The Peace Activist at the Center of Myanmar's Other Ethnic War
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it’s not just the Rohingya at risk in Myanmar.
By Stephen Starr
With 135 ethnic groups and dozens of armed groups, Myanmar is a complicated, conflicted country. The massacre of Rohingya Muslims in the country’s west has garnered international attention, and rightly so. Meanwhile, a battle between the military and rebels from the ethnic Kachin people, a group of roughly 1 million that is predominantly Christian and seeking greater autonomy, has flown under the radar.
Khon Ja is out to change that. The 47-year-old activist is the go-to voice for international rights groups and media seeking on-the-ground updates of a war that few outside Kachin state in northern Myanmar know about, or care to know about.
And why should any of us care? For starters, around 100,000 Kachin civilians have been displaced since 2011, and government forces have regularly torched and destroyed their villages (nine in a single month). Meanwhile, aid shipments destined for displaced families are routinely blocked by military checkpoints.
With 90,000 soldiers engaged in a 50-year conflict, one person can achieve only so much.
What’s at issue? Control over huge jade and amber reserves, thought to be worth tens of billions of dollars a year, is a leading cause of the unrest. Jade was mined by governments and private groups for centuries, but that stopped after Japanese forces overran the region and stripped the mines of their equipment in 1942. When Buddhism was made the state religion in 1961, and the Burmese military nationalized the economy, including the mines, the following year, Kachin communities were outraged, provoking some to take up arms. What’s more, government plans to build hydroelectric dams across a region controlled by Kachin separatists have added to the tension.
From inside the five-star Yangon hotel where I’m meeting Khon Ja (and paying $12 for two coffees), it’s clear that much has changed since Myanmar’s ruling military embarked on a modern-day glasnost eight years ago. For Ja, a petite woman who arrives early for our 7:30 a.m. interview, much has changed too, though not for the better. As the country opened up in 2011, conflict erupted between the separatist Kachin Independence Army, formed in 1961, and the military after government forces attempted to take KIA-controlled territory following a 17-year ceasefire. That’s when she and like-minded activists set to work.
“When we set up the Kachin Peace Network [in 2011], communication was very difficult,” Ja recounts. She and colleagues were based in the isolated northern region and worked with what they could find. “We identified village leaders and people with motorbikes and gave them phones with Chinese sim cards. We sent them out to collect information about where troops and people were moving.”
The nerve center of their humanitarian work was a map with thread and pins they adjusted every evening to pinpoint the latest military and civilian movements. As the conflict has ground on, it’s been Ja’s job to figure out how to keep the latter far from the former. Now, with 179 internally displaced people (IDP) camps sprouting on the edges of remote towns or deep inside impenetrable forest, the situation has worsened, particularly in recent months as government bombings and clashes have forced 5,000 people to move. “Daughters have to drop out of school to work and are working in risky jobs in China. The children are disappearing,” Ja says. “We don’t know if they have just gone to work or if they have been taken for trafficking or taken by the police.”
As she wrangles with state authorities and militant groups, Ja must also do battle with societal prejudices. At a summit of Kachin organizations last year, a prominent businessman declared that women should dress and behave appropriately if they don’t want to be sexually assaulted. Ja was enraged but chose a more strategic response: She persuaded the businessman to donate to her women’s rights campaign in exchange for not publicizing his comments. Ja, who has twice received death threats, says the most frustrating aspect of her work is the military’s unofficial policy of denying heinous crimes, including rape, by its soldiers.
Born in Banmaw, a town 40 miles from the Chinese border in Kachin state, Ja and her six siblings were raised by their farmer father and schoolteacher mother. Ja has worked with local and international rights groups almost all her adult life, pausing briefly in 2002 to study development studies in Ireland. May Sabe Phyu, a fellow Kachin activist and a 2015 recipient of the International Women of Courage Award, describes her colleague as “emotional” — a virtue because she cares so deeply about the Kachin cause, but it can also make her vulnerable. “One of the shortcomings would be having a bias on the side that makes her trusting,” says Phyu. “Once she believes in something, she will react instinctively.”
Yet Ja’s single-minded commitment has seen her honored for campaigning for gender equality and named one of the country’s “outstanding women” by the Myanmar Times. “[She’s] the most courageous woman I have ever seen,” says Phyu. “Without her, to get support and greater involvements from non-Kachin communities for Kachin IDPs would never happen.”
Analysts agree the efforts of Kachin activists have been significant. “They do a tremendous amount of work to make sure that on-the-ground events and especially human-rights violations are reported,” says Carine Jaquet, of the Yangon-based Research Institute for Contemporary Southeast Asia, “especially to the international community that would otherwise hardly ever hear about these.” In May, agencies such as the UN and the International Rescue Committee voiced concern for civilians trapped by the deepening unrest.
With 90,000 soldiers and thousands of armed militiamen engaged in a conflict that’s endured since the early 1960s, what one person — even one activist network — can achieve is only so much. Adding to the divisions splintering Myanmar since the country gained independence 70 years ago is a wave of nationalism surging through mainstream society, meaning the rights of minorities — be they Rohingya, Kachin or others — have been thrown to the side.
Of course for Khon Ja, that’s one more reason to keep fighting.
- Stephen Starr, Stephen Starr is a journalist and author who lived in Syria from 2007 until 2012. He is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising.Contact Stephen Starr