War Without End
The Kachin are a confederacy of peoples united by a complex clan system. They live in the mountainous, northern region of Southeast Asia, which includes parts of Assam (northwest India), Yunnan Province (southern China), and Kachin State (northern Burma). Kachin State covers an area of 33,903 square miles and has an estimated population of 1.2 million Kachin, as well as many other peoples of varying ethnic backgrounds. The name Kachin was given to them by other groups (Shans, Chinese, Burmans, British). At first they resented it, as it was an ethnic slur with the connotation "wild man," but over time they have come to accept it as a convenient, shorthand term; it is now even used with pride by the Jingphaw and other allied clans of the confederacy.
A Resilient People
The high, rugged mountains of Kachin State are part of the eastern Himalaya Mountains, which stretch through northern Burma and Thailand, Yunnan, Laos, and northern Vietnam to the South China Sea. In these mountains live a great variety of ethnic minority groups (for instance, the Karen, Hmong, and Yao in Thailand) whose lifestyles have much in common with the Kachin's, although each group has unique, distinguishing features and languages.
Over many centuries these groups, and others before them, moved southward in a steady, generational migration, pushed by demographic and political pressures. In European history, the general movements of populations under similar constraints have been from east to west. In Asia, by comparison, the slow migrations have been from the Asian heartlands southward and even through the Southeast Asian peninsula. This trend continues to the present day, and has even been intensified by the Communist regime's rise in China in 1949 and the subsequent geopolitical contests of the superpowers in Southeast Asia. The ongoing civil war in Burma, now entering its fifth decade, has also forced many ethnic groups to flee from its savageries eastward, into Thailand.
Until about 50 years ago, the Kachin, like other highlanders of Southeast Asia, practiced subsistence farming in the mountains. They grew "dry" rice, maize and other vegetables, and cotton for clothing. On the often steeply sloping, densely forested slopes, they used the technique of shifting cultivation (also known as swiddening or slash-and-burn farming). When combined with hunting and gathering and under conditions of low population density, which permitted rotating swidden fields over a 10- to 20-year cycle, this system could support stable populations in small villages over extended periods. The grass- or leaf-thatched houses of wood and bamboo were built by communal labor exchange groups. Such villages were largely self-sufficient; they traded forest products such as honey, wax, lac (the source for lacquer), feathers, and hides in exchange for such goods as salt, needles, metal tools, and guns-for hunting as much or more often than for warfare.
As a result of this self-sufficiency in rugged, mountain terrain, the Kachin are a hardy, resilient people, tenacious of purpose and fiercely proud of their independence. Their egalitarian traditions and their refusal to be subservient to any did, however, also manifest themselves in feuds between villages and jealousies among tribal chieftains.
The Kachin's region of origin is not known with any certainty; some theorize that the internal evidence of their rich oral traditions indicates eastern Tibet. Fourteenth-century Chinese chronicles note the Kachin as inhabiting the mountains in Yunnan, where the most sizable concentration of their population still remains, and nineteenth-century British colonial records cite the inhabitants of one village in northern Burma as having been within Burmese territory for 17 generations.
In common with many other highland races-the Scots and the Gurkhas, for example-the Kachin have a long, proud martial tradition, which in prior centuries led to much raiding back and forth between them and their lowland neighbors. Although some of their tribes entered into pacts of convenience when the Burmans were strong and wielded great influence, as a race the Kachin pride themselves on never having been subjects of the Burmans, unlike most of their neighboring ethnic groups.
The capture of Mandalay in 1886 and the consequent imposition of British colonial rule did not displease the Kachin; a traditional enemy had been defeated. However, when the British subsequently attempted to bring upper Burma under their rule, the Kachin staged ambush after ambush and created such high losses, both in British officers and Indian sepoys, that the British were inevitably forced to retreat. As with the Gurkhas of Nepal and the Maoris of New Zealand, when the colonizing powers found they were being fought to a standstill, they resorted to diplomacy. A peace treaty granted the Kachin a large measure of autonomy under British tutelage; at the same time large numbers of Kachin were recruited into the military and military police forces that the British were raising in order to control the rest of Burma.
Language and Religion
Present-day archaeologists surmise that 40,000 years ago the forebears of most of the inhabitants of Southeast Asia lived in the mountains of southern China and northern Southeast Asia, where for 30,000 years they followed a hunter-gatherer's lifestyle based on semi-permanent sites until they began to follow divergent cultural paths. The three millennia of common experience is thought to account for the persistence throughout the peninsula of widespread belief in the spirits, both benign and malign, that throng the world and live in mountains, caves, cliffs, rocks, rivers, lakes, streams, forests, and trees. This complex belief system is generally labeled animism.
