The Kachin are a people that inhabit the eponymous Kachin State within Burma. They are a majority Christian people in a majority Buddhist area. The Kachin state is a mountainous area and historically the Kachin have been separate from the majority of Burma. Under the British Empire the Kachin were given a large degree of autonomy. Many Kachin fought for the UK in World War One and World War Two, it was British colonial policy to preference minorities such at the Kachin, Karen and Shan over the majority ethnic Burmese.
Many ethnic Burmese supported the Japanese invasion during World War Two. Whilst most Kachin supported the British. In return for this support the Kachin were promised that they would have autonomy and a right to govern their own affairs after the war ended. To this day many Kachin feel a strong sense of solidarity with Britain.
To repay this promise; Clement Attlee, insisted to Burmese Nationalist leader Aung San that Britain would not support his attempts to lead an independent Burma unless he guaranteed protections for ethnic minorities such as the Kachin. Attlee went further and insisted that Aung San gain the consent of the Kachin, Karen, and Shan. This was achieved at the Panglong Conference in 1947 when the Kachin agreed to become part of an independent Union of Burma. Aung San however was assassinated six months after independence. After this, successive Burmese leaders sought to undermine the federalist principles of the Panglong Conference and centralise power. Furthermore, during the 50s Prime Minister U Nu signed away several traditionally Kachin areas to China and in 1961 he declared that Buddhism was the state religion – which further alienated the Christian Kachin.
In 1962 U Nu was deposed in a military coup by General Ne Win. Ne Win officially ended the 1947 Constitution, further centralising control in Yangon. Most ethnic Kachin in the Burmese military defected on masse and formed the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) – intending to defend the Kachin State from Burmese oppression. From 1962-1994 the KIA controlled much of the Kachin State, they were particularly powerful in the rural areas, whilst the cities were the subject of urban warfare comparable to the troubles in Northern Ireland. A ceasefire signed in 1994 ended open hostilities temporarily.
After 17 years hostilities erupted again in 2011. Many Kachin had become increasingly disenchanted at what they saw as a poor leadership in Yangon, with an inability to deal with the rampant poverty and crime across Burma. The 2008 Constitution was also interpreted as threatening because it cemented the Burmese Army’s control over civilian affairs. But the final straw was the insistence that the KIA integrate into the regular Army, this was seen as a power grab that would effectively cripple the Kachin’s ability to resist the central government.
Since 2011 there has been intense fighting between the Tatmadaw (Burmese Army) and the KIA. Over 100,000 people have become internally displaced people (IDP’s). Many Kachin sought refuge behind the KIA lines on the border with China, but many more are kept in temporary accommodations in Burmese Government controlled areas. These temporary accommodations are kept separate from ethnic Burmese areas and are essentially shanty towns that are overcrowded, with little to no privacy and disease and drug problems rampant.
Whilst Burma made efforts to return to civilian control in 2015, in 2021 the Tatmadaw reasserted their authority and removed the Burmese civilian government. The KIA however were able to take advantage of this chaos to regain control of the city of Alawpum that was lost in 2016. The Burmese Government has been launching air strikes since 2021; whilst the KIA lack an air force they have had some success are repelling these assaults.
The KIA are a popular group that are seen as the defenders of the Kachin people. The Kachin feel that over the last 60 years they have been subjected to a policy of “Burmanisation” whereby all ethnic minorities are having their cultures degraded with the intent of homogenising the populace inline with the majority Burmese, Buddhist, culture. Some Kachin see this as colonisation on the part of the Burmese, for example the Burmese government often erect Buddhist Pagoda’s in majority Christian or Islamic areas. This attempt to degrade and destroy Kachin culture, as with the treatment of the Karen, Shan and Rohingya, is in line with the UN’s position on genocide. This has the effect of increasing ethnic tensions between the Burmese and Kachin and is part of a general populist divide and rule policy the Tatmadaw have used.
There is however cause for hope. Since the February 2021 coup, many young Burmese have taken to the streets to oppose the Tatmadaw. Many more have begun to recognise the shared oppression they experience with ethnic minorities in Burma, and it is hoped that a new generation of Burmese and Kachin can work together to fix the mistakes of the past. For most Kachin, the long-term aspiration is of an independent state. Before the British, they were never ruled by China or Burma, and largely managed their own affairs. However in the short term the goal is that the promises made to the British and Kachin in 1947 are honoured by the Burmese government.
As with the Rohingya, the persecution of the Kachin by the Burmese Government is wholesale and ongoing. The British Government must insist that as with the people of Hong Kong the promise made by the Burmese Government at the end of colonialism are honoured. We have a responsibility to protect and support the Kachin people’s aspirations for freedom and sovereignty. Since February 2021 there have been sanctions against coup-leader Min Aung Hlaing, these include a travel ban and asset seizure. Under Magnitsky legislation these sanctions must extend to all members of the Tatmadaw who have carried out attacks on the Kachin, Rohingya, Shan, Karen and all ethnic minorities in Burma.
With thanks to Hkanhpa Sadan and the Kachin Relief Fund for their help on researching this article.
Jonathan Wallcroft – NEC Member Labour Campaign for International Development