Reflections on Kachin History

Baptist Rev. Ja Gun in Laiza, Kachin State. (Photo: Carlos Sardiña Galache / The Irrawaddy)

LAIZA—Baptist Rev. Ja Gun is one of the most prominent historians and linguists in Kachin State. Educated at the University of Rangoon during the 1960-70s, a period of great student activism in which he took part, he now tutors Kachin Independent Organization (KIO) soldiers about local political history and endeavors to change “their worldview, which in the past has been limited by the Burmese curriculum.” Speaking to The Irrawaddy in late June, Ja Gun discussed the historical roots of the present conflict between the KIO and Burmese government as well as the main stumbling blocks towards attaining peace and reconciliation from a Kachin perspective.

Question: Can start with the pre-colonial era. What was the relationship like back then between the Kachin people and Burmese Kingdom in Mandalay?

Answer: The Kachin people were living between the Burmese Kingdom and the Chinese Kingdom—we were sandwiched between these two powers. Whenever the Burmese kings wanted to cross to China, they had to consult with the Kachin chiefs first. We are living in this buffer zone and, since time immemorial, the Kachin people controlled this borderland.

We had an off-and-on relationship with the Burmese kings. Sometimes the strong rulers came to our land and then conquered Mougong and Bhamo, just the lowlands. In former times, the Kachin people were mercenaries. Kachin people had the advantage that they could adapt to this weather, this situation and this mountain region. The Burmese soldiers had good weapons, but it was very difficult for them to overcome the natural hindrances. Whenever there was a war those who made an alliance with the Kachin won.

Q: There seems to be a sense superiority among the Burmese majority towards the ethnic minorities, like the Kachin or the Karen, who they call hill tribes. What do you think are the origins of this?

A: The Burmese were very much proud of the fact that they had kings and the Kachins were very aggressive and the fact was that we never have been subjected to any people, neither Chinese nor Burmese. The British were the first who conquered the Kachin people. The Kachin were always fighting, sometimes fighting within and sometimes fighting their enemies.

The Shans civilized first and the Kachin people tried to adopt the Shan civilization and our terminology is loaned from the Shan, and we learned the farming of the wet lands from the Shan people. The Burmese kings had no intention to control the Kachin because they regarded the Kachins as wild people. So they totally ignored us.

Q: Let’s move to the colonial times. How did the British change Burma and the Kachin?

A: British Burma and the Burmese Kingdom were quite different things. The kingdom of the Burmese kings was very limited—they could not rule the whole of Kachin State, Wa State, Karenni State and the others—they just ruled central Burma. So the British conquered all these places because they wanted to make a fence for the Indian sub-continent.

During the resistance to British advances in 1886 we didn’t find any Burmese commanders resisting, but all the Kachin rulers resisted the occupation at that time. The Burmese throne, in the hands of King Thibaw, had been withdrawn in 1885, so the British thought that they had automatically won Kachin State. But as soon as they arrived the Kachin chiefs resisted the British and finally the British learnt that we, the Kachins, were not the property of the Burmese king.

So our feeling today is that joining the Union is a voluntary association. Shan, Kachin and other ethnic minorities had their own history, their own home, their land, their own native language before colonial rule. And then, at the time of the British government, the British organized all those ethnic minorities in our land and made British Burma.

Q: During World War II, the Kachins fought alongside the British while the Burmese spent most of the conflict alongside the Japanese under the leadership of Gen Aung San. How did this affect relations between the Kachin and Burmese?

A: The Kachin and the Chin peoples were sympathizers of the Allied Forces, so Aung San and his Burmese Independence Army (BIA) came up during Japanese rule and killed many Kachin people because they accused them of being the stooges of foreign imperialism. I have many records of this. They used Japanese guns everywhere. Until 1944, the BIA came to villages and made trouble for the Kachin people.

