The fighting in Burma/Myanmar continues. The Rohingya are still in danger, as almost 700,000 of them have fled from their homes into refugee camps along the border of Bangladesh. However, now the Burmese military has shifted many of their efforts back to the Kachin, another ethnic minority that resides in the northern parts of the country, near China. They began this offensive in December of 2017, and since then the military has pushed further, driving thousands out of their homes and into the jungle. This is the same military that has received worldwide criticisms not only for the targets of their aggressive expansions, but also the way in which they have historically conducted warfare — rape as a weapon, killing mass amounts of children, and burning off the faces of dead civilians before throwing them in mass graves, just to name a few of their methods.
The Rohingya and the Kachin are both ethnic minorities in the fringe areas of Burma, but they are quite different. One major difference is in religion — the Kachin are, for the most part, Christian. Some estimates say that 95% of them are Christian (prior to the introduction of Christianity in the 20th century, many were animist). There is sometimes a social rift from local Buddhist nationals and groups of other religions — the Rohingya Muslims are often seen as foreigners, despite the fact that they have resided in Burma for generations. A large part of this is due to their religion. Similarly, the Kachin’s Christianity, which has exploded in popularity in the last decade, has created some undercurrents of a perceived loyalty to western culture, as opposed to traditional Burmese Buddhist culture — though the Kachin themselves would claim to adhere to their own religion of choice, what they consider to be a sort of global Christianity. However, religion is not a fundamental driving factor in these conflicts, as there are plenty of Buddhists that suffer at the hands of the government as well (and many, many Buddhists have criticized the government’s actions against minorities of all religions). Still, it it would be disingenuous to say that it is not a factor at all.
While most of the Kachin people live in Burma, they are a tribal people who aren’t necessarily all in one place. Approximately 590,000 of them live in Burma, while another 120,000 live in China over the border. By the end of the 20th century, there was an estimated 712,000 Kachin people in total. Estimates like this can be difficult to prove, and some say there are up to a million Kachin in Burma.
Kachin state is largely mountainous and covered in jungle. They live off of rice and grow food as well as gather and hunt in the jungle, where they can find deer and other animals. They can cook together quite a variety of meals with what limited resources they typically have.
Healthcare is extremely lacking in Kachin State, especially now that the fighting has escalated. Even when the fighting is at a standstill or a cease-fire has been signed, the Burmese military finds ways to keep the ethnic states from building and developing infrastructure. This keeps their population continuously fighting battles that ought to be relatively easy to win — things like malaria prevention, diarrhea and access to antibiotics are things that the Burmese government can use to keep the ethnic states, Kachin State included, from really gaining a successful foothold in their own growth as a unified group.
The Kachin Independence Army (KIA) is the armed militant group that works for the governmental organization known as the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO). They get a lot of their funding through illicit means — some drug trafficking, some trade through China with precious jewels and lumber, such as teak wood. They have an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 active duty soldiers, and claim to have more reservists, but again, these numbers can be difficult to accurately track.
The fighting between the KIA and the Burmese military has been going on since 1960. Many of the soldiers fighting in this conflict have extensive combat experience, as do their fathers. There was a time of relative peace between the Kachin and the Burmese government — from 1994 to 2011, a 17 year long cease-fire stood, but was broken as the Burmese military restarted their campaign against the Kachin.
The Burmese government considers the KIA a terrorist organization, and many of their state-sponsored media groups attempt to paint them in this light, as they have done with the Rohingya.
In the month of May, local (non officially state-sponsored) Burmese news outlets estimated that approximately 3,000 Kachin were “trapped in conflict zones amid clashes between the Myanmar Army (or Tatmadaw) and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in Kachin State.” Many of these people are taking shelter in churches around the state; some are in the jungle at this moment.
Some don’t even have the opportunity to leave. One refugee on the run said that, “We want to flee, but the military won’t let us. We are short of food, and want to move to a safe place.”
Featured image courtesy of the Associated Press.