The Kachin: Culture of the mountain lords

One of the problems shaking the state of Myanmar can be found in the ethnic conflicts that have arisen in the wake of the faltering dictatorship. While the majority of the population speaks Burmese, at least one hundred other languages are spoken in the country. The intrinsic value of the culture and literature needs to be understood in order to prevent the state from breaking up, writes Lucas Stewart, Myanmar expert working for the British Council.

March 13 2014 Text: Lucas Stewart

“Once we looked to our cultural elders for guidance—now we look to soldiers.”

Duwa Howa Zau Gam leans on a walking stick and turns his back to the weak sun. It is still winter in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State in upper Burma. Half a dozen men in heavy coats circle around us, respectfully keeping their distance but close enough to hear his words. As the scion of Duwa Hkun Hpung, a signatory to the 1947 Panglong Agreement and a veteran of the famed WW2 resistance fighters called the 101st Kachin Rangers, he understands all too well how, in Burma, the sword is perversely mightier than the pen—how, in Kachin State, conflict has overruled culture.

The role of the soldiers—both from the government of Tatmadaw and from the rebel Kachin Independence Army (KIA)—in the shaping of Kachin State has often been described within an eco-political paradigm. Both parties cite political factors behind the five decades of conflict. The unity of the republic stands against regional federalism, (if not outright autonomy), and to force a victory both sides are fighting for economic control of Kachin’s lucrative jade mines and the timber extraction industries.

What is curious though is the disregard from journalists to policy makers—both internally and externally—for the Ethnic Cultural Groups (the ECGs) operating under the same disheartening environment as their political and military counterparts, and often towards the same goal: an end to the war. The six major ethnic groups that make up the Kachin people are fiercely proud of who they are. But it is a pride largely connected to their cultural identity and not to how many guns they own.

If there is a place in Kachin State where this attitude is being reversed or at least challenged it is in Myitkyina. Travel through Myitkyina’s bleak streets, pass by the white-washed government-run Museum of Culture opposite the lurid green KIA Technical Advisory Office, and you will come to the circular Manau Park where the annual spectacle of the Manau dance is held—or was held. As from 2010 the government has banned the festival on the grounds of security. At the far end of the patchwork of fields, just before they slide into the Ayewaddy River, lies a group of detached two-storey wooden houses. One of these houses is the office of the Wunpawng Shingni, the Kachin Arts Organisation. Formed in May 2013 the organization is staffed by two hundred volunteers who work in eight different sub-committees pursuing activities from textile to documentary production.

K. Bawm Awn, the Chief Editor and publisher, hands me the latest edition of their Jinghpaw language journal, with the same title as their organization. Considering the fact that Myitkyina has only one printing press capable of producing journals or books and the inhibiting cost of ink and paper, which must be brought up from Yangon, I was surprised at the quality of the printing. “We print in Yangon and then put it on the train to Myitkyina,” he explained. “It takes over two days to get here. At the moment we are only distributing in Myitkyina, but we will send copies to other townships soon. In January we sold five thousand copies; in six months we hope to raise that number to ten thousand.”

If Mr K. Bawm Awn reaches that figure, it would prove the resilience of the Jinghpaw language in the face of five decades of government suppression of their literature. Like all other ethnic minority groups in Burma, the teaching of the Kachin minority languages was forbidden under the military junta due to unfounded fears of such learning creating disunity within the nation. A June 2012 proclamation from the Ministry of Education allowing ethnic languages to be taught in schools was praised as another example of the liberalizing reforms set in motion by the new government, but a deeper analysis of the new law quickly reveals that it is not as all-encompassing as the Western media make out. Teaching ethnic minority languages and literature in state schools is still outlawed. The only difference now being that it can be taught on school premises after the school has closed, and—for some seemingly arbitrary reason—only up to the third grade; beyond that students have to rely on the ethnic cultural groups for instruction in their own native tongue. This has inevitably led to a language still fixed in the 19th century when it was first provided a script by the Swedish missionary Ola Hensen.

To turn the tide a group of Myitkyina-based academics have formed the Kachin Dictionary Committee. Based in the house next to the Wunpawng Shingni, the KDC have spent the last ten years researching, collating, and updating a 21st Century dictionary for the Jinghpaw language modeled on the Concise Oxford English Dictionary. Rev. Manam Hpang, the Chairman of the KDC, introduced me to the committee stressing that they were all volunteers on this project working for the love of their language. “We must strengthen our language and our learning,” one committee member said, and, “We must use our letters to preserve our literature,” said another.

The dictionary is nearly complete and, if they could only afford to print it, it is ready to be distributed to universities across Myanmar by March 2014. When I asked what their biggest challenge was they all agreed that they need a projector so that multiple proofreaders can check the manuscript at the same time. A projector costs 150 dollars.

As I was about to leave, the committee wished to present me with a sample page of the dictionary, but had sadly run out of paper with which to photocopy it. Not that it mattered though since the city at this point was in the middle of another eight-hour blackout. (I later received a copy from a member of the KDC who went out of their way to find me as I left Myitkyina). This chronic lack of funding is an issue that affects all ethnic cultural groups in Kachin State. As the number of international non-governmental organizations in the country increase, the focus of their development projects is given to health, the rule of law, democracy transition, and the all-important “capacity building.” Culture rarely figures in the bidding process.