It’s a funny thing to say that the BIA liberated Burma from Japanese occupation. The Allied Forces and the Kachin, the northern Kachin rangers, expelled all the Japanese in conjunction with some hill peoples. The Burmese and Shan sided with the Japanese. The Kachin rangers celebrated Panam Manaw festivities after the victory in Bhamo on March 24-26, 1945, and Aung San started the anti-Japanese movement in Rangoon the day after on March 27. So they were only involved for two or three months.

Because of the victory against Japanese occupation, the Kachin people were the main race to talk about political matters because we had the upper hand in our land—that is, in the transitional period. There were no Burmese troops there at that time, only Kachin troops. At the Victory Manaw, the Kachin leaders invited Aung San and his anti-fascist people. They came up and met with us and then we agreed to join for independence.

Q: In 1947, the Kachins signed the Panglong Agreement with other groups. Did the civilian government of U Nu respect the agreement?

A: After the death of Aung San, U Nu maintained the Panglong spirit, but the greatest loss of all for us was the U Nu-Attlee Agreement. With the Panglong Agreement we attained equality, but the ethnic minorities had no wisdom at that time. The U Nu-Attlee Agreement was very important because it transferred all the power to U Nu’s AFPFL [Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League] including defense and financial matters.

With the 1948 Constitution, the big parties like the AFPFL controlled the whole Parliament and with the U Nu-Attlee Agreement the Rangoon government received all properties and power from the British government.

Q: The KIO was created in 1961. What happened at that moment and why was it created then?

A: At that time, representation of ethnic minorities in the constituent assembly was very limited. With the 1948 Constitution, the Burmese government manipulated the ethnic minorities by controlling representatives in Parliament. The first disadvantages came when we transferred some Kachin villages to China.

Kachin people, especially Kachin students, opposed that transfer but due to the Constitution we had no voice because our representation was very limited. And the second problem was the state religion. In our Constitution we wanted separation between church and state but U Nu used Buddhism for his political manipulations. We did not hate the Buddhists, we hated his manipulation of Buddhism in political affairs.

Our promise in the Panglong Agreement was fairness and fundamental rights— protection of minorities, equality, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and fundamental democracy. That’s what we included in the Panglong Agreement. But with the 1948 Constitution U Nu tried to manipulate the law and then, due to these two facts—the state religion and the transfer of power—there would be no hope in Parliament for the Kachin people.

So we started our armed struggle on Feb. 5, 1961. Until now, we want to talk about political matters first. No ceasefire agreement, no development programs—we don’t need these programs. We have to start talking about political matters as our problems have been rooted in political issues since the Panglong Agreement.

Q: At the beginning of the KIO’s existence, the Kachin wanted independence but then, in the 1970s, they changed and started to demand autonomy. Why did they change their stance from independence to autonomy?

A: We realized we would not attain our fundamental goal, so we would talk conditionally about internal self-determination. Our independence, deep in our hearts, is non-negotiable but because of our conditions—we are landlocked—and also due to our neighboring countries, our military strength and our leadership, we need to adapt to survive.

At that time, socialist governments tended to get together. The same happened in the Soviet Union, in Yugoslavia, and also in the Western bloc. People everywhere were getting together so we tried to switch and make alliances with other groups—the Karen, the Chin, the Rakhine. So we wanted to ally with them and promote their political position as well. And our ultimate goal will probably be full independence.

Q: Do you think that a compromise between the Burmese and Kachin is more likely with Thein Sein in power than with former junta chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe? With this so-called transition to democracy?

A: We expect in the near future that there will be internal strife within Thein Sein’s government. Maybe Thein Sein one day will understand the problem of the ethnic minorities. Suu Kyi understands our situation and Thein Sein maybe understands it but it is a very difficult situation because of the very different political cultures.

We are democratic but they want to establish a Burman hegemony—Burman dominant rule, that’s their political culture. People who live outside Myanmar understand this, that unless they change their political culture it is very difficult to reconcile with each other.

If the Burmans change their political culture, we will reconcile. Suu Kyi’s position is good to reconcile one day. We do not want to dominate the Burmans, we want to defend our land that is associated with our history, our identity and even our religion in the older times.

Q: What do you think is the main obstacle to attaining reconciliation with the Burmans?

