A soldier guards the entrance to a Kachin Independence Army camp outside the town of Mai Ja Yang. Photo: Cameron Cole

While Myanmar’s state counselor and de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi focused her energies last month on personally defending her country’s appalling human-rights record in The Hague, bewildering ever more erstwhile supporters for papering over atrocities, “Rape as a Weapon of War and the Women Who Are Resisting: A Special Report” recently released by the Free Burma Rangers (FBR) reflects a more accurate portrayal of the true nature of the ethnic conflict embroiling the long-troubled country.

“Sexual violence has become a hallmark of the prolonged civil conflict and an indisputable tactic of the Burma Army against ethnic women,” the report states. “After several failed domestic and international agreements, the Burma Army continues to rape with impunity, but women across the ethnic states are tired of living in fear.”

Working with local ethnic pro-democracy groups, FBR trains, supplies, and later coordinates with teams providing humanitarian relief. After training, these teams provide essential emergency medical services, basic necessities and human-rights documentation in their home regions.

While another Christmas has passed in season in Kachin, all year around, in a war-ripped sociopolitical landscape that may seem devoid of good news, the light and hope signified by the holiday shine throughout Kachin. Storefronts and homes here in northernmost Myanmar may feature snowflakes and Santas in springtime. A rear-view-mirror ornament bearing the message “Merry Christmas” rhythmically clanks against the front window of a car in a convoy and inspection tour along the frontline with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).

Throughout Kachin state are found students and soldiers, teachers and pastors, store owners and developers of a civil society and many more ordinary Kachin, including thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) who, hardened by war, remain intrinsically, instinctively motivated to stay strong in order to help rebuild their society. Despite life’s many uncertainties and tragedies, and the fall of Suu Kyi’s stature an icon of fearlessness, they remain inspired by a great ally, which Myanmar’s government has not managed to take away from them: faith.

Kachin praying in the Baptist church in Mai Ja Yang, an area of Kachin state administered by the Kachin Independence Organization. Photo: Cameron Cole

The kind of unshakable faith one turns to when life’s uncertainties seem ever-present. Faith not in a particular outcome, per se, but in oneself and one’s relationship with higher powers, and the deepened integrity felt while walking life’s path when potential for peril is heightened. Faith that one KIA soldier, when asked what keeps him going and the strength to ascend one more mountain ridge while on patrol, immediately quoted in the Kachin language Jingpaw this part of the epic Psalm reflecting the unbreakable covenant between God and humanity that has provided solace through the centuries: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.”

Staying the course in the fight against the marginalization of ethnic minorities in Myanmar was also the overriding mission Maung Kyaw Nu, a Rohingya activist who spent the last years of his life passionately advocating for his people, working out of a modest, often unkempt Bangkok apartment reminiscent of the description in the book Aung San of Burma of Aung San’s dwellings in the Thai capital, where the Burmese independence hero had worked to bring freedom to his homeland in the 1940s.

“U Gambira stayed with me here for a short while,” said Nu, referring to the stoic leader who spearheaded Burma’s 2007 Saffron Revolution, which helped induce a modicum of democracy to the country and restore a glimmer of Aung San’s vision for the country. “He said he felt like I was his guardian.

“The KIO is a clean organization,” the Rohingya freedom fighter told me a few months before passing away in 2018, referring to the KIA’s administrative wing the Kachin Independence Organization, which supports the autonomy and respect between peoples. “People cannot engage in antisocial activity or form a mafia in the areas they control. The KIO is well respected and has strong influence throughout Kachin state, even in the government-held areas.”

KIO representatives say that in recent months China has stepped up patrols and blown up bridges in an attempt to seal the border with Kachin, exacerbating how the People’s Republic had already prevented food from getting across to migrants fleeing medieval cruelties of the Myanmar army. Nevertheless, effortlessly finding a way through the tightest of defenses, the ultimate tactical ally that has faithfully aided the oppressed and underdogs throughout human history remains: hope.

In 1962 the army Aung San built betrayed its founder’s best intentions and transformed the country into a dictatorship. A mature democracy free of martial influence remains a far-off dream in Myanmar, despite the sacrifices of generations of protesters. It remains to be seen if his daughter Suu Kyi can ever regain the mantel of respect and hope once bestowed on her by Myanmar’s ethnic minorities and a world desperately in need of the kind of heroic resistance to tyranny represented by her father’s legacy.

Resistance to the worst of human emotions and the capacity for compassion knows no boundaries. While former victims may become aggressors, as the establishment of countries from the United States to Israel to Myanmar shows, the audacity of hope remains a rebel yell we all must keep our ears open to.

Among the main conclusions reached in the recent EU-supported report “The Hidden War” is:

“The hidden war behind the formal visible armed conflict, is the intensive war that nowadays takes place against the IDPs in Kachin and northern Shan states. This is taking place by the impoverishment imposed on them through the reduced food supply and basic services, the violation and abuse of human rights, the cut in education opportunities, and ongoing exploitation of their natural resources…. The majority of IDPs are not confident about recovering their rights or being able to express their ethnic identity, political thoughts and participate in social life.”

