Thinn Thinn describes lessons learned— on ethnicity, identity, and privilege— on a journey to Kachin.
I was born and brought up in Mandalay, the former royal capital of Myanmar. It is one of the biggest cities in Upper Myanmar, which also meant I grew up among Bamars. Although my dad is half Bamar and half Kadu (one of the ethnic minorities from Sagaing, in the northern part of Myanmar) and and my mom is Karen (one of the ethnic majorities that live in the Delta region), at home, we usually speak in Burmese. My mom said I could speak in fluent Karen when I was young, but my knowledge of Karen vanished as soon as I went to pre-school, where the only language taught was Burmese. I had never considered myself a minority as one-fourth of my identity is Bamar, and because I speak Burmese and grew up among Bamars in Mandalay.
When I was in second grade, my dad started to send me to English proficiency classes, meaning that I grew further from both of my parents’ roots. I grew up like a normal city girl who could speak English fluently, and I was proud of that. I could not communicate with my mom’s relatives because they preferred to speak Karen whenever we met. The relatives from my dad’s side only speak in Burmese and they would never identify as half-Kadu as far as I know. Although my parents took us to different parts of the country every summer, my knowledge of ethnic groups was shallow.
But, as I grew older, I wanted to know more— about my own identity and about others in my country. I began to read and to question what I had known growing up. Through The Clay Marble by Minfong Ho, I became familiar with the term internally displaced persons. Then I read I am Malala, and learned more about what being internally displaced means. In her book, Malala wrote: “On 5 May 2009 we became IDPs. Internally displaced persons. It sounded like a disease.”
For me, the term “IDP” was something hidden in my daily life. I was born after the famous 88 revolution and I grew up under the military government. I knew that we had ongoing civil wars, but the word IDP never popped up in my surroundings. I met with Karen refugees when I was studying in America and learned about their lives in refugee camps, but I did not push myself to learn more, even though some of the refugees I met in the States were my distant relatives. I let it slide away and continued on in my normal, busy life.
However, after I read those two books, my interest in the experience of IDPs clawed back in my life. To be honest, I needed to Google what the difference was between a refugee and an IDP. When I first enquired about IDP camps, stupidly enough I told the contacts that I would come and visit the camps and would do whatever they need. Maybe I watched a lot of Western movies where the main character would go to places and mingle, establishing themselves in a new environment easily. The thing I forgot, or perhaps didn’t understand about IDP camps, is they have their own society and their own rules. I was like a visitor coming to visit someone’s home, so I should ask for a proper invitation. I spoke with people who had been to IDP camps and almost everyone said that people living there, mainly the ethnic minorities, would not welcome you if you were pure Burmese.
Then, I began to question myself and my own ethnic identity. Am I Burmese? Am I? Although I would like to deny as it much as I can, the answer is “yes,” because that was how I had been living my entire life. I only speak Burmese and English. I cannot even speak Karen. I was actively Burmanized throughout my life. Even my interest in IDP camps arose after I read two books that were about other countries. Reflecting on this, I realized I needed to push myself to attempt to understand more about people from my own country. I lived in a country where the government officially recognizes 135 ethnic groups, but since the day I was born, there were countless civil wars. I grew up listening to war stories because my grandmother would tell me about the conflicts in her lifetime, in both the British and Japanese eras. My parents and relatives, too, would tell me about their involvement in the 88 revolution. Before the first dynasty, there were wars. Then, there were three successful dynasties, but after, the country was colonized. We even secured independence like others, but we were still fighting against each other. I wanted to go to the conflict-affected areas to listen to the stories of the people; when I read the stories of IDP camps in other countries, I wanted to know more about the stories of my own country. Luckily, Inya Institute was willing to host me, so I decided to go to Myitkyina for my pre-research scouting.
I chose Myitkyina, first, because Kachin state was the home of a longstanding ceasefire agreement between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military). However, the agreement broke down in 2011 and IDP camps were established all over Kachin State, as a result of ongoing violence. Kachin State also got attention from the world media because of the China dam project in Myitsone, at the junction of the rivers where the Irrawaddy River begins. The previous government had an agreement with the Chinese government to build a dam without consulting the local people and people of Myanmar. Each and every state and division in Myanmar has it own struggles and problems, and Kachin State is not an exception.
The planning of the trip itself was not easy, as my contact from Myitkyina gave me a specific time frame during which I could visit. I asked my mother to buy me a train ticket from Mandalay to Myitkyina because I wanted to revisit my childhood memories of a long train journey. Plus, in one of the documentaries about IDP camps that I’d seen, some people travel to Mandalay from Myitkyina by train. Having seen this, I insisted that my mother buy me a train ticket, even though my parents told me to go by plane. I was in Yangon by that time, so I kept nagging my mother to help me out. My father even offered to buy me an air ticket when I told them I did not have enough money, but as stubborn as I am, I didn’t sway in my decision. My parents finally gave up and bought me a one-way ticket. This was the first of a series of mistakes I’d soon make, where my assumptions and expectations didn’t match reality.
After I booked a hotel and got my one-way ticket to Myitkyina, I called my contact person and let the person to know about my plan. I then faced another challenge. My contact person gave me the cold shoulder because people in the camps complained that outsiders always come and visit to the camps, but at the end their lives are still miserable and there is no significant change and they were upset about it. I totally understood and agreed with what my contact person said, but I had already arranged for my trip. I nervously tried to find other connections. Until I boarded the train, I was not sure who to meet and what to do when I arrived in Myitkyina.