A: The main stumbling block is the military, the military regime. The military regime is the replacement of the Burmese kings. Their attitude is to replace the Burmese kings, and the Burmese kings regarded us as wild men—they didn’t consider us as a people.


25 Responses to Reflections on Kachin History

  1. “A must read” and know by all people in Burma about the “Ture History” of Burma and Kachin. Especially who have never had chance to study the true history in Burma just except the Burmese government’s Propaganda and brainwashing,fake and made up history.
    Read it accept it when it is true and fact.

    “Learning history is not to stupid” Dr. Tan Tun

  2. I hope all the Burmese people will realize our stand on the political ..there is only one we need is freedom.. we can be friends and good neighbor but it is impossible to let you lead our family. This is our right to lead our family ourselves..

  3. Well done my friend Ja Gun. You have disclosed many true facts, but not complete. I understand it may be due to lack of time or excluded some important facts by the authour. I personally eyewitnessed how the BIA killed Kachins at our village near Lashio Town when I was about 3 years old. I still remember how they bayonetted the whole family (7 members) because the father did not allow the Burmese soldiers to rape his daughter. I am now 73 now. Oh…it was 70 year ago|

    •  Dear Ali Tanggoon
      Sanction from USA is lifted with the effort of DASSK . Japan , US and world bank will lend huge amount of money to thein sein. You should be a witness to demand compensation for Kachin’s rape victims from bama army (BIA). Otherwise, thein sein will use this huge amount of money to buy arms for killing more ethnics. DASSK still does not address her opinion regarding to ethnic issue, even on Ping Long agreement.
      I stress  that it is a real sad story and we , all has been cheated by Bama army and government since Bama independence, not Burma independence , mainly created by Kachin. 
      One  blames that colony  introduction or dominance of Chritianity  in Kachin creats  mess in Kachin ethnic issue because  he or she  might forget the freedom of relegious belief or right in civilised Kachin people. Bama Thi-baw king is half-Shan does not mean anything to cool down the bama army cruelty on ethnics as well as all ethnics’ bad feeling on bama army’s disgusting reputation. Bama king had a lot of wives ( various ethnics) what he wanted to pick up his ladies for wives with force or without force. Thi-baw’s mother (Shan) might be the most beautiful  among all queens at that time. Thi-baw killing  his all brothers was personal issue, not discrimination of bama at that time. One said DASSK’s mother has Karen’s blood but DASSK still does not clearly address on ethnics issue, especially Ping long agreement. I do not believe that DASSK does not know the content of Ping long agreement , like me when i was young.  One said she is busy with others and can not answer well in Harvard university on question  regarding to ethnic issue. I warn that it is not a good sign for all ethnics.

      Dear Ali,Take care of your health as you are the most important witness in future documentary film.

  4. Thanks for this interview. It is good to learn about Kachin’s history and view about their condition. Hope that military will grow some human brain and start opening their eyes and heart. It is true that military view ethnic groups as wild people and need to submit to burman rule. Keeping that stance will not help anyone. As a Burmese, I want to say that regardless of ethnic, we are all equal. Religion and state must be separated. Hope we can evolve to that higher level in future and stay in peace.

  5. First off: I was also educated at Rangoon Arts & Science University from 1963 to 1967. (it wasn’t called Rangoon University in the 60’and the 70’s)

    I agree the “ethnic issue” is complicated and very messy (the young blue-eyed (naive) human rights workers (NGO, INGO, UNHCR, whatever) don’t quite get it, because it’s difficult for them to understand the whole socio=historical framework). By the way, the last King of Burma Thibaw was half-Shan, so even before the colonial period, this “ethnic issue” is not a simple black and white thing. Besides, Christianity was introduced to Burma mainly during the colonial period (although there were a number of Portuguese “gunners and canoniers” who fought for Burmese kings, like Tabin-shwe-hti)
    My advice for everyone living in Burma in the 21st century:
    THINK GLOBAL AND STOP ACTING TRIBAL

    • well at least Christianity brought us in to light from darkness. We were no more than Barbarian but today even the evilest Burmese Government can’t fool to us already. That we need to thank to Christian. Els I would speak only Burmese in this day already. Even Burmese also don’t want to Speak Chinese in their homeland isn’t it. We don’t want to speak Burmese as official language in Kachin. We still have our on dignity. Yes we will accept Globalisation but that doesn’t mean we will be stupidest.

