duke University Press, 2008).
War and Peace in the Borderlands of Myanmar
210
single ‘the Karens’, I emphasise here that obviously there is no unitary
‘the Kachin people’.8 My discussion here, too, cannot represent many
Kachin social groups adequately, for instance, because I have done too
little ethnographic fieldwork with rural village farmers or with Kachin
populations in Shan State.
The main unit of geo-political reference for most people who
identify as Kachin patriots is not ‘Myanmar’ or ‘the state’; neither is it
‘the Kachin regions of northern Burma’ within which the state-official
‘Kachin national race of Myanmar’ resides. Instead, the main unit of
patriotic geo-political analysis is ‘anhte Wunpawng Mungdan’ – ‘Our
Kachin country/Kachinland’. Even though Kachin nationalists are
daily reminded of their presence inside the state of Myanmar, they do
not envision anhte Wunpawng Mungdan as being simply a marginal,
problematic area of this sovereign state. Rather, for them it is a histori-
cal, independently standing, self-evident, and naturally central body of
affairs. This centrality reaches cosmological scale when popular analysis
incorporates the ultimate agency of Karai Kasang, ‘God’, as will be dis-
cussed below. However, because this type of ethno-nationalist theory
approaches territory in an ethnic-nation-centric framework, it stands
continuously at odds with the global inter-state governance regime and
the Myanmar government’s theorisations of country sovereignty.9
Like in the cases of several minority ethnic nations in Myanmar,
Kachin patriots take having a ‘State’ bearing their ethnonym very seri-
ously. People usually equate Wunpawng Mungdan with the geographic
limits of the Myanmar state’s official administrative entity, the Kachin
State. Even if not a full-blown independent country (yet), the Kachin
States internationally recognised official existence, its clearly deline-
ated boundaries, and its name designating this territory as being fun-
damentally ‘Kachin’ – on paper, in law, on maps – are seen as sources
of legitimacy and existential security enabling the pursuit of a Kachin
ethno-national mandate. The creation of Kachin State as part of Burma’s
8. Stephen Campbell, ‘Articulating Grievance in Southeast Myanmar’, in Civil Wars
in South Asia: State, Sovereignty, Development, ed. Aparna Sundar and Nandini
Sundar (New Delhi: Sage India, 2014).
9. Karin Dean, ‘Spaces, Territorialities and Ethnography on the Thai-, Sino– and
Indo-Myanmar Boundaries’, in Ashgate Research Companion to Border Studies, ed.
Doris Wastl-Walter (Ashgate Publishing, 2011).
211
Conspiracy, God’s Plan and National Emergency
independence process is considered a historical victory of significance
and the territory is seen as the womb of all ‘our’ possible futures. Fears of
losing this state-official basis of Wunpawng Mungdan have been height-
ened during the ceasefire period because of a sense of threat from an
aggressive Myanmar sovereignty. Such fears cause Kachin patriots great
emotional stress and heartache, as we will explore below.
Yet the way Kachin nationalists perceive their nation as ‘owning’ this
territory, just like Myanmar’s other so-called ‘national races’ are said to
own’ their respective States, contradicts with the on-the-ground real-
ity of a deeply multi-ethnic demographic, as also discussed by Reshmi
Banerjee in this volume in relation to the situation in north-east India.
Most Kachin political propaganda, media, and public discourse talks of
the territory in essentialist terms as ‘anhte Wunpawng Mungdan’, ‘our
Kachin land/country. Nevertheless, rich and intermixed ethno-linguis-
tic patchworks have always characterised the mainland Southeast Asian
‘Zomian’10 mountain-scape, of which the Kachin region is a part. It is
estimated that about half of Kachin State’s population is ethnically non-
Kachin, including Shans, Burmans, Gurkhas, Indians, Chinese, Nagas,
as well as those Rawangs, Lisus, and others who do not self-identify as
Kachin. Many of these communities have little reason to support greater
autonomy or independence for an ethnically defined Kachin State that
combines and equates the interests of Wunpawng Mungdan specifically
with Wunpawng myusha (Kachin people/‘Kachin nation’). That the
mainstream Kachin political discourse about Wunpawng Mungdan
tends to mono-ethnicise the landscape has been disapprovingly noticed
by some ethnically non-Kachin residents of the Kachin State whom I
have interviewed. Kachin nationalists have countered in conversations
with me that, ‘the KIO represents all people of Kachin State, not only
Kachins’, but have then quickly admitted that even if that were true, its
public pronouncements do not readily or typically communicate it as so.
In Kachin public life and in popular imaginaries about the land’s future,
this potentially most consequential tension remains poorly discussed
10. W. van Schendel, ‘Geographies of Knowing, Geographies of Ignorance: Jumping
Scale in Southeast Asia’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 20, no. 6
(2002).
War and Peace in the Borderlands of Myanmar
212
beyond a popular will to deport post-ceasefire Burman immigrants. We
will explore this issue further below.11
The second concept employed in popular analysis, that of ‘our
Kachin people’ or ‘anhte Wunpawng myusha, is similarly crucial yet con-
tested. Leadership within anhte Wunpawng Mungdan is not felt to reside
ultimately with the KIO, which has experienced differing levels of popu-
lar support throughout its history, as discussed in many chapters in this
book. Instead, Kachin nationalists deem social and political authority to
reside in and arise from ‘anhte (Jinghpaw) Wunpawng myusha’ – ‘Our
Kachin nation/people’. ‘Wunpawng’ is a Jinghpaw language translation of
the exonym ‘Kachin’, which emerged as a political ethnonym in the early
20th century, was later promoted by the KIO, and is now ubiquitous.12 It
functions mostly to emphasise how the Wunpawng nation unites several
ethnic groups. This multi-group social structure has gradually emerged
since the late 18th century, when regional Jinghpaw elites intensified the
process of socially and ritually integrating several ethnic populations
in the Burma–China borderlands, sometimes by subjugation but not
exclusively so.13
Today, Kachin nationalists of various deeply socio-culturally inte-
grated ‘sub-ethnicities’ assert that their nation consists of six or seven
equal ‘Tribes’.14 The ethno-linguistic autonyms for these diverse groups
11. The external tensions produced by simplistically equating Wunpawng Mungdan
with Wunpawng myusha and allowing this to dominate in discussions of the po-
litical future of the Kachin State became most apparent in recent years in activities
promoted by the Ethnic Nationalities Council (ENC; see references to this in the
chapters by Martin Smith and Mahkaw Hkun Sa, this volume). A series of State
Constitution Drafting Committees were set up, including one for the Kachin
State that was to deliberate upon the kind of constitution that an autonomous
Kachin State might have within a federal Myanmar (see Mahkaw Hkun Sa, this
volume). The attempt to bridge gaps with some non-Kachin populations by reas-
suring them that a political structure would be put in place that would guarantee
the interests of non-Kachin populations in the State highlighted the need for
long-term trust building around these issues. (Mandy Sadan, pers. comm.).
12. Sadan, Being and Becoming Kachin: Histories Beyond the State in the Borderworlds of
Burma, 250, 339.