When I stepped on the train, I realized why my parents told me not to go by train. The train itself was dirty, there was no air conditioning, the covers of the seats were stained, the ventilation system was horrible— and this was just the tip of the iceberg. The train left from Mandalay at 11:30 am. After two hours on the train, I realized that there was no way I could avoid the vendors who were walking here and there on the train. Around 9 pm, the staff from the train were casually talking with my neighbors about an explosion on the same route that we were taking at that moment. According to him, an insurgent group planted a small explosive because Myanmar soldiers were in one of the carriages. I was terrified and could not fall asleep. There were so many thoughts in my mind— what if I died while I was asleep? What if some of my limbs were cut off because of the explosion? The fact that this was one of the moments I felt most vulnerable in my life haunted me as I met with those for whom vulnerability was an everyday experience.
I arrived to Myitkyina at 7:30 am and went directly to the hotel. I got connected with Ting Ying who is a Youth Leader from the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC) around noon. With his help, I went to Shwe Set camp which was located in a church compound, where a row of houses were built against the church wall. Well… although I say houses, they were just 10×15 foot rooms. They had no privacy at all. I interviewed two women: the first one had a motorcycle accident and one of her legs was cut off and she needed a physical therapy. Another woman that I interviewed became a widow 2 months ago because her husband died in a car accident. I talked with them for hours before walking around the camp. I was acutely aware of my status as a visitor. I might be catching a glimpse into life here, but I knew I was not really in their shoes.
On the second day, we met with the camp leader. Not surprisingly, he asked me about my ethnic background. At that moment, I was not a proud Burmese city girl anymore. I told him that my mother is pure Karen and Christian and my father is half Burmese and half Kadu (one of the minorities), and Buddhist. After he was convinced that I was not pure Burmese, he started to complain about Burmese people. I could feel how much hatred he was holding against Burmese people. It made me wonder: Why do we even have 21st Century Panglong… or talk about reconciliation… or have national monuments in cities if the citizens do not feel any unity or reconciliation as a result? Could having those monuments simply be a reminder that Burmanization is everywhere? The top leaders always have meetings to talk about development and try to create a “happily ever after” scene, but do the lower level people even feel it? After we talked with him for an hour, we went around to talk with more people. The more I talked with them, the more my energy was drained.
The next day, I went to the bigger camp that was in Winemaw (on the other side of Myitkyina) with another friend. I did not have much of a chance to talk with people as it was on Sunday and almost all the people in the camp were at the makeshift church. At the camp, I saw the tents that I always imagined after seeing movies and documentaries. It was dirty, suffocating, and dark. When we think of refugee or displaced people, we often put them into categories and forget that they are also humans who have similar needs and wants like us. I did not expect to learn about corruption, although I knew that they lived on 9000 kyats per month, for one person. I went to another camp and saw a similar living situation, and the stress, worries, and complaints. Above all, they always answered my questions, but whenever they did, they asked me one question in return. When they did, I was always left speechless. Their question was: “when do you think we can go back to our home?”
During my visit to Myitkyina, I spent five days visiting the camps. If you ask what I learned from visiting, I learned about the patience of the people, who remain optimistic about their daily lives, and struggle to achieve their hopes. My friends said I was brave to visit, but what I felt was that I was a coward who visited someone else’s house without a proper invitation. Did I learn something new? Every single thing about this trip was new for me. In the beginning of this article, I said I wanted to walk in their shoes. I tried to walk in their shoes momentarily, but after a week, I switched back to my own. I even came back by plane instead of by train, because I realized that walking in their shoes was impossible for me. I felt their pain and I could not even shut it out, so I wrote a poem for them. Here are a few lines from my poem:
People: white, black, INGO, and NGO, came and visit all the time, but no one can give us solid promises.
Underneath this tent,
Slowly by slowly we realize that there is a long way to go home.
Slowly by slowly our hopes are fading away.
Underneath this tent,
there are thousands of stories that people tried to ignore.
I still feel their pain and hopelessness. I hope the disease that Malala mentioned will be cured one day. I wish that next time, when I visit to Myitkyina, I can visit their houses and not their tents.
After returning to Mandalay, I switched back to my old self and my comfortable life, but my mind still lingered on the IDP camps. Although I would say I feel their pain, I will never be them, and I can always choose to go back to my comfortable life. If you are an outsider who wants to study about ethnic minorities or a particular problem in the country, I would say “please keep in mind that Burmanization is still in Burmese culture and do not fool yourself with Yangon life.” Yangon has the promising signals of development such as vibrant culture, fun night life, horrible traffic, and multinational companies— but apart from Yangon, and of course the famous Nay Pyi Taw, there are not a lot of changes in other parts of Myanmar. If you are a local researcher, please do not measure things with the eyes of a typical educated city person.
I, myself, although from an ethnically diverse family, hold the strong privilege of Burmanization. When I look or try to understand something, I will always have bias. I chose Kachin State because I could get data about it easier compared to three other states that I am planned to visit in near future. I have learned the lesson that the next time I go a new place, I should do as much research as I can, and try to understand the root of the issues before embarking on my travels. We might not be able to fully understand others’ lives or solve their long-term problems, but we can bring more empathy with us.
Thinn Thinn was born and raised in Myanmar. She graduated from Colby-Sawyer College, where she studied Sociology and Legal Studies. After returning from the US, she worked in various sectors in Myanmar, recently becoming a board member of Sarus after working as a Program Lead for a Bangladesh-Myanmar exchange program in 2016. She is also the co-founder of Onda, a start-up, which aims to create designs that tell unspoken stories and raise awareness for much needed social change. Thinn Thinn loves reading, traveling, trekking, and playing with kids.