Myanmar’s Christian rebels carry on fight for survival

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KACHIN, Myanmar — In a shack in the Bum Tsit Pa refugee camp near the Chinese border, a small band of Christians listened quietly to a pastor memorializing a fallen rebel fighter.

The fighter was shot while serving in the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in the hills of northern Myanmar, where militants have been fighting a civil war to win greater autonomy from the central government for more than 50 years.

The Kachin speak a separate language, practice Christianity in a predominantly Buddhist country, and live in a northern territory rich in jade and timber. They say they are fighting to preserve their culture from oppressive leaders in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital.

“We are fighting for our history,” said Myu San Zhinghtung, 20. “We are not the same as Myanmar.”

A native Kachin, Myu San Zhinghtung works with the non-governmental organization Wunpawng Ninghtoi to provide humanitarian aid to refugees. But he also sympathizes with the KIA.

“We are a small tribe,” he said. “If the KIA didn’t exist, the Kachin would be extinct.”

Formed in 1961, the Kachin Independence Organization, the civilian wing of the KIA, originally fought for the outright freedom of the Kachin ethnic minority. Today it is fighting for greater autonomy within the federal state system in the country formerly known as Burma.

That fighting flared up again after Myanmar’s army broke a 17-year-old cease-fire in June 2011: The Kachin refused to abandon a strategic base near a hydropower plant that is a joint venture with a Chinese company.

Now, fierce fighting in the far north of the country has killed and injured more than 1,000 combatants and displaced more than 120,000 people, according to the Kachin Independence Organization. Some have fled to China. Others have sought shelter at refugee camps and elsewhere throughout the region.

Mortar strikes forced N’brang Nmun La Tawng’s family out of their homes in Lailaw, a village on the Chinese border. His older brother, N’Brang Mun Naw Seng, 36, recalls leaving with only a knife and a small bag.

“We had to escape,” said N’Brang Mun Naw Seng, who walked two days with his wife, mother and five children to reach the Bum Tsit Pa camp. “We left at night and slept in the jungle and a church before we made it here.”

N’Brang Mun Naw Seng and his family now sleep on a thin mattress on a dirt floor in a shack in the refugee camp. They prepare rice and salt for breakfast and dinner in a dimly lit communal kitchen. They’re thankful to be alive.

“I’ve accepted that this is my home,” said N’Brang Mun Naw Seng. “I just can’t accept my brother’s death. I’ve told my children. They say, ‘My uncle was shot by the Burmese. When I grow up, I will shoot the Burmese.’”

Myanmar’s military says it has engaged in only defensive combat with the KIA, accusing the Kachin of attacking its supply convoys. Ye Htut, the presidential spokesman in Naypyidaw, blamed KIA fighters for the escalation of hostilities that displaced thousands of civilians last month alone.

“They have not respected our border line,” Ye Htut said in an interview with local press. “The troops cross the line without informing us.”

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