13. Ibid. 140–197.
14. See Mandy Sadan, ‘Decolonizing Kachin: Ethnic Diversity and the Making
of an Ethnic Category, in Exploring Ethnic Diversity in Burma, ed. M. Gravers
(Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2007); also François Robinne and Mandy Sadan, ed.,
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Conspiracy, God’s Plan and National Emergency
are Jinghpaw, Lhaovo (Lawngwaw), Zaiwa, Lachid (Lachik), Rawang,
Lisu, and Nung (increasingly, Nung Lungmi; see the chapter by Helen
Mears for further discussion). Relying upon re-interpreted origin and
ancient migration narratives, the Wunpawng nationalist theory argues
that common ancestry and a cultural core unifies these historically dif-
ferent ethnic groups. Many Rawang and Lisu people, however, do not
generally, or even at all, identify easily with the Jinghpaw-centred term
‘(Jinghpaw) Wunpawng’. Some Lhaovo and Lachid people, too, have
dis-identified themselves from Wunpawng and the related political and
social infrastructures of the KIO and the Kachin Baptist Convention
(KBC) which promote this terminology. Similar internal fragmentations
characterise also the Karen, Chin, and other major multi-ethnic nations
in Myanmar, which often have relatively shorter histories of multi-group
integration than do the Kachin groups. As in those instances, so too in
the Kachin case, one should not read these contestations as somehow
de-legitimising any sense of genuine shared nationhood or common
political understandings of these relationships; many people strongly
identify with these notions and through them bond as an inter-related
anhte Wunpawng myusha.
Many Kachin nationalists perceive the ongoing contestations over
the boundaries of Wunpawng myusha and over ethnic Jinghpaw politi-
cal and cultural domination as a sensitive issue, best left unspoken and
sometimes aggressively denied. They fear that opening up the issue can
provide entryways for the Myanmar government’s anti-KIO divide-and-
rule tactics, and indeed, it has already done so. Many objected to the
national census of 2014, for example, arguing it was an opportunity for
the Myanmar government to pursue its agenda of breaking apart and
fatally undermining the social base of the ethno-political unity of the
Kachin movement by recognising Kachin sub-groups independently
from the census category ‘Kachin, as mentioned later in this volume,
too, by Mahkaw Hkun Sa. This tension therefore fed into a perception
of threat, vulnerability, and national emergency. Helen Mears will later
Social Dynamics in the Highlands of Southeast Asia: Reconsidering Political Systems
of Highland Burma by E. R. Leach (Leiden Brill, 2007). For an early critique of the
tendency in academic literature to under-represent Kachin cultural heterogeneity
see Chapter 2 in Ho Ts’ui-p’ing, ‘Exchange, Person and Hierarchy: Rethinking the
Kachin’ (Unpublished PhD Dissertation, University of Virginia, 1997).
War and Peace in the Borderlands of Myanmar
214
discuss how material culture, too, has been influenced by some of this
debate during the ceasefire period.15
The third major term of currently dominant Kachin nationalist
theory is ‘Karai Kasang’ or Christian ‘God’. The role of Karai Kasang as
an actor in Kachin society is contested between different denominations
and theologies. Different denominations fragment the Kachin popula-
tion along spiritual lines: the majority American Baptist, the minority
Roman Catholic, the Fundamentalist Baptist, the Anglican, and a range
of smaller independent and house churches have all proliferated at dif-
ferent times and in different communities.16 However, I will here outline
only a recently increasingly popular and influential Kachin nationalist
theorisation of Karai Kasang, arising primarily from one certain line-
age among Kachin Baptist theologians. I do this to show how in the
lived worlds of many Kachins, but especially Baptists, Karai Kasang is
a fundamental actor in the history of war, ceasefires, and all social and
political processes.
These Baptist theorisations posit Wunpawng Mungdan as a land
promised to, historically given to, and still to be fully redeemed by anhte
Wunpawng myusha. This model is derived from what its theologians
call ‘the contextualisation’ of the Old Testament. ‘Contextualising’ can
mean reading the battles and travails of the ancient Israelites, their exo-
dus from Ancient Egypt, and the eventual emergence of God’s promised
homeland, as lessons for peoples in the contemporary world, which can
be used to frame an analysis of their own situation. In this local Kachin
context, therefore, the ‘Burmans’ are recast as Ancient Egyptians and
15. For the foreseeable future, these ethnic differences, divisions, and inequalities
remain a consequential tension in Kachin public life. However, in Kachin society
today there is more political value in centring non-Jinghpaw groups within the
Wunpawng construct more explicitly. This has been one of the effects of the open-
ing up of space for critical discussion during the ceasefire period. Nonetheless,
according to my research, the issues remain publicly little discussed inside
Wunpawng-identifying society, as people choose to concentrate on the shared
sense of threat from the Myanmar regime. The sensitivity itself connects strongly
with Reshmi Banerjee’s discussion in this volume of the causes and effects of ter-
ritorial ethno-nationalism in north-east India.
16. Some of the tensions in religious affiliation mirror those described in the frag-
mentation of ethnic groups collectively referred to as ‘Kachin’. This partly reflects
the historical foundation of mission stations in specific locales and evangelical
pathways arising from them over time. (Mandy Sadan, pers. comm.).
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Conspiracy, God’s Plan and National Emergency
anhte Wunpawng myusha as the enslaved Israelite tribes, who appeal to
Karai Kasang to release them from bondage. In this view, Karai Kasang is
deemed to pay attention to and have a particular purpose for oppressed
nations, as evidenced by the examples taken from the Old Testament.
To describe this, one younger-generation Kachin theologian has used
the phrase ‘God is God of nations’.17
Individuals who believe that anhte Wunpawng myusha is a nation
chosen by Karai Kasang, now on a path of temporary suffering toward
the glory of a ‘promised land’, have found personal confirmation of this
view in various ways. A commonly cited proof is the popular histori-
ography whereby during the British colonial era ‘He’ resurrected the
nation through religious conversion from ‘near extinction’ as a result of
a supposed syphilis epidemic18 and Animist ‘vice and barbarity’. ‘God
revived us’ is what many Kachins have told me. Some Baptist pastors
and other believers I have talked to see evidence of divine blessing in the
abundance of natural resources in the Karai Kasang-given Wunpawng
Mungdan. Others point to the homeland’s ‘unique position’ between
the world’s two most populous countries, China and India; and so on.
This religious–nationalist model developed strongly during the last
few decades of armed conflict in the Kachin Theological College near
Myitkyina.19 I have found that certain socially influential Baptist theo-
logians at the college drew their analytical frameworks from an array of
theological traditions to develop an ethno-politicised ‘Kachin theology’.
Its sources include specifically Southeast Asian lineages of ‘contextual
theology’, North East Indian ‘tribal theology’, Latin American-born ‘lib-
eration theology’, neo-Animist re-interpretations of Jinghpaw native
17. Lagai Zau Nan, ‘Globalization: A Kachin Ethnic Christian Response’, RAYS: MIT
[Myanmar Institute of Theology] Journal of Theology 8 (2007).
18. Mandy Sadan, ‘Syphilis and the Kachin Regeneration Campaign, 1937–38’,
Journal of Burma Studies 14 (2010).
19. The college was founded in 1966, when the US Baptist mission-founded Bible
School in Kutkai in northern Shan State relocated following the expulsion of
foreign missionaries and a rapidly deteriorating political situation in that region.
The college subsequently expanded its educational and training curriculum
in the mid–1970s, when the conflict with the Burmese regime was particularly
entrenched. It went on to become a centre of Kachin politico-cultural resistance
and key provider of autonomous higher education programmes for ethnic Kachin
youth.
War and Peace in the Borderlands of Myanmar
216
religion, as well as the globally common theological ‘acculturation’ prac-
tices of Baptist missionary evangelism, which Myanmar Baptists inher-
ited from colonial-era US missionaries.20 This parallels developments in
some Christian Karen, Naga, Chin, and other Christian theologies in
Myanmar, and north-east India, and globally.
The current surge in the popularity of such nationalist theology also
causes tensions: neither every Kachin person nor every KBC theologian
subscribes to the positions outlined. Indeed, I have met considerable
variety in the individual views of KBC pastors and other church leaders.
