Ethnic Issues

In Kachin State, a Place of Merriment Turns to Mourning

By Hnin Yadanar Zaw 24 November 2014

MYITKYINA, Kachin State — On a cold and misty morning last week, a mass of black-clad Kachin mourners gathered at the Manau park grounds, the site of some of the ethnic minority group’s most important festivals.

Manau, in the Kachin State capital of Myitkyina, is considered a sacred space where religious and New Year’s celebrations were held once; a place in years past frequented by fun and dancing. The Manau dance, a tradition of the Kachin people, is performed every year at the park to worship and propitiate the Lamu Madai, or God of the Spirits.

Every year—except the last three years.

With the return of war to northern Burma, Manau has taken on a somber air. It has also become a political space, at times hosting rallies in support of the Kachin resistance.

At last week’s gathering, attendants were silent, their faces portraits of sadness. There was no dancing, only noiseless prayers, in the wake of the most deadly attack in a civil war here that dragged into its fourth year in June.

Several hundred people from various religious organizations, including both the state’s majority Baptists and their Roman Catholic fellow Christians, gathered to mourn at the Manau park grounds on Saturday. The source of their grief was the killing of 23 cadets at a rebel military training academy outside Laiza on Wednesday, when the Burma Army shelled the building, injuring an additional 15 people.

And while none of those killed were ethnic Kachin, mourners offered prayers to their fallen “brothers.”

Mung Gaung, chairman of the Myitkyina Jewelry Association and a member of the Independent Church Home Mission, told The Irrawaddy: “It was an unexpected and great loss for the Kachin people. We will pray for the souls of the brothers who passed away and also for the ones who are still in serious condition in hospital.”

If there is a silver lining to be gleaned from the tragedy, the weekend’s prayer vigil brought together Baptists and Catholics, two communities that, while both Christian, have tended to remain separate.

Khun Zaw, a 24-year-old Kachin military cadet from Laiza, said by phone that the shelling had dimmed hopes for an end to fighting between the two sides.

“I don’t think that we can see a peaceful and reconciled future. It [the attack] happened so fast. We are not going to forget or forgive the incident.”

In addition to the casualties, the attack has added to the ranks of more than 100,000 civilians displaced by the conflict in Kachin State.

“On the 19th in the early morning, the Burma Army attacked and occupied a bunker of the KIA [Kachin Independence Army]. They set fire to it and fell back after that, but people were scared and fled. Some of them have now returned,” said Lamai Gunja, founder of the Kachin Peace Creation Group.

Fighting between the Burma Army and the KIA has continued in Kachin State since a government offensive led to the breakdown of a 17-year ceasefire in mid-2011.

The Burma Army called a press conference on Thursday in Myitkyina, where it claimed the attack and resulting casualties were “unintentional.”

“We feel very sorry for this loss of life, and we hope the peace process will not be affected,” said Col. Than Aung, minister of border security in Kachin State.

The minister offered few details and declined to say who was responsible for the decision to shell the academy, which he described as an attempt to “send a warning” after the two sides clashed earlier this month.

Gen. Khun Naung, a KIA public relations officer, told The Irrawaddy that the incident had damaged an already fragile trust.

“We don’t believe anything they say anymore,” he said, while gazing off toward the distant Himalayan foothills.

“We can never build trust.”