Thursday, October 6, 2011

As Conflict Heats Up, Kachins Pray for Peace

“We are asking for God's mercy to give us justice and equal rights for our people,” said Naw Sai, an ethnic Kachin man living in Myitkyina, the capital of northern Burma's Kachin State, explaining the purpose of a prayer event recently organized by the Myanmar Christian Council.
The event, which took place at churches throughout the city from Sept 28 to Oct 4, brought together a community growing increasingly anxious about a war that has reared its head after a decade and a half of relative peace, and now shows no signs of abating.
“We believe that our difficulties will not always be with us and will one day disappear. To make that day come very soon, we are asking for the mercy of God,” said Naw Sai.
Gam Shaung, a Christian minister from Myitkyina who asked not to be identified by his real name, said that local people want to see an end to the conflict between Burmese government troops and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), and need to find a way to calm their souls.
“The people know that the Kachin fighters are fighting for our land and dignity, and they want to support them in some way,” he said. “Therefore we decided to organize this seven-day prayer event, and will hold similar events in the future.”
Many others, he said, have been praying privately since the fighting broke out earlier this year.
Kachin communities inside Burma are not alone in praying for an end to the conflict now raging in their homeland. Kachin people living in foreign countries are also gathering at their churches and to pray for a KIA victory.
According to a Kachin student living in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, special prayer meetings are usually held after regular Sunday services. He said that although they wanted peace, they did not want it to come without achieving any real benefit for the Kachin people. He added that people's faith in God helped them to remain strong in spirit in the face of this crisis.
A ceasefire agreement signed by the Burmese military regime and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the political wing of the KIA, in 1994 first showed signs of unraveling a year ago, when KIA troops fired warning shots at a Burmese army helicopter near Laiza, the KIO's headquarters, on Sept 23, 2010.
This was followed by a skirmish between KIA and Tatmadaw (Burmese army) troops in February of this year, after which Burma's state-run media stepped up its rhetoric against the Kachin army, referring to them as “rebels.”
The tensions that led to these incidents stem from the KIA's refusal to become part of a Border Guard Force (BGF) scheme first proposed by Burma's then military regime two years ago. Under the BGF plan, armed ceasefire groups would be allowed to retain their weapons, but only as part of a BGF under Burmese military command.
In the early stages of the current conflict, skirmishes took place only in the area around Laiza, near the Sino-Burmese border. More recently, however, the fighting has spread to northern Shan State, where there a few hundred KIA troops are operating.
At the end of last month, KIA Brigade 4 lost its headquarters at Loikang, near Kutkai Township in northern Shan State, after a huge military offensive by Tatmadaw troops.
Despite these setbacks, however, Kachin leaders remain defiant, saying that armed struggle remains the best way to achieve their long-term goal of turning Burma into a federal union with equal rights for the country's ethnic minorities.
Hkun Sa Mahkaw, the general secretary of the UK-based Kachin National Organization (KNO), said that reaching this goal would not be possible without the KIO and KIA, and so he continued to support their efforts.
“We raised awareness among the local Kachin community, we told them what is happening and what we need. Then we organized prayer services based on our religion and collected donations to support our troops financially,” Hkun Sa Mahkaw told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday.
Some military observers say that it is only a matter of time before the Tatmadaw starts a major offensive in Kachin State, and that the KIA will be hard-pressed to defend itself because of its relative lack of resources.
But Hkun Sa Mahkaw said he believes that the solidarity of the Kachin people, both inside the country and abroad, will keep the revolution alive.
“When the Burmese government took control of the Hpakant area, the KIO/KIA called on local people to contribute to its war funds. We also support them financially, not because we've been ordered to do so by the KIO/KIA, but as an expression of our solidarity,” said Hkun Sa Mahkaw, adding that Kachins living in the UK meet for prayer services almost every Saturday.
But religious gatherings are not the only way for Kachin people to show their support for Kachin soldiers fighting on the front line.
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