Some unconvinced Kachins from the KBC and other denominations
strongly oppose these particular interpretations, viewing them as theo-
logically false or full of politically-oriented deceptions. Moreover, some
Catholic Kachins have in conversations with me assertively criticised
the Baptist majority and its nationalist theologies for ‘falsely politicising
religion’. Kachin Catholics are generally less likely to ethno-politicise
their religion, primarily because, unlike the KBC, Burmas Catholic
Church has a multi-ethno-national congregation and leadership. There
is moreover a tiny but growing circle of young foreign-educated Kachin
intellectuals who dislike religion’s influence in their society, condemn
the popular political theologies, and rather support secularisation. Yet,
the Baptist ethno-political theology has in the current war years been
increasingly operating in tandem with KIO propaganda, familiarising
Kachins from various denominations beyond the KBC with these be-
liefs, too.
Another central theological foundation of the KBC and its college,
which ethno-politicises these ideas institutionally, is the ‘holistic mis-
sion’. Kachin Baptists received this idea from early missionaries and it
calls for one’s prayer being accompanied by action. ‘Action’ here usually
means community development projects, fighting against poverty, and
working for social justice for ethnic Kachin society. Thus, even when
Baptist Kachins have talked to me about Karai Kasang’s perceived sup-
port for the cause of anhte Wunpawng myusha, they have often simulta-
neously expressed the principle of their ‘holistic mission’ by concluding,
‘God helps those who help themselves’. Throughout the decades of
military conflict, the KBC acted relatively autonomously, sending out
20. On missionary strategies of acculturation, see Sadan, Being and Becoming Kachin:
Histories Beyond the State in the Borderworlds of Burma, 392, 97–8.
217
Conspiracy, God’s Plan and National Emergency
young graduates from the college to fulfil its ‘holistic mission’. However,
Sadan has argued that the prevailing militarised conditions meant that
it also had to act in cooperation with the KIO, resulting in an ever closer
entangling of religion and nationalism in society as a whole.21 In the last
few years, I have certainly observed significant cooperation and political
overlap between the KBC and the KIO. Despite the powerful KBC’s
currently major role in keeping up public support for the KIO, the KIO
itself remains a nationalist organisation not founded on religion or
church denomination. These two institutions are now major pillars of
Wunpawng national politics and social authority.
In conclusion, while these three conceptions of land, people and
divinity, therefore, contain within them tensions that complicate eve-
ryday Kachin politics, in my ethnographic research I have found that
these dominant strands of nationalist theory are finding increasing
currency and recognition in Kachin society. This has been particularly
marked since the collapse of the ceasefire in 2011. Support for the KIO
undoubtedly waned during the mid-ceasefire era, as has been noted
elsewhere in this book, especially by Kevin Woods and the chapters
by Hkanhpa Tu Sadan and Mahkaw Hkun Sa. This was largely due
to perceptions that its business orientation overshadowed political
aspirations. Also, the assimilation or integration of Kachin youths into
Myanmar and Burman society increased. Finally, different individuals
and social groups subscribe to the dominant nationalist theory to vary-
ing degrees. Nonetheless, the ambitious ethno-political discourses and
loyalties outlined here spread more widely across Kachin society as the
experience of the ceasefire came to be understood along increasingly
negative lines. We can surmise that the 1994 ceasefire helped to consoli-
date the making of Kachin patriotic ethno-national subjects within the
theoretical framework outlined above, and that this process intensified
in the years leading up to the collapse of the ceasefire in 2011, and after.
A very important reason why Kachin political identity has strength-
ened, as noted by many authors in this volume, is the sense of threat
and suffering derived from experiences of the ongoing destructive and
marginalising resource extraction and trading practices. These issues
became heightened during the ceasefire era and came to be analysed in
Kachin society through the evolving nationalist theoretical framework
21. Ibid. 380.
War and Peace in the Borderlands of Myanmar
218
outlined above. This kind of analysis became central, and it helps to
explain why a great portion of Kachin society rejected an easy return to
ceasefire with the Myanmar Army. Thus, we will now proceed by briefly
summarising the ceasefire era resource grabs followed by an analysis of
Kachin popular understandings of those specific processes and their
contemporary social and political outcomes.
Ceasefire era resource grabs, suffering, activism
After the 1994 ceasefire, the Kachin regions various military-political
authorities opened up the formerly embattled but resource-rich
subtropical landscape to the resource extraction companies from
neighbouring China, as discussed in all the chapters of this volume in
previous sections. Two decades of rapid expansion and the industriali-
sation of a variety of resource extraction fields followed. This included
clear-cut logging of old-growth rainforests; industrial scale mining of
the world’s only commercial jadeite mines in Hpakant, and of gold and
other minerals; the now famously suspended Myitsone mega-dam pro-
ject; mono-crop plantations of various cash crops; the Shwe gas pipeline
(in northern Shan State); as well as organised trades in the body parts of
tigers, elephants, bears and other endangered wildlife.
That these numerous resource extraction projects were and con-
tinue to be predominantly monopolised by non-native corporations
with military backing invokes for many Kachin people a bitter sense of
injustice, as it does for other peoples in Myanmar, such as the Ta’ang
people as described by Patrick Meehan in his chapter in this volume.
The situation contrasts with the widespread belief in Kachin society that
there is a right and proper collective national entitlement held by anhte
Wunpawng myusha to manage the rich natural resources of Wunpawng
Mungdan. The sense of Kachin ownership gathers strength from the
broader popular theoretical framework discussed above, which assumes
that rights over anhte Wunpawng Mungdan have been mandated spe-
cifically for the welfare of the Wunpawng myusha through histories that
were political-economic-cultural or cosmological-divine, or both.
The most bemoaned example of these many perceived deep injustic-
es is the KIO’s post-ceasefire loss of the Hpakant jadeite mines, resulting
in an aggressive non-Kachin takeover of most of the business from the
mines. Hpakant Township is the world’s only source of types of jadeite
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Conspiracy, God’s Plan and National Emergency
that Han-Chinese societies have long adored and which make for an
annual multi-billion dollar licit and illicit trade.22 Many Kachin people
envision that all such resources and profits could and indeed should be
used to ensure the welfare and national future of the Wunpawng myu-
sha, including the building of a self-determined homeland. In 2010 in
Ruili, one well-respected Kachin jade trader told me:
I almost burst into crying when I first went to Guangzhou – enormous
amounts of jade coming from our country, no … our area. The own-
ers – all Chinese. Out of 10,000 shops I couldn’t find one-two Kachins.
This makes me very sad, because this is not helping our people. We
could sustain our nation with jade, even without [KIO’s] forestry.
Inevitably, people in the KachinChina border areas are those most
painfully aware of this border’s sharply uneven economic geography.
