Eager mindsets

Towards the end of 2014, I spent several weeks in Burma, mostly in Kachin state. I wrote the following about some of the optimism for the future that I encountered there.

Kachins are grabbing opportunities for change from a reluctant government.

IN THE town of Mai Maw, near Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin state in northern Myanmar, a local Baptist minister enthuses about his plans. Most importantly, says La La Hkawng Dau, known to all simply as Jack, he wants to reopen a long-closed school. Given that most of Myanmar’s vastly overcrowded schools have fallen into utter disrepair after decades of neglect, the authorities might be expected to welcome this. In Myanmar, however, it would be, as Jack acknowledges, “illegal”, or even subversive.

Myanmar’s excellent mission schools, such as Jack’s in Mai Maw, were all closed by the country’s military rulers soon after they seized power in 1962. Government-run schools opened in their stead, but their purpose was more political than educational. Thus in Kachin state, apart from in the few areas under the control of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the armed wing of the Kachins’ main political organisation, these schools are used by the majority ethnic-Burman government to exercise ideological control over the minority Kachins, with whom they have been at war, on and off, since 1961. All classes are in Burmese rather than the local Kachin language, history chronicles only the triumphs of ancient Burmese kings, and the sole religion that the overwhelmingly Christian children study is Buddhism. Jack wants to reverse this campaign of “Burmanisation”. At his school, he insists, Kachin children will be taught in Kachin, learn English and study Christianity.

Jack says that if he does not act now, “our future Kachin generations will be lost”. Despite the risk of running foul of the law, he now thinks he can open his school because “we feel a bit freer”. In many parts of the country people are taking advantage of a new tolerance that has been ushered in by the government of President Thein Sein since he took office in 2011. The momentum of reform has slowed now, much to the frustration of Myanmar’s most prominent opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and many Burmese. Indeed, some argue that the reform programme is stuck altogether. But enough has already been accomplished, it seems, to allow people at a local level, for the first time in generations, to imagine and plan new lives. And they are testing the limits of what is possible with less fear than before.

These are the baby steps of freedom, lamentably small for those who were expecting the advance to be much quicker, but still significant for those who are taking them. Jack, for instance, has been encouraged by the fact that a few Baptist schools have already reopened for the Kachin, and so far there have been no reprisals.

Such progress is striking in Kachin state; the KIA is the only large ethnic militia not to have signed a ceasefire with Mr Thein Sein’s government. Fighting, often very bloody, broke out again between the two sides in 2011, after a 17-year truce, and continues. In November the Burmese army shelled (unintentionally, it says) a KIA training school near Laiza, a small KIA-run enclave on the border with China, killing 23 cadets—the single deadliest attack in three years. Kachin leaders are gloomy about the prospects of a new ceasefire.

Yet, like Jack in Mai Maw, in Myitkyina itself there are many who are building a new Kachin culture and new Kachin businesses. In the city centre, a shop has recently opened selling T-shirts, mugs and key-rings emblazoned with the distinctive crossed-swords symbol of the KIA. Any public display of these was unthinkable only a year or so ago, inviting immediate retribution from the Burmese army.

Down by the Irrawaddy River, the Humanity Institute (HI) opened two years ago. Much as Jack hopes to save Kachin children from the clutches of the government, so the HI hopes to do the same for Kachin college students. Myitkyina University, which is run by the local government, is abysmal. HI, therefore, has been set up by Kachin businessmen and teachers to run what they hope will eventually become a new, separate university. Like almost everything else in Myanmar, HI will need a government licence in order to function. Nbyen Dan Hkung Awng, the director, applied for one in June 2012, but has heard nothing since. In the meantime, he says, he is “just going ahead anyway”.

Next door to HI lives one of the leading lights of the Kachin, Ja Seng Hkawn Maran. She and other Kachin businesspeople have formed a new company, the Kachin State Public Company Limited, to run utilities and other such businesses for the Kachin that had previously been ignored by the Burman-run state government. The company has revived two old hydroelectric plants, for instance, to alleviate Myitkyina’s shortage of electricity. This has been done in co-operation with the Burman-dominated state government—the enemy, so to speak. It is a novel private-public partnership.

Another project has been to revive the decrepit railway service from Mandalay to Myitkyina, previously the lifeline of Kachin state linking it to the rest of Myanmar. Under the Burman-run company that had previously managed it, says Ja Seng Hkawn Maran, the railway had been corrupt, slow, and unreliable. So her firm acquired a three-year contract from the state government to run an improved line that would bring tourists and restore pride in an obvious symbol of Kachin state. As the new brochure promises: “Services will be given by employees with eager mindsets different from [the] previous era”.

She has already trained 60 staff with fresh, eager mindsets for the new railway. But a month after agreeing to cede control, the state government has yet to do it. “So they are still not doing what they say,” Ja Seng Hkwan Maran complains (it is the same story with the power plants). “We are pushing at the door whenever we have a chance,” she says—although she admits she is unsure whether the Burman authorities really want to give the Kachins more autonomy. That question will test the sincerity of Mr Thein Sein’s reforms.

Original article published on the 3rd January 2015 on TheEconomist.com