Perspectives on War, Peace, and Rebel Politics: Burma’s Civil War Is the Struggle of Political and Social Movements (Part 3)

Kai Htang Lashi comments on Rebel Politics from the perspective of a Kachin activist.

This is Part Three of a four-part commentary on David Brenner’s monograph, Rebel Politics: A Political Sociology of Armed Struggle in Myanmar’s Borderlands (Cornell University Press, 2019), in which the authors reflect on war and peace in Myanmar from various scholarly and activist perspectives. The Introduction can be found here.

Part One, by Lee Jones, discusses the merits of the book in light of wider trends in the fields of Myanmar Studies and Conflict Studies. Part Two, by Shona Loong, reflects on the relevance of David’s book to peacebuilding efforts in Karen State. Part Three, by Kai Htang Lashi, reads David’s book from the perspective of a Kachin diaspora activist. Each of these pieces reflects the unique point of view of individual authors. Finally, in Part Four, David responds to these critiques

Brenner, Loong - HTANG PART 3 - Kachin civilians celebrating Kachin State Day on 11 January 2017 in Myitkyina (Photograph by David Brenner)_
Kachin civilians celebrating Kachin State Day on 11 January 2017 in Myitkyina. (Photograph by David Brenner)

Burma’s civil war involves ordinary civilians

In this review, I will not perform the conventional task of offering summaries or discuss the scholarly method that David has used. Rather, I will expand on the will of the people in the Kachin Revolution, in the hope that readers and the world will understand the essence of their long journey.

There is no doubt that Burma is the setting for the longest civil war in our time. The Union of Burma was born after her independence from the British Empire on 4th of January 1948, yet not even a year after, a civil war began that has continued ever since. More importantly, unlike other nations around the world, rather than involving one or two opposition rebel groups within the country, Burma’s civil war involved over twenty rebel groups. These groups correspond to the main ethnic groups that co-founded the nation; they shared the common ground of one broken promise: of “autonomy, self-determination, and equality” over their rightful territories. This was made to every co-founding nationality during the so-called Panglong Agreement.

For a long time, the civil war in Burma has been largely ignored by the international community as well as the academic world. After 2010, it was interesting to me to observe scholars engage with the ethnic struggle in Burma, after the military, quasi-civilian government opened its doors to a democratic transition, after half a decade of military rule. Regrettably, many scholars have portrayed ethnic armed struggles as geographical and economic warfare, even though the civil war has been rooted in politics for many decades. The civil war has involved the lives of many ordinary civilians. This is as important as the armed struggle, in the journey to revolution.

David is part of this category of scholars studying the civil war after 2010, but he has skilfully analysed both revolutionary elites and the internal politics of rebel movements over the years.

Peaceful social dynamics are more important than empty ceasefires

However, what I consider to be the book’s most promising contribution is that David’s long-term research is not just based on some revolutionary inner circle or social activist groups as many researchers before him have done. He takes time to engage with the Kachin and Karen revolutions beyond the ethnic armed organisations, including church networks, student associations, civil society organisations, and diaspora groups. In addition, David has spoken to many grassroots revolutionaries, which demonstrates the importance of mass mobilisation and the participation of ordinary people. This approach is new, and it highlights for the first time that Burma’s rebel movements are not only political movements but also and most importantly social movements.

In the Kachin case, hidden social dynamics became an open minefield when the 17-years long ceasefire broke down in 2011. In the name of the so-called ceasefire, which lasted between 1994 and 2011, ordinary Kachin people went through agonising experiences. Their heritage land was confiscated by the State, its military institutions, and their related cronies. Their precious jade mountains became not just flat lands, but hollow holes. Their green teak forest became dry land, their river became less than a brook across their region. Their sons became drug addicts and their daughters became victims of sex trafficking. The existence of the Kachin identity has been challenged by its surroundings on a daily basis. For these very reasons, the KIO was forced to stand firm against the military government in 2011, when they decided whether they were to protect their own people, as per their pledge, or follow their enemy’s demands.

Consequently, war has resurged in Kachin lands. Since 2011 ten percent of the Kachin population has been internally displaced in their own land and over 300 villages have been destroyed only to become Burmese military barracks or minefields. This is something the Kachin had never experienced in their revolutionary journey. To their greatest fear, the new Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Lands Management Law imposed by the current government poses an immediate threat to Kachin people losing their land by law for the first time in history. The new Kachin generation became victims of unspeakable torture, and witnesses to the brutality of war crimes and crimes against humanity in their lifetimes. The unwillingness of the State and its military institutions to make meaningful decisions on the peace process is not helpful for Kachin people either.

The Kachin revolutionary journey has indeed become not only a political but also a powerful social movement, and it grows stronger every time the rightful political demands of Kachin people are rejected by peace talks that do not address the root cause of the conflict. The lessons that they have learned through their dreadful experiences in the ceasefire era and the recent crisis made Kachin people believe that more than ever, Kachin people must protect their own land and people. This is why the spirit of Kachin nationalism has become stronger and calls for independence have become louder across Kachin society. To many, the only hope is that their God and the Kachin Independent Organisation/Army (KIO/A) will protect them and lead them to a peaceful future even if that means building an independent Kachinland for future generations.

Kai Htang Lashi is a spokesperson on Foreign Affairs for the Kachin National Organisation (KNO), formed by exile Kachin activists in the 1990s. The KNO forms a crucial link between the Kachin Diaspora and Kachin people in Myanmar. The organisation also engages in diplomatic and humanitarian efforts. Kai Htang was born in Lashio, a traditional stronghold of the Kachin revolution. Her life has been shaped by decades of armed conflict in her home community.