The Chinese border marks the beginning of ‘a different world’, where
the spectre of cross-border comparisons looms large. Busy construction
sites are seen, fed by smooth roads and other infrastructure; shops with
plentiful amounts of food and medicine, convenience stores, ATMs,
cheap cell phone connections seem to be abundant; and all this is backed
up by a sense of the global might of the Chinese political and economic
system.23 Reflecting on such landscapes, an erudite KIO senior cultural
leader in Laiza laughed sadly before saying:
When KIO started, Ruili, Yingjiang on the Chinese side were very
poor villages. Now, they are more developed towns than Rangoon or
22. Global Witness, ‘Jade: Myanmar’s Big State Secret’ (2015).
23. On China’s Jingpo perspectives upon the other side of the Kachin border, see the
chapter by Ho Ts’ui P’ing in this volume. On the political-geographic dynamics of the
KIO-China border and cross-border Jingpo/Kachin interactions, see Karin Dean,
‘Mapping the Kachin Political Landscape: Constructing, Contesting and Crossing
Borders’, in Exploring Ethnic Diversity in Burma, ed. Mikael Gravers (Copenhagen:
NIAS Press, 2007); Karin Dean, ‘Spaces and territorialities on the Sino–Burmese
boundary: China, Burma and the Kachin’, Political Geography 24, no. 7 (2005);
and Karin Dean, ‘Spaces, Territorialities and Ethnography on the Thai-, Sino– and
Indo–Myanmar Boundaries’, (2011). On post-ceasefire economic development in
KIO border towns, see Lanau Roi Aung, ‘Kachin Borderlanders: A Case Study of
Laiza Town Along the Yunnan-Myanmar Frontier Area’ (Unpublished MA thesis,
Chiang Mai University, Thailand, 2009); Roi Nu, ‘Land Use Pattern Changes
after Economic Integration in Mai Ja Yang Village, Kachin State, Myanmar’
(Unpublished MA thesis, Khon Kaen University, Thailand, 2009).
War and Peace in the Borderlands of Myanmar
220
Mandalay, ha-ha! But yes, this makes us very sad, because the profit is
in the hands of other people. The Kachin hand is empty. Just like all
our valuable trees, the big money reaches only the Chinese side. The
development and prosperity is possible only on the Chinese side.
Even more frustratingly for Wunpawng patriots, much human
suffering resulted from the ceasefire era expansion of resource extrac-
tion along these lines. The projects commonly involved dispossessing
villagers forcefully of their lands. They also left ecological degradation
unchecked. As a result, the effects of these extractive practices have of-
ten been devastating for the area’s impoverished people. They have seen
villages displaced and people killed in preventable accidents. People,
rivers and river life have been poisoned by toxic waste from gold mining.
Swathes of farmland have been confiscated for mono-crop plantations.
Most notoriously, the dramatic increase in chronic and ultimately lethal
drug addictions and infection with HIV/AIDS has plagued Hpakant’s
mining population and the rest of the region’s society. The violence,
injustice, and suffering brought to many people’s lives in the region have
been documented by local and transnational NGOs, such as the Kachin
Development Networking Group and Global Witness.
Altogether, Chinese, Burmese, and Kachin economic elites and
militarily backed corporations have profited massively, while native
land-owning villagers, extractive labourers, and small-scale traders of
various ethnicities have benefited comparatively little. We should not
understate how the post–1994 economic developments did help the
livelihoods and very survival of impoverished people in the Kachin
region. Moreover, the relative peace of the ceasefire era saved countless
human lives. Yet, from both a local and an outside perspective, it might
only be fair and accurate to conclude that large-scale resource grabs took
place and that those who enriched themselves have often systematically
destroyed human and other lives.
These and other developments in the region triggered a response in
a new post-ceasefire Kachin activism, which grew incrementally after
1994 as the Myanmar government’s relative easing of restrictions on
social activity allowed for the development of local NGOs and other
forms of social-political activity.24 Much of the initial post-ceasefire
24. Tom Kramer, Civil Society Gaining Ground: Opportunities for Change and Development
in Burma (Amsterdam: Transnational Institute, 2011). On the impact of Kachin
221
Conspiracy, God’s Plan and National Emergency
social activism was sheltered within the KBC and its ‘holistic mission’,
although soon transnational connections and ideologies, especially in
the Myanmar exile bases of Chiang Mai, became increasingly important,
as described later by Mahkaw Hkun Sa. I cannot detail the landscape of
all these new Kachin social activities and of the emergence of a Kachin
environmentalist ideology here. However, I do want to emphasise the
socially leading roles of these actors – social and environmental activists,
educators, church leaders, several NGOs, and some businesspeople, all
often mutually overlapping – in the collective work of making sense of
the ethnic nations social and ecological predicament. We should now
turn, therefore, to exploring some of the popular analysis of the implica-
tions of these developments in more detail.
Popular analysis and ‘Burman conspiracy’
Kachin society in the years after the 1994 ceasefire continuously ac-
cumulated individual experiences of how foreign-led industrialised re-
source extraction dispossessed fellow Kachins and made people suffer.
This accumulation became a major impetus for Kachin individuals and
groups to disseminate their analysis of what was going on in the Karai
Kasang-given Wunpawng Mungdan, and how it was affecting anhte
Wunpawng myusha. These analyses have since been honed, transmit-
ted, and popularised via a variety of media. These include, for example,
Sunday service Bible sermons and political karaoke music videos; exile-
based online media and ‘community development’ youth camps; activist
meetings with farmers in quiet rice field huts and people’s conversations
at social gatherings with extended kin.25
The popularised analyses of the processes of resource grab in the
Kachin ceasefire era are mostly exercises in generalisation and deduc-
tion. Both activists and other Kachin people collect knowledge, spread
information, and react to the many individual experiences and accounts
diaspora political activism in the U.K. and beyond, see Mahkaw Hkun Sa in this
volume.
25. For a discussion of Kachin social mobilising through online networks during the
current war, see Karin Dean, ‘The Spatiality and Borderless-Ness of Contentious
Politics: Kachin Mobilities as Capability’, in Myanmar’s Mountain and Maritime
Borderscapes: Local Practices, Boundary-Making and Figured Worlds, ed. Su-Ann
Oh (Singapore: ISEAS Press, 2016). See also Mahkaw Hkun Sa, this volume.
War and Peace in the Borderlands of Myanmar
222
of injustice, harm, and perceived danger from non-Wunpawng ‘foreign’
business expansion. What emerges are perceived patterns of land and
resource dispossession by military force, ecological deterioration, vio-
lence, accelerating Burman in-migration, and specifically Kachin human
suffering. These patterns are then generalised onto an ethno-national
landscape: they are understood as a national issue and, ultimately, as
an existential threat. In terms of general conclusions, many Kachin
people situate such an analysis directly into the broad context of a na-
tive history of ethno-military conflict and ‘cunning betrayals’ by ‘the
Burmans’. Doing so, they both contribute to and rely upon an already
popular conspiratorial analysis of why – for decades – Kachin people
have experienced various forms of abuse, conflict, and marginalisation.
For them, the perceived complex of existential threats indicates that a
deliberate assault on anhte Wunpawng myusha as a whole was manifest
in the post–1994 ceasefire period.
Field research I conducted from 2010–14 indicates that such beliefs
have been socially and geographically widespread within Kachin society
during this period. This time obviously coincides with the last conten-
tious years of the 1994–2011 ceasefire and those immediately following
its breakdown. It was a time when Kachin resistance to a new ceasefire
seemed to frustrate not only the Burmese government but also many
foreign observers, investors and policy makers who found it ‘inconven-
ient’. Understanding the perception of threats and vulnerabilities out-
lined here may go some way to explaining what seemed to many outside
observers to be an ‘irrational’ and self-destructive political stance. These
perceptions were and are still expressed by various ethno-national elites,
by politically engaged young people from far-flung, infrastructure-poor
villages, as well as by those from towns at the hub of modern Kachin
social and political life. This was evident at an ethnic Kachin church
youth training held near Myitkyina in 2011, a month after the war had
restarted, to which participants came from across the Kachin region. A
group of young men brought up the idea that the social and ecological
devastation that they experienced personally or had heard about might
be intended as a form of ‘ethnic cleansing’. One young man discussed
this fear in the following way:
When business comes to our land, they get permits from the government
without even knowing where are located Hpakant, Waingmaw, and so on.
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Conspiracy, God’s Plan and National Emergency
They don’t even know where this land is, but they already have the permit
to destroy that land. Is this ethnic cleansing from behalf of the govern-
ment? We don’t know, still more research needs to be done …
Another trainee picked up this idea, asking: ‘What is really behind
the [Myitsone] Dam? Are they trying to finish off the Kachin people?
