Ethnic Issues

From the Archive: Reflections on Kachin History

By Carlos Sardina Galache 29 February 2016

Feb. 29, 2016 — Baptist Rev. Ja Gun passed away on Monday morning in Laiza, Kachin State. The 70-year-old, a prominent Kachin historian and linguist, was known to have chronic high blood pressure and diabetes. His funeral will be held on Tuesday in Myitkyina. With the sad news of his passing, The Irrawaddy revisits an interview with Rev. Ja Gun that was first published in July 2012.

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 Independence 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 the Burmese government as well as the main stumbling blocks towards attaining peace and reconciliation from a Kachin perspective.

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

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.

There seems to be a sense of 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?

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 [the rule of] 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 Shan 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 Kachin as wild people. So they totally ignored us.

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

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 Kachin, 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.

During World War II, the Kachin 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?

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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

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.