Before then, Kachin soldiers had developed a fearsome reputation for their service to the British and Americans during World War II, and as troops in the nascent Tatmadaw. It is still often said that for every Kachin casualty in World War II there were 25 Japanese dead.
These resilient and robust guerrilla fighters, who honed their skills in the mountains and valleys of the far north, have remained a thorn in the side of central governments ever since. Their resistance to control from Yangon, and now Nay Pyi Taw, puts the Kachin independence struggle in a special category. Arguably, the Kayin are the only other ethnic minority to have managed such strong and consistent opposition to central government rule.
When the Kachin ceasefire broke down in 2011 it brought to an end what had been a successful government strategy for co-opting the Kachin elite. That strategy was put in place by former Military Intelligence supremo General Khin Nyunt and then refined by subsequent generations of intelligence chiefs and Northern Commanders. The Kachin ceasefire saw enrichment, squabbling and frustration, all of which played into the hands of those who hoped to weaken the Kachin sub-nationalist cause.
But the new war badly dented Kachin faith in their ability to live peaceably in Myanmar. With more than 100,000 of their own people forced to flee their homes, and the KIA put into a bloody showdown with their erstwhile collaborators in the Myanmar army, the entire situation quickly spiralled out of control.
This year, Kachin Revolution Day is a time to take stock of the potential for an alternative Kachin politics to flourish. In 2010 the Kachin State Progressive Party, spearheaded by the former KIO vice chairperson, Dr Manam Tu Ja, was banned from participating in the general election. This effort to undermine a credible and moderate Kachin sub-nationalist group may well have precipitated the illwill that made the new war inevitable.
In the 2015 general election, the Kachin State Progressive Party is looking for a chance to field candidates who can represent Kachin interests in the roughand-tumble of Nay Pyi Taw. For now, much of that load has been shouldered by U Hket Htein Nan, a Myitkyina-based wheeler-dealer who successfully works with all sides of politics in northern Myanmar, including senior military figures.
He has also sought to build a multi-ethnic support base for his Unity and Democracy Party of Kachin State. This party is allied with the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party and yet it has been one of the few outlets for creative political effort in a region which has recently suffered much violence.
While many Kachin are understandably sceptical of the Nay Pyi Taw-centered political order, they are also aware that, for now, it remains the best mechanism for furthering their long-term political interests. Some powerful figures have reconciled themselves to the fact that an independent Kachinland is off the table.
That means they will need to work closely with the authorities in Nay Pyi Taw to ensure that Kachin State is not left behind. It has huge natural advantages – mineral wealth, hydropower potential, and proximity to China and India, to say nothing of its appeal to tourists. It’s fair to say that whatever Thailand’s Chiang Mai has in its favour for tourists, Myitkyina and the surrounding area can exceed.
A happier future for the Kachin will require a fresh way of thinking about politics: one where the legacies of revolutionary impulse are replaced by sharp negotiation about the economic boom to come. A clear consensus will be needed if the Kachin are ever to enjoy the longterm benefits of peace and prosperity.
(Dr Nicholas Farrelly is a partner at Glenloch Advisory and a Fellow at the Australian National University. He has been studying Kachin politics and history for more than a decade)
This Article first appeared in the February 5, 2015 edition of Mizzima Weekly.
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