Or is it just business?’ Namely, some people came to suspect that the
Myitsone hydroelectric mega-project might help ‘finish off’ the already
embattled Kachin nation, since Kachin activists calculated that the
dam’s gigantic reservoir would displace tens of thousands of villagers.
The reservoir would also tear a hole in the middle of the ‘heartland’
of anhte Wunpawng Mungdan. Finally yet importantly, these activists
claim that the dam is being built in an earthquake-prone area, which
resonates with some of the discourses around similar dam projects in
north-east India according to Reshmi Banerjee’s account in this book.
According to them, any flooding from it if it became damaged would kill
the downstream population of Myitkyina.26
At the youth training, a fervent discussion ensued, with young
people sharing their anxieties over how the foreign-led mining, log-
ging, plantations and damming will affect the future of the Wunpawng
myusha. Almost everyone had a story to tell, typically about the regular,
day-to-day misfortunes of local people seen through this wider lens of
national–existential threat. No one questioned that the regime is out
to destroy the Kachin people: the only question was how much the
resource development projects and resulting destruction of land may be
part of the plan. Indeed, popular analysis in Kachin and some other non-
Burman societies in Myanmar, as noted also by Gravers and Meehan in
this volume, maintains that the regime’s resource extraction concessions
are primarily a hostile military-political strategy.
Some native and outside analysts argue the same about a broader
variety of land-related projects beyond resource extraction. For in-
stance, some view not only the logging, mining, and dam concessions as
anti-KIO and anti-Wunpawng activities, but also the Hukawng Valleys
controversial tiger reserve and the plans to upgrade the Ledo Road as
26. For an extended discussion of the dam conflict, see Laur Kiik, ‘Nationalism and
anti-ethno-politics: why “Chinese Development” failed at Myanmar’s Myitsone
Dam’, Eurasian Geography and Economics, June 22 (2016).
War and Peace in the Borderlands of Myanmar
224
part of an India-to-China highway.27 A Baptist leader I talked to analysed
that potential highway as a covert strategy to uproot the KIA and other
‘patriotic armies’ in Myanmar:
One way how the military government behaves in these kinds of situa-
tions is to say that developing transportation is the most important for
development. And then strategically they build roads through the ter-
ritories of patriotic armies, even when it is not necessary to build over
there. In reality, the goal is not development. The Hukawng Valley is
our main place. Very important. There the KIA began. Like the Karens
have the Three Pagodas area – which the ASEAN road is also planned
through. In the Hukawng area that they want to build a highway
through is the 5th Brigade of the KIA. What is the point? They are try-
ing strategically to weaken the ethnic groups. Obviously, they are trying
to dominate the minorities economically, politically, and militarily.
As the previous quote exemplifies well, a central aspect of this perceived
military-political strategy is territorial. Namely, by designating large ar-
eas of land as resource concessions to outside companies and by having
those actors establish a militarily-backed presence, the government may
be able to decrease the KIO’s and general ethnic Kachin influence in
contested areas. The process establishes state-governmental authority,
restricts access to resources by the KIO and civilians, and thus gradually
squeezes out military opposition and ethnic Wunpawng control.28
For the sake of accuracy and completeness, though, arguments
that some Myanmar natural resource concessions are a state-military
strategy against a minority ethno-national army must be set in a critical
context. True, in academic literature, there are affirming case studies.
Raymond L. Bryant was first to develop this argument in the context
of logging concessions by the Ne Win and SLORC regimes and Karen
27. Such analyses of the Hukawng tiger reserve are also found in Vanessa Lamb,
‘Between Tigers and Triggers: Conservation and Conflict in Burma’s Hugawng
Valley’, Watershed 12, no. 2 (2007); Z. Noam, ‘Eco-Authoritarian Conservation
and Ethnic Conflict in Burma, Policy Matters: Conservation and Human Rights 15
(2007). For some related critical comments, see my discussion briefly below.
28. Indeed, extractive projects with Chinese participation put the KIO in a par-
ticularly difficult situation because the organisation has traditionally needed good
relations with the Chinese authorities in Yunnan to sustain its border strongholds
(also see the chapters by Lee Jones, Enze Han, and Ho Ts’ui-p’ing in this volume).
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Conspiracy, God’s Plan and National Emergency
armed resistance.29 Kevin Woods’ ‘development-as-counterinsurgency
in northern Myanmar thesis (discussed in his chapter in this volume)
may be viewed as a de-ethnopoliticised translation of some popular
native analyses into the critical-theoretical registers of social science.30
However, in my personal view, there are also analytically problematic
aspects. While the popular analyses themselves stem from decades of
collective experiences and intimate observations, they do pre-suppose a
high level of integration, coherence, and stability within governmental-
military planning and policy that may be unlikely to exist. Ardeth Maung
Thawnghmung has for similar reasons called into question ‘the widely
held image of the military regime in Burma as a unitary actor […]’.31
Moreover, the analysis tends to ignore a variety of alternative motivations
for the military-state-associated actors. Regime officials might be more
concerned with making money for personal profit, for supplying their
troops, or for the military-state’s budget, instead of counterinsurgency
or annihilation of an ethnic nation. Similarly, such analyses tend to leave
out the broader context of freewheeling crony-capitalism, of Myanmar
Army territorial expansion without practical need for legitimising cover
projects, and of ill-designed mega-development agendas across all of
Myanmar. Finally, setting important limits to any schemes of territorial
takeover would be the fact that throughout the ceasefire period the KIO
never tolerated serious breaches across the delineated administrative
borders of its autonomous quasi-state.32 Thus, while we should take
these analyses seriously as insights into the very real worlds that people
29. Raymond L. Bryant, The Political Ecology of Forestry in Burma, 1824–1994
(London: Hurst, 1997).
30. See Kevin Woods, in this volume; and Kevin Woods, ‘Ceasefire Capitalism:
Military-Private Partnerships, Resource Concessions and Military State Building
in the Burma–China Borderlands’, Journal of Peasant Studies 38, no. 4 (2011).
31. Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung, Behind the Teak Curtain: Authoritarianism,
Agricultural Policies and Political Legitimacy in Rural Burma (London: Kegan Paul
International, 2003), 1.
32. Karin Dean, ‘Struggle over Space in Myanmar: Military State Building and the
Kachin Ceasefire’, in Autonomy and Armed Separatism: Case Studies from South and
Southeast Asia, ed. Michelle Ann Miller (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian
Studies (ISEAS) Press, 2012).
War and Peace in the Borderlands of Myanmar
226
live within, we should simultaneously retain a healthily cautious per-
spective in how we represent and understand their significance.33
It may be hard to figure out the complex realities, but a good deal
of Kachin popular analysis argues that behind the regions booming
resource economy there are territorial processes encouraged by the
Myanmar government on an even broader scale. Again, this analysis
is embedded in the nationalist theory discussed above, which posits a
direct connection between the interests of Wunpawng Mungdan and
anhte Wunpawng myusha – between the ‘land of Kachins’ and Kachin
people. Kachin social leaders fear that ‘outsiders’ are gradually remov-
ing anhte Wunpawng Mungdan itself from their nation’s hands. They
point to foreign ownership of the very soil of the contested homeland
in the form of mono-crop plantations. They also point to non-Kachin
economic domination, which Kachin people experience most visibly
in day-to-day life in their encounters with non-Kachin street vendors
and shop owners in places like Myitkyina. Many Kachin people suspect
that a process by which land is passing into non-Wunpawng hands may
be part of a long-term plan to remove all Wunpawng control over their
resource-rich homeland. A Kachin student pressed this idea onto me in
summer 2011 in Yangon, where local Kachins were at the time terrified
by intensified levels of state surveillance over them since the war with
the KIA had just begun. As we sipped beer in an outdoor restaurant, we
discussed with hushed voices the Kachin predicament:
Burma now started fighting with the KIA, in order to give Kachinland
away to China. Because there are so many natural resources.