    •  Norman Hla wrote:

      You might blame that colony  introduction or dominance
      of Christianity  in Kachin
      created  mess in Kachin ethnic issue. I do
      not agree with  you because you  might
      forget the freedom of religious belief or right in civilized Kachin people.
      Bama Thi-baw king is half-Shan but  it does
      not mean anything to cool down the bama army cruelty on ethnics as well as all
      ethnics’ bad feeling on bama army’s disgusting reputation.  Ethnic has no feeling of honor from bama king
      in this history (Thi-baw has Shan blood) in view of long decade of ethnic suffering until now.

      Bama king had a lot of wives ( various ethnics) what he
      wanted to pick up his ladies for wives with force or without force. Thi-baw’s
      mother (pure Shan) might be the most beautiful  among all queens at that
      time. Thi-baw killing  his all brothers was personal issue, not
      discrimination of bama at that time. One said DASSK’s mother has Karen’s blood
      but DASSK still does not clearly address on ethnics issue, especially Ping long
      agreement. I do not believe that DASSK does not know the content of Ping long
      agreement , like me when i was young.  One said she is busy with others.
      It is not a good sign for all ethnics. Without solving the ethnics issue , US
      should not be in hurry to lift the sanction on thein sein and than sein.  After lifting the economic sanction,  the loans from Japan, world bank and US will
      enforce  thein sein to buy more arm to kill all ethnics.  Bama region will be more prosperous because Kachin
      area and all ethnic regions are in fighting so it is not safe to rehabilitate
      the ethnic economy from the loans.

      The loan will go to Nay-pyi -daw , bama king palace and than
      sein can pick up one Kachin wife for production of future king. Bama and Bama
      army are more stronger and stronger than before although next future king might
      be  fortunately supposed to be
      half-Kachin.  I stress you that than shwe’s
      marrying or picking Kachin lady for his wife does not mean anything for all
      ethnics , especially Kachin. It is not a great honor for all ethnics by favored
      by bama king.  If you do not mean in the
      way that bama king favored  or honored  upon ethnics by picking Shan lady for
      wife  with or without force in history,  please, make clear or clarify your meaning
      again.

      I understand that UNHCR or the world is now very clear to
      know about the bama army bad attitude on ethnics , the real content of ping
      long agreement and late Aung san’s kyat slogan as all historians and UNHCR  are not naïve. You can say UN (paper made
      tiger ) has no power to take action on than sein and than shwe for the time
      being because of China and Russia.  Don’t
      blame too much on China again who is now copying US, UK past unethical behavior before and
      just after world war 2. UK made a mess in India (Kashmir issue ) just after world war 2 and US made a
      mess in recent small Diaoyu island dispute between  China and Japan. 

  6. This is just what we don’t need.
    Going back into history of hate and blaming.
    Let it go. The past won’t help us anymore.
    This time we’ve got to get it right.
    Dwelling on the past will not help anyone.
    This is important if we really mean business.
    Lay the cards on th table.
    Let the ones who are on centre stage do the talking.
    Not the ones who are in the background trying to look important.
    Let the Kachin Leaders and the Government leaders do the talking.
    Make it simple. For God’s sake don’t go back into the past.
    Nobody can gain from it.Only the trouble makers.
    The Government has shown goodwill so has the Kachin leaders.
    Laos is the Venue. Give them a chance.
    Let’s all help in the positive way.
    I call upon the Irawaddy to let bygones be bygones and don’t publish the negative way of thinking of the past.