Last week, FBR reported that the Myanmar Army had seized a year’s supply of food – including critical rice, cooking oil and fish paste – from villagers in the east of the country as clashes erupted with ethnic armies in violations of ceasefire agreements. According to the humanitarian group, in the latest illegal yet tragically standard tactic, the army’s Infantry Battalion 39 commandeered 150 sacks of rice from four villagers in Saw Mee Lu, in the Bago Division.

A Kachin Independence Army soldier and operative of Free Burma Rangers, a humanitarian group dedicated to bringing relief to Myanmar’s oppressed ethnic minorities and exposing abuses still being committed by the neo-democratic country’s army. Photo: Cameron Cole

Among the locals standing up to the darker intentions of the army is Zau Hkum, who fled from their murderous advances with his family in 2011, “as I told you I would three years ago,” he said.

“After gaining sufficient knowledge of English, I returned to Alen Bum IDP Boarding School near Laiza, in order to give back what I had acquired to IDP kids who have reduced opportunities for a good education.

“I am not able to be an effective teacher the children because I only have a basic education. This makes me always look for some courses to improve my knowledge and skills. I honestly have problems with my salary because I only earn 60,000 kyats [US$40] per month and I have to support my family. It is a tough situation, and I feel like I cannot find the ways to get my dream.”

After his home village was burned down in 2011 by the Burmese, necessitating an arduous trek across rough terrain to get to the Je Yang IDP Camp outside Laiza, Zau Hkum promised to himself to “help pull IDP kids out of hopeless circumstances” in the same sanctuary he and his family found solace and shelter seven years ago, arriving in poor shape after fording streams and other uncertainties after a long trek through the wilderness, when Burmese aggression re-triggered the war in Kachin state.

“After returning here, I have reconnected with some of my old friends. Some of them continued their studies, some now work for NGOs, some have joined the KIA, and some lost their way and become discouraged.

“My dream is to study abroad then return here to help my community develop,” said the intrepid youngster. “It is still hard to say when peace will come to my country, as the political situation remains unstable. For eight years, my family and I have been waiting for the day we can return home. I am not sure how long it is to that day. But we should never stop chasing our dreams, no matter how dire our situation may seem.”

The integrity-recharging experiences that forced IDPs like Zau Hkum to discern the true course of their life path at a very early age also infuses the spirit an FBR operative and soldier who shared his story. “At first my superior officer in the KIA wouldn’t allow me to train with the FBR. He kept saying, ‘Your job is listening to the radio.’ But I had made up my mind about wanting to learn about videography, in order to best serve my people. In time he changed his mind, and I joined FBR. This provided me the additional training to help tell the world about the suffering in Burma, especially the Kachin, Karen and Karenni.”

Taking full advantage of his KIA experience and FBR training, in the 2012 Christmastime campaign, the soldier, who requested not to be named for security reasons, helped communicate an essential message to the outside world, when then-Myanmar president Thein Sein told the United Nations that the military had never used helicopters to attack minorities during the war. “This was a lie,” the soldier said. “I had recorded evidence to the contrary.

“This is what FBR does. We provide supplies and provisions to those in need. We shed light on misdeeds and reveal the truth. The next day footage showing the helicopter attacks of the Burmese army was shown in the international press.

“As a KIA soldier, I learned quickly that mortars whistling by at a higher altitude hold no imminent threat, while it’s the lower-altitude ones cutting through closer air and making ‘wuff-wuff-wuff’ sounds that are the immediate problem. And yet in time they almost sound like a lullaby. Once a dud landed not so far away. We carried it away so we could verify its origin. This was risky but was too great an opportunity not to take advantage of. Our research revealed that his was Swedish weapon sold to India and later resold to Burma.

“They call us terrorists,” he said, referring to uninformed outsiders, including Facebook content analysts who banned the KIA this year from the social-media platform. “Many say there can be just one army in Burma. But it is the central government that through its hostilities discredits the concept of a federal union. For 60 years Kachin have not been allowed to teach and learn Kachin in our schools, or learn our history.”

Seven decades after the hallmark Panglong Agreement agreed to by Aung San with Burma’s minorities, his daughter, once coming to power, has failed, epically, in attempting to live up to his legacy, and would do better to heed the message told the FBR report, which states:

“After experiencing decades of sexual violence and institutionalized rape, women across the ethnic states of Burma are taking action. Through participation in Ranger Training, these motivated women are developing critical skills to challenge gender norms and combat sexual violence during conflict. Though this local response is critical in providing immediate aid to ravaged communities, long-term solutions are also necessary. To fully eradicate sexual violence as a tactic of war against the ethnic states, the cycle of impunity must be broken and the Burma Army held accountable for their actions.”

Carleton Cole

Carleton Cole is a journalist with a focus on issues related to migration and travel who has lived in Bangkok for more than 20 years, written two books and previously worked for The Nation newspaper and Mahidol University International Demonstration School.

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