33. Certainly, one Myanmar regime strategy against the KIO/KIA that many local and
outside analysts affirm particularly uniformly is divide-and-rule. This strategy tar-
gets both the internal unity of the KIO/KIA and its relationships with other armed
groups. According to such analysis, military-government authorities have used
resource concessions to undermine Myanmar’s ethnic military organisations by
tying them to the formal state-controlled economy (see also the chapter by Patrick
Meehan in this volume). This corrupts their leadership and creates business-related
dissent and divisions amid their ranks. The regime has also treated the leaders of KIO
splinter groups and anti-KIO militias, such as the Lasang Awng Wa Peace Group
and Tanggu Dang’s ethnic Rawang Rebellion Resistance Force, favourably, enabling
them to have lucrative logging and mining concession rights and allotting them ter-
ritory and military protection. Other chapters in this volume consider in more detail
the various tensions that have emerged inside the KIO during the ceasefire period,
and so this will not be expanded upon in this chapter.
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Conspiracy, God’s Plan and National Emergency
I am stunned by the proposition: ‘Give all Kachinland to China…?’
I wonder from where such analysis reaches young Kachin people.
Suspecting the media interventions of exiled activist networks might be
promoting this unlikely form of analysis, I asked: ‘Where did you read
this?’
I don’t think so because of reading something, but because of seeing by
myself. When I worked in a gold mine, the owners were Chinese. When
I worked in the plantations near Laiza, the owners were Chinese. The
Chinese own land territories larger than Myitkyina town as plantations.
And in the heart of Myitkyina, all the best shops are Chinese. Even on
the town market-place, the best shops are Chinese. So I want to learn
the Chinese language. For business purposes …
As this kind of non-native domination expanded in the region’s
resource-grab-based economy after the 1994 ceasefire, the Wunpawng
nationalists came to face one of their deepest reasons for analysing the
evolving situation as a national emergency: the speeding up of in-migra-
tion from lowland Myanmar. Reports have spread widely that the govern-
ment is founding new villages in Kachin State, bringing in ethnic Burman
residents. Some Kachin people told me that they heard the government
has a yearly plan of sending in huge numbers of Burman migrants. One
nationalist cited meeting a few Burman youths with one-way tickets on
the train to Myitkyina; for her, everyday little incidents like this provide
the evidence that the broader social world of Wunpawng nationality is
extremely vulnerable to a ‘Burman conspiracy’. However, the single most
notorious example of this alleged physical Burmanisation project via
resource extraction concessions is the Yuzana Company’s vast mono-crop
plantations on violently confiscated land in Hukawng Valley. The sense of
a national emergency was expressed by the Kachin News Group when it
reported in unverifiable terms that ‘the SPDC plans to settle up to 200,000
Bamar [Burman] people in the Hukawng Valley, ostensibly to work on the
Yuzana plantations’ (emphasis added).34
Thus, observing the gradual population changes in one’s surround-
ing society and hearing reports of plans for more massive in-migration,
many Kachins assert that the Myanmar government is deliberately
orchestrating population movement in order to marginalise ethnic
34. KNG (Kachin News Group), ‘Junta to Resettle 200,000 Burmans in Hukawng
Valley’, (7 March 2009).
War and Peace in the Borderlands of Myanmar
228
Kachin people demographically. The suspected goal is to Burmanise
anhte Wunpawng Mungdan and then to take over the land for the last
time. This analysis probably underestimates the independent incentive
for lowland Myanmar’s many impoverished people to move to regions
like Kachin State to try to find their fortune in the resource economy,
whether it be as one of tens of thousands of Burman, Arakanese, and
other miners in Hpakant, as a plantation labourer, or as a hydraulic gold
digger. However, people’s observations and popularised analyses reflect
some very real social worlds.
Indeed, continuous and rapid in-migration will likely soon minori-
tise the Wunpawng myusha demographically within the already deeply
multi-ethnic population of Kachin State. This minoritisation may have
already occurred. Most immediately relevant in 2015, this change will
likely have irreversible consequences for future election results. In the
long term, as the more politically minded Kachins realise in fear, it will
eventually make almost impossible all Kachin pursuits for securing
independence or general ethno-national control over the State. The de-
mographic grounds for claiming land and political autonomy, as well as
for sustaining these at a practical level, will have significantly diminished.
More than anything else, this quietly occurring change can constitute a
historical point of no return for the beleaguered Wunpawng patriots.
Thus, the population size of anhte Wunpawng myusha itself, which
despite the recent census is unknown and sometimes exaggerated by
nationalists, has become a terrifying issue for some. An elderly environ-
mentalist confided to me, in his otherwise calm voice but with a dis-
tinctly painful note rising: ‘Actually, our population is now only below a
million. Although the KBC will get angry if I say so, they will not agree.
They even say that KBC has 300,000 members. But it doesn’t’. For the
nation to persevere, some Kachin elders have called upon people to have
more children.
Facing this precarious situation, Kachin nationalists relate the chang-
ing demographic balances to the threat that the beloved Wunpawng
Mungdan itself will be disassociated from Kachin people and ‘lost’ from
the nations hands. As noted earlier, the 2014 Myanmar population cen-
sus triggered long-held fears that Wunpawng Mungdan would be ‘taken’
from Kachins through clever ‘divide-and-rule’ ethnic identification
categories, which would show Kachin-identifying people as a minority.
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Conspiracy, God’s Plan and National Emergency
Some say former governments have added pieces of Kachin State to
Sagaing Division, reducing Wunpawng Mungdan step-by-step from the
map. Alternatively, take this analysis by a KBC leader:
We need a very fair Constitution. Without it, our nation can go extinct.
Because many people are coming here. In the Constitution now it says
that, if the majority of the State population agrees, a State’s name can
be changed. That means, if we aren’t strong enough, we could lose the
State – lose the Nation. Secondly, in the Constitution it says that the
President has the right to define the Union’s territory. He could undo
our State. And even if those things weren’t written there, in my opinion,
in twenty years the State and nation might still disappear – because of
assimilation.
As this leader’s conclusion exemplifies, there is a painful awareness
among Wunpawng nationalists that, besides in-migration, Kachin so-
ciety is facing an on-going, gradual cultural and linguistic assimilation
into Burman society. Many young people I know complain about their
own limited Jinghpaw language vocabulary and tendency to switch to
using Burmese. This results largely from the decades-long ban on non-
Burmese mother-tongue education in state schools. Some patriotic
analysts are alarmed at evidence of the influence of both a globalised
modernity and of a Yangon-centred Myanmar modernity. Young men
wear ‘modern’ pants instead of the standardised ‘traditional Wunpawng’
buhkrawng or skir t cloth. Young people listen to Burman music and there
is a local fascination with South Korean soap operas, which some believe
the government-owned television stations encourage to de-politicise
the public mindset strategically. Kachins in Yangon and Mandalay are
losing their ethno-national identity and language skills. Finally yet
importantly, Kachin nationalists bemoan the government-supported
Myanmar Buddhist Sangha expanding even to the furthest corners of
Wunpawng Mungdan while they assert that authorities simultaneously
restrict the building of new Kachin churches.
