Kai Htang Lashi is the foreign affairs spokesperson for the Kachin National Organisation (KNO), an organisation established to be the Kachin people’s international representation. Her presentation spanned a wide range of subjects relating to the armed struggle for greater autonomy from Burma and ethnic minority rights conducted by the Kachin Independence Organisation/Army. Topics covered both the history of the conflict and modern concerns, such as the KIO/A’s refusal to participate in the October 2015 ceasefire. They spanned many issues, such as the relationship between the KIO/A and Kachin society, the relationships between the KIO/A and other ethnonationalist insurgent movements in Burma, and the difficulties of promoting the Kachin cause abroad. Given Kai Htang Lashi’s role as one of the chief conduits of knowledge on life in Kachin state, CCW delves into what that life is like and what being Kachin means.
CCW: I wondered if I might begin by following up on something you mentioned during the talk, about how your father came under suspicion of being affiliated with the KIA (Kachin Independence Army) and an investigator stayed in your house for three months. I wanted to know, is this something that happens frequently? Is this standard practice for the government to place policemen in peoples’ homes?
KHL: Yes, these things happen frequently. But each case is different from my father’s case…at first they took my father to the station, and then they thought it would be better if they had an internal investigation. Head office sent a special investigator for my father’s case. From what I recall, from what my mum was telling us, it was like, not just affiliation with the KIA,but also they accused my dad of being involved in drug trading and jade trading, which was all illegal, at that time very serious. That was in the late 70s, so in the early stage [of the conflict]. Lately whoever was involved in, that kind of, we call this section 17a of the Unlawful Association Act, you can,without any warrant, you can be taken to the station and then you get a sentence, at least two years, more than that, whatever they feel like, whatever they wanted to do.
CCW: And is that act still enforced today?
KHL: Still enforced.
CCW: You talked about the military taking land. So, does this mean that the military is present in the community in an economic sense, do they become bosses of the Kachin, employers of the Kachin, in addition to, say, keeping order?
KHL: It must be quite complicated for others to understand, because of the nature of the country itself, when I say “taking the land”, “grabbing land”, when there’s, first of all I mentioned troops coming into our land. Before the ceasefire there were only 15 battalions in our Kachin land, but now there are over 50 battalions, so when you settle these battalions in our land they just literally take the land, whoever lived there is ordered to move out, that is the first thing they did. Secondly, the cronies would come and invest, the government or whoever has the authority to provide permits for mining and such things, they come in and kick the locals out. That kind of thing very frequently happens.
Given that the military occupation of Kachin territory is present and visible and I assume perceived as popularly unjust, do the Kachins still use state courts, Burmese state courts, and other institutions affiliated with the Burmese state?
KHL: In the Burmese government controlled area, there is no other choice. For example the capital city of Kachin is Myitkyina, is under Burmese government control. This is different in Laiza, the KIO headquarters, which is still very much Kachin land. I would say at the moment, probably, half, more than a half, not two thirds but more than half the area will be Burma government controlled area.
CCW: You spoke a lot about the importance of the Church in Kachin community and to Kachin identity. It sounded as though the pastors are the key voice of local, village-level, Kachin communities that they know the peoples’ problems and it’s to them that the KIO listens. Is this true, and could you expand more on the role of the pastors in independence?
KHL: I can say yes, they have a big role in our society.They are very much involved in political and social afafirs, they give local communities a voice, and they are also the go-between the KIA and any part of our community.
CCW: I wanted to ask a question about Kachin identity, because you said that independence is the goal?
KHL: The ultimate goal, yes!
CCW: But, you would be happy with federal union, with existing under federal union. Does this mean that the Kachin perceive Burma as an overarching identity that all could be part of, or, would you say that if you were in a federal union, it would just be an alliance of convenience…I suppose what I’m asking is, does the Kachin identity demand its own state, or does it see enough commonality with other Burmese identities that you could all subsist beneath a national Burmese identity?
KHL: This is a very good question. Our identity would be, I would say, independent. Yes we are communicating very well with other neighbouring ethnicities, apart from, at the moment, the Burmese military, but generally, even with Burmese people themselves: most of my friends are non-Christian, non-Jingpo (one of the ethnicities grouped within the Kachin identity), so it’s not about that. But the culture itself is very different as well, I mean like, the way that I express about our community itself, the way that we govern ourselves, the way that we represent ourselves, the language itself, we all are very different from other people. Other ethnic group might be Muslim, Buddhist, all connected in so many ways, but not with us, so our identity would be independent.But we do not fight for secession, as a Co-Founder of the Union, we simply want equal rights and autonomy as we were promised from the very beginning.
This interview was conducted by Adam Brodie for Oxford’s Changing Character of War Programme.