    • You mean that Good will? We shown our good will and try to negotiate with stupidest person in Burma Government already many times. U Aung Taung. You guys are the one who Dragging us back to History. Burman said that Kachin was under Burma since the King era but we say no by the evidence of history. What is wrong with Burmese People. They never want to give back our home land authority to the owner. Who the hell you think you are to hold our freedom and sell our state to your pa pa China.

    • Well, we’re not dwelling but we, Kachin must remember what happened in the past and how to survive, live, create and protect for ours. We don’t destroy Burmese dignity. We didn’t! Mostly, we just want to be friendly. We helped as much as we can. Our Kachin children, the generations of Kachin must speak Kachin, inherit Kachin culture till the world end.

      I’ve grown up and spent mostly in lower-Burma.

      Ask yourself first! Why many Burmese like “Thiha Tin Soe” and his films? How the Japanese threaten, how did Burmese girls, women are being raped by Japanese and Chit-tee?

      We, Kachin must never forget what really happened in the past and what is happening.

      But one thing for sure, I believe, we Kachin will never allow to build a nation with full of hatred, racist and terrorist.

      Please, Burmese people, just go back to your land. The place where you belong. Let’s behave. Let’s cooperate.

      If this, our generation can’t create a better solution, there will be All out war for many generations. Many trauma healing NGOs will station in our Kachinland and your Burmanland. The Union will be teared off by giant or chaos like pieces. Bloodshed will reveal. Some Religious based terrorist will suck Western and Central Burmanland.

  7. Dumb burma nationalization had planed since 1946.
    I do not think burma had loyality kingdom.Realize? it must a question.
    Where were those kings come from?

  8. I am highly appreciating and approving what Rev. Ja Gum has mentioned because all of the movement which ethnic tribal people have implemented is not to dominate other people but to achieve their own autonomous determination and dignity. Therefore, as a Lahu tribal people,I totally approve all of Rev. Ja Gum has said.

  9. To those who talks about positive view on the present transition to democracy do you know the meaning of democracy and its history, it comes out from many many negative view of militarism, yours is a biased voice or by standers’ voice, to make a trick on the reality. You just thought about view on others but not on your security. But we think about the security of people and the reality of the people. So the current issues for us are never just looked around by views, it must be see the reality including democracy which is not the end or the best as it is being said today, or you will see it is useless as long as you just hold on with that positive view. Instead it must see the reality, not just structure or programs of democracy but ask whether people really feel them or understand them and if not, try to go beyond them. Ask them to your kins first and then to us.

  10. Excellent, excellent interview. Credit to the interviewer and Rev. Ja Gum whose view would be the dominant opinion of the current Kachin leadership as well as majority Kachin people.

    As events unfolded thus far, Kachin leadership is somewhat fortunate to be able to keep this pure spirit and courage.

    “No ceasefire agreement, no development programs—we don’t need these programs.”

    No one in KNU can say these words now. Most Karen people as well as some in KNU leadership, especially younger ones, would be for “Development” first or “Development” at any cost including their own identity, let alone culture. For, they vie superficial financial status of the Thai’s and their modern day bells and wistles and to achieve that they swallow all Bs from these Burmese liers- Thein Sein, Aung Min, etc.

    “..The military regime is the replacement of the Burmese kings.”

    The place is called “Nay Pyi Daw”. All Burmese love it. The place of King. King owns all Waters and Land.”Ye-Myae-Shin”. The Burmese military firmly believes in that. They have, in the last 20 years especially, sold that idea to the chauvinistic Burmse populace who think they are better than others just as much. And that is the real problem combined with the Burmese military’s long and ignoble tradition of inhumane and ruthless acts.

    It is not only the military but the Burmese populace who need to think hard to really understand that they are not even their own masters, let alone masters of other races as they fool themselves to be.

    In short distance future that very fact may be reinforced by a true jihad as that very chauvinistic trait acted out with ruthlessness and cruelty in acts and words is calling for such reaction without any opening for peaceful recource.

    Ungent soul searching and corrective action is required for the peaceful existance of Burma rathern than going along with the BS of the military like Aung ASan Suu Kyi is doing now.