As is common in patriarchal nationalisms, of which contemporary
Kachin ethno-nationalism is one, a particular site of populational and
‘racial’ vulnerability is believed to be the female body. This, too, is
embroiled in popular understandings of a covert strategy to destroy
the Kachin nation (see also Nhkum Bu Lu and Jenny Hedström, this
volume). The many unpunished rapes committed by soldiers in the
War and Peace in the Borderlands of Myanmar
230
Myanmar Army, an increased hardening of attitudes towards inter-ethnic
marriages beyond the Wunpawng myusha, and the trafficking of Kachin
women to China have all been a part of this analysis.35 Wunpawng
women’s marriages to Burman men are believed to be encouraged by the
military government in a secret strategy to Burmanise the population.
As in Karen and other minority societies, alleged Myanmar Army docu-
ments are circulated as proof about a system of rewards given to Burman
soldiers for marrying ethno-national minority women.36
Moreover, the vast majority of Kachin social elites, students, and
activists that I talked to are convinced that the drug use epidemic among
the Kachin population is being consciously organised and encouraged
by military strategists of the regime aiming to destroy a new young
generation of potential revolutionaries and to weaken the Kachin nation
from within. One of their main claims is that the Myanmar police delib-
erately do not stop or arrest ethnic Kachin drug users. This perception
is wide-spread, even though many non-Kachins in the region are equally
addicted and unprosecuted; the drug market is flooded from large-scale
production centres in the region; the deep corruption of the Myanmar
police force could explain its lack of anti-drug action more directly; and
Myanmar police have actually arrested and jailed at least some Kachin
drug users. Thus, this popular analysis expresses, again, the broader
overall theoretical assumption that the regime is conspiring against
the Wunpawng nation specifically. Such broad assumptions stem from
decades of personal experiences before, during, and after the ceasefire,
when Myanmar Army and government representatives have with impu-
nity subjected Kachin civilians to abuse, neglect, and routinely aggres-
sive and disrespectful everyday encounters. The chapter by Hkanhpa Tu
Sadan details some of the common experiences that affected people and
undermined their sense of personal security.
35. On the trafficking of women, see KWAT (Kachin Women’s Association Thailand),
‘Driven Away: Trafficking of Kachin Women on the China–Burma Border’
(2005); KWAT (Kachin Women’s Association Thailand), ‘Eastward Bound:
An Update on Migration & Trafficking of Kachin Women on the China–Burma
Border’ (2008); and KWAT (Kachin Women’s Association Thailand), ‘Pushed to
the Brink: Conflict and Human Trafficking on the Kachin-China Border’ (2013).
36. On women’s experiences during the ceasefire years, see the chapter by Nhkum Bu
Lu in this volume.
231
Conspiracy, God’s Plan and National Emergency
In this broader experiential and analytical context, Kachin nation-
alists often view the Myanmar Army’s post–2011 military campaign
against the Kachin Independence Organisation, and the accompanying
horrific abuses and crimes against civilians, as a war ‘against the Kachin
population as a whole’. This is what KIO Chairman Lanyaw Zawng Hkra
himself has claimed, for instance in an open letter to the UN Secretary-
General.37 Some Kachins say the war amounts to ‘ethnic cleansing’.
Perhaps Myanmar military-political elites may actually have little desire
to annihilate, rather than subjugate, non-Burman populations for their
political or economic goals. Nonetheless, after decades of experiencing
the intensely violent, claustrophobic, and terrifying ethno-political
everyday of Myanmar, many alternative explanations of what is going on
may not seem all that ‘obvious’ to native ethno-national leaders, activ-
ists, and the broader population, or to sympathetic outside observers.
For the land yet-to-be
Taken together, all this popularised analysis reaches an overall conclu-
sion about the realities of the ceasefire era. It amounts to this: anhte
Wunpawng myusha (our Kachin nation) has overwhelming reasons
to fear that, through a diverse complex of acute dangers and enemy
plans, our nation will soon be subdued, be slowly exhausted, and will
eventually ‘go extinct’. Those Wunpawng nationalists who to a greater or
lesser extent perceive an ongoing ‘Burman conspiracy’ sometimes call
the ceasefire era reality the cold war or a ‘genocide’ by cunning means.
The way these popular Kachin analyses generalise and deduce from
social realities reflects how deeply all social life in Myanmar is ethno-
politicized and how often people suspect that any event, small or large,
could be part of an ethnocidal regime conspiracy. The depth of these
analyses, feelings, and social worlds are a fact to be taken seriously. That
this should be the prevalent popular analysis of a period of 17 years of
armed peace and relative economic development reflects the scale of
the suffering, hostility, and threat experienced and perceived in Kachin
society during that time. In much of contemporary Wunpawng society,
the given analytical conclusion inspires a sense of emergency and a
determination to resist. In 2011 in Myitkyina, shortly after the war had
37. KNG (Kachin News Group), ‘May 15 KIO Chairman’s Letter to UN General
Secretary Ban Ki-Moon’ (17 May 2012).
War and Peace in the Borderlands of Myanmar
232
re-started, a young activist stunned me, as we sat in her little quarters
joking and chatting, by suddenly uttering her tragic conviction: ‘If we
don’t fight this time, we will all die’.
For many Kachin Baptists, this alarming conclusion is countered
by a theory of and belief in eventual national victory on a longer, more
cosmologically defined time-scale. This theory and belief is premised
on the perceived definitive authority of the Bible, theorised nationalisti-
cally so that Karai Kasang’s (God’s) promise to the Christian Wunpawng
myusha seems evident. For many, religious hope is the source of resolve
and certainty in the correctness of Wunpawng struggles. For the KBC
congregation in particular, the current ethno-national dangers and
continuous human suffering are theorised as the difficult yet temporary
journey to a ‘Kachin Canaan. ‘Wunpawng Hkanan’ is the title of a widely
popular new song and 2013 KBC music video DVD, which documents
the suffering of Kachin villagers displaced by war. Believers pray for such
a land to emerge one day, as ‘God’s plan’ for the Kachin nation unfolds in
perceived cosmological parallels to the Israelites of the Old Testament.
Much of Kachin society now lives daily in a world that combines
national emergency, on the one hand, with collective hope and resist-
ance on the other. In 2014, a 20-year-old Kachin youth told me, with his
body trembling, ‘Sometimes at nights, when I think about the situation
of our Kachin people now, I am crying in my bed’. His anger and sorrow
make him determined to contribute somehow to the national struggle
of anhte Wunpawng myusha. He tells me he wants to become a leader in
this time of national emergency. But Wunpawng historiography, collec-
tive experiences, popular analyses, and broader nationalist theory point
him to entirely different directions than those of lowland Myanmar’s
civilians, democrats, military and state leaders who, agitatedly, perceive
Kachin society as ‘stubborn’ or perhaps ‘too emotional.
The direction that individuals like him are committed to is the de-
mand for ‘liberation’, as in Baptist theological discourses, or ‘revolution’
in line with the discourse of the KIO. Generally, the terms ‘liberation’ and
‘revolution’ are defined as ethno-national independence and restoration
of ownership of the Karai Kasang-given Wunpawng Mungdan. Due to
the popular analysis of the ceasefire era experience, the ongoing military
aggressions, and the dominant historiography of ‘multiple betrayals by
the deceitful Burmans’, many Kachin people now consider it ‘hopeless
233
Conspiracy, God’s Plan and National Emergency
to live together with’ the Myanmar government and Burman people at a
general level. As one KIA battalion leader put it in his speech, now instead,
‘we are asking God directly’ for self-determination.38 KIA soldiers pray
before battle and, since recently, the KBC churches organise monthly
prayer fasts asking for the KIA’s victory and for national independence.
