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This article was published 5/12/2017 (1626 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
MYITKYINA, MYANMAR — People in northeast Myanmar know disappointment. They’re also all too familiar with gunfire, with fleeing their homes and with what they feel is the systematic suppression of their ethnic Kachin culture.
None of the 18 townships in Kachin State, explains regional parliamentarian Ja Seng Hkawn Maran, is governed by a Kachin administrator: "Under the 2008 constitution we are trapped very tightly."
The third and current constitution of this country formerly known as Burma guarantees that a quarter of the seats in the national parliament are reserved for military representatives, and that the military also retains control of the key home and border ministries.
While the 2010 release of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was met with considerable optimism, says Ja Seng, especially after her party won an overwhelming victory in the 2015 general election, she has since been unable — perhaps unwilling — to confront what remains a de facto military dictatorship in which the national army confronts many of Myanmar’s more than 33 ethnically-based armed groups, often assigning the dirty work to shadowy sub-militias.
"When Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest we placed our hope in her that she would accomplish her father’s work," she says, referencing the still much-admired Aung San, who helped secure Burma’s independence before being assassinated in 1947.
"Since our independence from Britain our reality has contrasted with what we had hoped."
The reality in Kachin State now includes more than 100,000 people living in the numerous internally displaced persons (IDP) camps that sprung up following the breakdown of a 17 year cease-fire in 2011.
People here guffaw when senior general Min Aung Hlaing tells Pope Francis, whose visit to the country concluded Nov. 29, that there isn’t religious discrimination in Myanmar.
The recent expulsion of the majority-Muslim Rohingya from Rakhine State to the west may have been labelled an "ethnic cleansing" by the head of the UN human rights office as far back as September, but ethnic suppression here stretches all the way back to the 1962 coup d’état and the subsequent formations of ethnic governance groups, such as the Kachin Independence Organization.
"Myanmar isn’t a democracy issue; it’s an ethnic issue," says Samson Hkalam during a meeting at the Waimaw Bawngring IDP camp. "Aung San Suu Kyi focuses on democracy issues but not ethnic issues."
Hkalam, the general secretary of the Kachin Baptist Convention, oversees the construction and services at many of the IDP camps, which house primarily Christian occupants. He is also on the board of the peace-seeking Kachin Consultative Organization and has brought the Kachin cause in person to Aung San Suu Kyi, former U.S. president Barack Obama and former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper. Canada, he likes to point out, is the biggest national donor to the UN-supported camps.
"The IDPs are the biggest issue for the Kachin," he says.
"People want the military to withdraw so they can go back to their homes. They’re worried because they’ve lost their land, and they’re worried their land will become banana plantations. But they are very scared to go back."
Hkalam says Myanmar’s ethnic Bamar majority views non-Bamar as second-class citizens, underlining a situation that is a long-running national crisis not specific to the Rakhine, Kachin or any other state. And Aung San Suu Kyi, he concedes, has been mum on the issue.
It’s why he sympathizes with what’s happened in Rakhine State. Ahead of the Pope’s visit, he predicted Pope Francis would be instructed to avoid using the term "Rohingya" so as not to agitate his hosts.
"We want a Myanmar that’s fair for all," he says.
Ja Seng is less optimistic. She’s become accustomed to getting her hopes up, only to have them dashed.
"In one hand they are holding a water cup," she says of previous promises. "In the other they are holding a torch."
Jerrad Peters lives in Winnipeg. He is currently in Myanmar.