Like many ethnic groups that bridled under military rule in Myanmar (Burma), the Kachin people have long sought greater autonomy.
On Thursday, Myanmar's semi-civilian government announced a “nationwide cease-fire” with eight ethnic rebel groups ahead of Nov. 8 elections. But the Kachin Independence Army and a handful of other insurgent groups didn't sign the accord.
A previous cease-fire between the Kachin and the military collapsed in 2011, and fighting in this mountainous region displaced 120,000 civilians. The Kachin, who are mostly Christian, number around 1.5 million out of a population of 51.5 million, of which the majority are Burman Buddhists.
Now, however, signs of hope for both peace and a greater political voice are emerging among the Kachin. Much of that spirit – amid plenty of skepticism – is based on a possible victory by the opposition National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, in the country's first democratic elections in 25 years.
In the affirmative version of the future being discussed here, a more empowered Aung San Suu Kyi would work with the Army after the election to revive political discussions over a federation under which ethnic minorities like the Kachin would have more control over their own affairs.
Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate who spent decades under house arrest, stoked election excitement during a recent four-day campaign visit to Kachin State, where her motorcade drew a rapturous response from large crowds.
She has said little in recent years about the conflict in Kachin. But at a rally here she told the crowd, “If you want us to make [peace] happen, please give us enough votes to form the government,” adding that she would “invite other parties to work for national reconciliation and a democratic, federal union.”
Opposition parties split Kachin vote
Next month's election pits the National League for Democracy against the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party of President Thein Sein. A quarter of all parliamentary seats are assigned to unelected military officers by the Army-drafted Constitution.
Thein Sein, a former Army general, took power in 2011 as part of a democratic transition. But the military continued to exert effective control over contested borderlands and to battle with ethnic rebel groups. Fighting in Kachin persists.
In Kachin, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party is expected to split the opposition vote with three new local parties, according to Brang Mai, the chief executive of Myitkyina News Journal. One of these, the Kachin State Democracy Party of rebel-turned-politician Manam Tu Ja, is “very popular with the people, he will get a lot of votes,” he says.
Free but not fair?
Manam Tu Ja had been deputy leader of the Kachin rebels, but abandoned the armed struggle in 2010 to set up a political party. It advocates for a federal union, greater Kachin control over natural resources such as jade and timber, and an all-inclusive, nationwide cease-fire.
The former rebel is positive about his chances in contesting several seats in the national parliament and dozens in the Kachin State parliament.
“So far, it’s going smooth…. We are not so worried regarding competition with the national parties,” he said a phone call from the state’s northernmost Putao District situated in the Himalayan foothills.
What concerns him, however, is a recent surge in government attacks on Kachin rebel bases that could keep rural voters away and benefit the ruling party, which has greater numbers in towns and cities.
“I don’t worry whether the elections will be free, but I worry whether they will be fair, for many reasons,” Manam Tu Jas says. “Because of the fighting, some of the major parties can take advantage of this instability.”
Among much of the Kachin public and especially in conflict areas there is limited enthusiasm for the polls; many lack information on the process and distrust the Army’s guarantees of a free and fair vote.
"A lot of Kachin people don't believe in the elections, they don't trust it and don't think that it could impact peace,” said Father Noel Naw Lat, a Kachin Roman Catholic priest with Caritas Myanmar, which provides aid to tens of thousands of displaced civilians.
One of them is Kaw Lung, who lives in Maina camp, a cluster of UN-built bamboo longhouses on a grassy hill near Myitkyina that houses some 430 Kachin families. The mother of two teenagers recalls how she fled fighting near her village in 2011.
“I cannot count how many mortars landed," she says, "but bullets were hitting like rain. We didn't even have time to pack; we only brought some money and some clean clothes.”
Asked about the elections, she responds, “Even though there are Kachin parties now, I am not interested in the elections and neither are my friends. I don't even have my own home to live in … if I don't have to vote I will not.”