Elderly Kachin women are reported to have prayed aloud in a church
‘Please, God, do not let the KIA waste any of their bullets’, meaning that
each one should find its target in the body of a Tatmadaw.39
Moreover, there are and will be vast social consequences to the on-
the-ground reality that tens of thousands of Kachin villagers have since
the 2011 war lived tightly together in impoverished refugee camps in the
KIO and government territories. Altogether making up a huge fraction
of the whole Kachin population, they have shared among each other
their common stories of displacement, dispossession, and trauma, easily
theorisable as part of a uniting Wunpawng discourse and historiography
of suffering. This communication and unprecedented inter-relating will
likely produce a strengthened Wunpawng ethno-nationalism against an
analytically generalised ‘Burman Other’ and vehemently for a future na-
tion still-to-be-realised, as it has for Karen and other ethnic nationalisms
in the decades-old refugee camps in Thailand.40
Thus, while the KIO at the time of writing refuses a formal new cease-
fire, as it works towards an ethno-nationally federalised Myanmar, there
is a complex social world beyond, where many individuals are ultimately
committed to building for anhte Wunpawng myusha collectively a land
yet-to-be. Participants in this broad social project cultivate a strong
sense of individual responsibility to contribute to the struggle, as one
lives in these ‘times of revolution. In the approach of these people, much
social, educational, artistic, political, military, diplomatic, environmen-
tal, and other work needs to be done now, not only to fight against the
analysed threat of imminent national exhaustion, but also progressively
to prepare ground for a nation-and-country yet-to-be. Some hope that
federalist autonomy, which has since Chairman Maran Brang Seng’s
time been the official goal of the KIO, could merely be a temporary step
38. KNG (Kachin News Group), ‘KIA Trains Arakanese Recruits’ (2 October 2012).
39. Mandy Sadan, pers. comm.
40. Ananda Rajah, ‘A “Nation of Intent” in Burma: Karen Ethno-Nationalism,
Nationalism and Narrations of Nation, The Pacific Review 15, no. 4 (2002).
War and Peace in the Borderlands of Myanmar
234
towards eventual full independence in a pragmatic and ‘more realistic’
systematic strategy. The more independence-minded people envision
various versions of an eventual Wunpawng Mungdan, where Burman
people must apply for residence permits, public life and universities are
run in the Jinghpaw language, business thrives at the juncture of great
China and India, natural resources serve ethno-national development,
and a successful Christian modernity inspires neighbouring countries.
Other self-identified Kachin patriots disagree. They also quietly work
for an envisioned land still-to-be-built, but instead of independence
support ethno-nationally structured federalism as an acceptable and
‘still more realistic’ solution. Sometimes these people worry about the
horrors of a hopeless war with Burma. In 2015, for example, I listened to
a group of critically minded youths condemn the Wunpawng myusha’s
elites for ‘sending other people’s kids to die in war’. Some feel that a fully
independent Wunpawng Mungdan could not prosper, because it is land-
locked and ‘not educated enough yet’. Nonetheless, many of them, too,
disapprove now of overly apolitical attempts to reintroduce a ceasefire.
Altogether, amid the current battles, anger and humanitarian crisis, the
question whether one wants anhte Wunpawng myusha to proceed in
pursuit of full state independence or merely federal autonomy within
Myanmar has become a sensitive, all-but-unvoiced debate inside Kachin
society.
What matters in the context of this chapter, though, is that people’s
positions in this debate have much to do with the strength of their
subscription to the particular analyses and nationalist cosmological
theories explored above. These subscriptions correlate significantly
with the complex religious and ethnic differences inside Kachin society.
There are considerably diverse viewpoints and no uniform ‘the Kachin
perspective’. Today, the dominant theorisations of nation-and-land and
the popular analyses of the ceasefire era as a time of national emergency
direct large parts of Kachin society to commit to the collective national-
ist project for a future homeland, rather than subscribe to a compromis-
ing ceasefire. In a way, these people are subjects of a land-yet-to-be.
What has complicated the signing of a new ceasefire from the Kachin
publics’ side is not only the collective ceasefire era experience in itself,
but what sense people have made of it – in their personal and collective
analyses, within their evolving theoretical frameworks. The argument in
235
Conspiracy, God’s Plan and National Emergency
this chapter highlights the importance of understanding how notions of
collective experiences during the ceasefire era have been formulated and
how they influence present social responses to wider political develop-
ments. The chapter seeks to emphasise how crucial this decades-long
development of popular analyses has been to the collective formulation
and popularisation of generalised understandings about the past, present
and future of ‘Kachin land’. Both contemporary leaders and new gen-
erations of Kachin national subjects continue their analyses and actions
from these grounds. The ‘trust-building’ so often called for in Myanmar
and in other similar conflicts means engaging openly, practically, and
critically not only with traumatic collective experiences (the ‘emotional’
thesis) and with formal political demands (the ‘federalism’ thesis), but
also with the publics’ deeply negative analyses of their social worlds and
with uncomfortably other visions for the homeland yet-to-be.
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see the chapter by Ho Ts'ui P'ing in this volume On the political-geographic dynamics of the KIO-China border and cross-border Jingpo/Kachin interactions, see Karin Dean, 'Mapping the Kachin Political Landscape: Constructing, Contesting and Crossing Borders' , in Exploring Ethnic Diversity in Burma
On China's Jingpo perspectives upon the other side of the Kachin border, see the chapter by Ho Ts'ui P'ing in this volume. On the political-geographic dynamics of the KIO-China border and cross-border Jingpo/Kachin interactions, see Karin Dean, 'Mapping the Kachin Political Landscape: Constructing, Contesting and Crossing Borders', in Exploring Ethnic Diversity in Burma, ed. Mikael Gravers (Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2007); Karin Dean, 'Spaces and territorialities on the Sino–Burmese boundary: China, Burma and the Kachin', Political Geography 24, no. 7 (2005);
Nation of Intent " in Burma: Karen Ethno-Nationalism, Nationalism and Narrations of Nation', The Pacific Review 15
  • Ananda Rajah
Ananda Rajah, ' A " Nation of Intent " in Burma: Karen Ethno-Nationalism, Nationalism and Narrations of Nation', The Pacific Review 15, no. 4 (2002).
Kachin News Group), 'KIA Trains Arakanese Recruits
KNG (Kachin News Group), 'KIA Trains Arakanese Recruits' (2 October 2012).
Struggle over Space in Myanmar: Military State Building and the Kachin Ceasefire', in Autonomy and Armed Separatism: Case Studies from South and Southeast Asia
  • Karin Dean
Karin Dean, 'Struggle over Space in Myanmar: Military State Building and the Kachin Ceasefire', in Autonomy and Armed Separatism: Case Studies from South and Southeast Asia, ed. Michelle Ann Miller (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) Press, 2012).
On post-ceasefire economic development in KIO border towns, see Lanau Roi AungKachin Borderlanders: A Case Study of Laiza Town Along the Yunnan-Myanmar Frontier Area
  • Karin Dean
and Karin Dean, 'Spaces, Territorialities and Ethnography on the Thai-, Sino– and Indo–Myanmar Boundaries', (2011). On post-ceasefire economic development in KIO border towns, see Lanau Roi Aung, 'Kachin Borderlanders: A Case Study of Laiza Town Along the Yunnan-Myanmar Frontier Area' (Unpublished MA thesis, Chiang Mai University, Thailand, 2009); Roi Nu, 'Land Use Pattern Changes after Economic Integration in Mai Ja Yang Village, Kachin State, Myanmar' (Unpublished MA thesis, Khon Kaen University, Thailand, 2009).
Myanmar's Big State Secret
  • Global Witness
Global Witness, 'Jade: Myanmar's Big State Secret' (2015).