  11. When we look back the whole story, it is only painful and sorrow. We all are right in our stand and point of views. We have to look out the current situation , it is totally difference from the past. In the past all of the ethnic minorities were living separately with the Burmese people. Now a day we all mix up and living together. It is totally not the same. We have to accept the situation that we face, wither we like it or not.

    As for ethnic right? The majority Burmese people need to handle cleverly and patiently. The previous government and current government always mention about national unity but they are the one who against national unity. They are the one who persecuted all of the ethnic minority.

    Lets look at under U Thein Sein addministration, there were no one from Christian ethnic minorities in Minister or Deputy Miniser post. At the same time ,there were no one at the national guard Army from about Col to General. Can we still believed this so called national unity. It is hard to believed.

    • Sad but true!

      The fact is Ko Khine, Burmese people are either stupid or evil to support Thein Sein or swallow his outright lies, again and again, hoping for their own benefit (crumbs thrown their way) while the reality is that some people will get filthy rich with selling out the country but majority will simply disappear from public view suffering and dying silently. The press (“media people” they like to call themselves) is a joke.

  12. Ja Gun wrote “It’s a funny thing to say that the BIA liberated Burma from Japanese occupation. The Allied Forces and the Kachin, the northern Kachin rangers, expelled all the Japanese in conjunction with some hill peoples. The Burmese and Shan sided with the Japanese. The Kachin rangers celebrated Panam Manaw festivities after the victory in Bhamo on March 24-26, 1945, and Aung San started the anti-Japanese movement in Rangoon the day after on March 27. So they were only involved for two or three months.”

    After reading above paragraph, i feel chilling to know that Kachin is the real hero for gaining Burmese independence. Kachin invited Aung San for initiation of Panglong agreement. How British colony was in low class(low ethical and moral) at that time in setting Nu-Attlee agreement( it might be related to the death of General Aung san as the killing machine guns to Gen. AS were from under the care of British major). Why and how Buddhist mania late U nu was notorious especially in acting cruelty on Kachin. We all have been cheated by Bama governments’history book since very young.
    In short,all bama governments and military are jealous to Kachin so than sein and thein sein want to clean and kill all Kachin to cover up the truth of Burmese history as possible as they can.
    I can tell you one sentence for Kachin people that you are “not the wild” from the very beginging. You,all Kachin are brave, wise, educated with full of dignity and beautiful heart and mind. You, Kachin plays the most crucial role to gain the Burmese independence and leading initiative of Panglong agreement. Please, save and show more evidences of Kachin’s role in Burmese history. “Hollywood” should make many movies about Kachin people and leaders. The movie will be named “who is wild and who is not wild”
    Dear Ja gun,
    Be strong and take care about your safety. I want you to appear in the Hollywood documentary movie.

  13. Kachin history in one page? No referrences,no sources, teaching to soldiers or brain wash or propaganda? Please save IDPs Jesus Christ.

    If La Nan thinks one side will win this war, he or god must be crazy.

  14. As a neutral commentator(as I am from Manipur), this interview is indeed enlightening & a must read.

  15. The old man is still living in the past, he should wake up and move on..now….. is 21 century with greater togetherness……  the past is gone and seek the realistic solution.. enormous sorry for Kachin people if they only have leaders like him….

  16. The old man is still living in the past, he should wake up and move on..now….. is 21 century with greater togetherness……  the past is gone and seek the realistic solution.. enormous sorry for Kachin people if they only have leaders like him….

  17. A Bama to the core, I honestly side with Mr Ga Jum.
    We have got to understand the Kachins if we are to live with them and they with us.
    This is true of every other ethnic group.
    We must stop being racists, or crazy nationalists, the extreme religious, royalists or militarists. Forbearance is the watch word.   Above all, we must stop this horrible hate propaganda, which generated only more and more problems, in stead of solving the present ones.  We owe some thing or many hings to each other. 
    Let rule of law and peace be the rule for all ethnic categories, in every nook and corner of our country.
    Let us not see the hateful war any longer.

  18. This side is Very Good .Thank
    you so much.Bye

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