Until late in the last century the Kachin were animists. Starting in the 1870s, American and Karen Baptist missionaries began to proselytize among the Kachin, at first with the reluctant permission of Burmese monarchs and later with the approval and often enthusiastic assistance of British colonial officials, who were keen to explore the possibilities of trade "through China's back door." The first missionaries set up a mission post in the northern town of Bhamo in the plains near the Kachin Hills. Braving often fatal tropical diseases, periods of political turmoil and armed insurrection, and the dangers of travel in the densely forested, jaggedly corrugated mountain ranges-both from marauding bandits and from bears, boar, leopards, tigers, and snakes-these early evangelists struggled through often protracted periods of adversity. Their courage and persistence in time began to bear fruit.
Two Kachin beliefs worked in their favor. The first was the Kachin belief in a remote spirit, superior to all others, who had created the world. Because he was so far above mundane affairs, he had no influence on daily concerns; with some adjustments, this spirit could be identified with the Christian God. The second was the Kachin tradition of a lost written language. The Kachin appreciated the advantages of literacy; a desire for a written language among some of the Kachin and the missionaries' commitment to providing this (in order to translate the scriptures) made a strong impression on early converts.
The first language taught to the students at the new mission school in Bhamo by their Kachin and American teachers was Burmese. At that time there were no Kachin living in Bhamo or anywhere else on the plains; the first students were sent down from their villages in the hills. Burmese became the lingua franca of the mission-educated Kachin, some of whom had spoken widely divergent dialects. At the outbreak of World War II only 25 Kachin had some grasp of English, 3 of them the first Kachin college graduates.
Initially the more traditional Kachin put up a great deal of resistance to the missionaries' teachings; the religious leaders and the clan chiefs, in particular, saw them as a threat to their tribal solidarity. Animism and kinship relations formed the twin pillars of their cultural identity. Conversion amongst the Kachin was generally on a group basis. Individuals who discussed accepting the new faith among themselves invited women to take part in these discussions, a striking innovation in the Kachin context. This right was to have far-ranging effects later on, as Christianity spread rapidly through mass conversions. Today it is estimated that 97 percent of Burmese Kachin are Christian: Baptists, Methodists, Anglicans, Catholics, and so on. Their culture has been modified, and a rapid and widespread political development has taken place. Kinship relations, however, remain a major factor in Kachin national solidarity.
The Effects of Modern Warfare
When the Japanese invaded Burma through Thailand in 1942, a reign of terror began that exacerbated the underlying tensions between the Burman majority and Burma's many ethnic minority groups, and among the smaller groups themselves. What took place during these years shattered the missionaries' hopes for mutual cultural integration.
At the outset, the Shans and the Burmans welcomed the Japanese as their liberators from their colonial masters. In May 1942, the first detachment of the Burma Independence Army (BIA) marched into Myitkyina, an open town, ahead of the main body of the Japanese Imperial Army. BIA troops marched into Kachin villages, demanding the surrender of arms left behind by the British and looting villages. One night BIA soldiers abducted, raped, and murdered six Kachin girls. The Kachin took shelter in the hills. Marip Kaw, my mother, fled with a friend to Putai village, from where they were airlifted to India. For a time my mother worked in a refugee camp there, and then stayed with a missionary family. That is how she became interested in teaching, and I have followed in her footsteps.
Meanwhile, American OSS (Office of Strategic Services-predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency) officers and British officers from Force 136 parachuted into the mountains of Kachin State, where they recruited men into two highly effective military forces, the Kachin Rangers and the Kachin Levies. They fought with the Allied forces against the Japanese and their Burmese auxiliaries and gained the wholehearted respect and admiration of their officers for their courage, toughness, and martial skills.
For three years Kachin society was turned inside out amid the destructions of modern warfare. The speedy construction of the Ledo road by American and other Allied troops under the direction of General Stilwell made the Kachin aware for the first time of the awesome capabilities of modern technology, and they eagerly seized the chance to learn all they could.
By the end of the war, the Kachin were convinced they could make a significant contribution to better their own lot and work for independence. It was the charisma and intensity of the Burmese leader Aung San that resulted in securing the cooperation of the Kachin and other ethnic minorities in forming the new nation that was to gain its independence from Britain shortly after the war. This future prime minister's assassination, along with many members of his shadow cabinet, was a tragic blow for the fledgling state. Aung San's promises to the Kachin and other minorities died with him.
U Nu became the newly independent Union of Burma's first prime minister. One thing he lacked from the outset that Aung San had gained in large measure was the trust and respect of the ethnic minorities, who made up 60 percent of the nation's total population.
The Communist Party of Burma, which had been a legally registered party, was the first group to resort to armed resistance against the government. It was later followed by both the Karen and the Shans, some of whom wanted to exercise their constitutional right to secede from the union. When this was denied, some factions began the insurgent movements that continue to this day. The Kachin, despite many reservations, continued in the union for some years more until two issues inflamed them against the central government. The first was a readjustment of the border negotiated by the Rangoon government with the Chinese, one result of which was the transfer of three Kachin village tracts to China. The Kachin were forced, very much against their wishes, to acquiesce. More inflammatory still, from the standpoint of the Christian Kachin, was U Nu's decision to declare Buddhism as the state religion, ignoring the feelings, openly expressed, of the Muslim and Christian minorities.
Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.
Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.