In the second part of her Myanmar series, Scarlett Hawkins tells us the tales of the freedom fighters and their ethically dubious struggle for recognition from an equally dubious government.
For a nation that is rapidly becoming the world’s most flooded tourist destination, it can be, at times, difficult to comprehend how Myanmar remains internally fractured by factional conflict between the government and civilian paramilitary groups, who are known colloquially as freedom fighters. However, the parallels become clear when one attributes much of what makes Myanmar a charming place to visit to that which has prolonged such conflict: the people.
Comprised of over one hundred individual ethnic identities, Myanmar’s constitutional allocation of entitlements are dubious at best: according to the constitution, only eight ethnic groups are addressed, essentially classing all remaining groups as either “other”, or nonexistent.
Such is the crux of many of the existing regional conflicts across the nation. Ethnic minority groups, many of whom receive no recognition in the nation’s identity, have reacted with violence against a system that does not reflect nor include them. In both the upper northern Shan State and Kachin State, a collective of seventeen hill tribes have mobilised paramilitarily against the government. The band of freedom fighters roam the hills with weaponry and light supplies, with the intention of strategic ambush when government soldiers pass through. It is an ethically dubious reaction against an ethically dubious system of governance, but it is uncommon for locals to see these groups in the context of terrorism. Rather, these militias are considered a necessary evil, borne of a desperate lack of representation and a demand for legitimate tripartite relations between the existing government, the National League for Democracy and the ethnic minorities.
There is little recognition, either in international or the heavily-censored national press, of the struggles faced by many of these ethnic minority hill tribes. Having spoken with several sources scattered across various tribes, there is a degree of consistency; despite individual desires and opinions, people are frightened and people are angry. Due to fear of retribution in a system where political dissidents are still subject to imprisonment, some details proferred by these sources have been obsfucated, or omitted to protect their identities.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the champion of the National League for Democracy and activist for peace and human rights, is universally known as the figurehead for political progress in modern-day Myanmar. However, many individuals from ethnic minority groups deem both her message and her cause to be lacking. Suu Kyi’s platform – though exceedingly palatable by international standards – is hungry for nuance in addressing the individual needs of the aforementioned groups. In a country where tribalism dictates much of one’s status, it is important to note that Suu Kyi is an ethnic Bamar, the elite ruling class of Myanmar, which comprises approximately two-thirds of the country’s population. As such, her part advocates for the continuation of the existing plurality-based electoral voting system, which, ethnic minority groups insist, disadvantages and demobilises their voting populations.
With an election slated for late 2015, there is a cautious optimism for change. Whilst the National League for Democracy does not comprehensively reflect many minority groups’ needs, there is an hope that, with a peaceful agenda, more tribal liaison will be possible. Whether a bureaucratic political movement can effectively communicate with such a complicated, intertwined network of unique communities is an entirely different logistical issue altogether.
I had the good fortune to pass through several rural tribal villages scattered amidst the wildness of the upper northern Shan State, a territory that I learned (much too late) is listed as a specific “Reconsider your need to travel” region by the Australian Travel Advisory website, Smart Traveller. This network of villages, comprised of various different ethnic tribes and interspersed along pathways that were, to describe generously, rough and almost nonexistent, had their own way of living that resembled nothing seen in the larger towns or cities.
Whilst these tribes are rural in the truest sense of the word, they are far from ignorant. Most villagers will speak a minimum of two or three languages: that of their tribe, Bamar as a means of communicating with other tribespeople and those from cities, and to varying degrees, English or Chinese. Religions also vary: from the Palaung Buddhists to the Lisu Roman Catholics, the hill tribes coexist more or less comfortably with one another despite their great diversity. Motorbike riders traversing expanses between villages will often halt their journeys briefly to exchange news with other commuters. This network of news sharing is surprisingly effective given that so many of these communities operate with greatly diminished, or nonexistent, electricity, let alone the financial inaccessibility of mobile phones.
Many hill tribes have upheld democratic principles for centuries, holding annual elections for the title of Village Chief. The role, demanding an able-bodied, multilingual, respected male from the community, is both a great honour and a great burden. Given that the Chief is responsible for inter-tribal and governmental liaison, no village is able to remain truly removed from war. Responsibility is often forced upon the Chief – who is unable to refuse the role once elected – by virtue of roving conflicts and bands of freedom fighters passing through.
The Chief is often caught in a paradox of loyalties, particularly those from any one of the seventeen ethnic groups who are currently at war with the government. Freedom fighters permit no defiance when they arrive at a village in pursuit of food, laundering and recruitment. The latter is undertaken with a mercenary callousness. Families containing men who are teenaged or older and unmarried are deemed eligible for an unsettling lottery in which names are, essentially, pulled from hats. There is no right of refusal if a family’s name is called. The father is given an unbearable burden, compounded if he has more than one eligible son: to either choose between children, or to volunteer in their stead.
Such is the sacrifice each village must make at the behest of the freedom fighters, who haul AK-47s with ease, and carry all the menace of the politically radicalised. The approach of a militia is accompanied by its own counter-reaction: dozens upon dozens of teenage boys, revving motorbikes as if the devil is riding their coattails, making a break for the relative safety of the larger townships where the presence of paved roads and consistent electricity form a symbolic barrier against the freedom fighters’ influence. Some of the boys with whom I spoke freely admitted to fleeing forced recruitment, whilst others invented premises of collecting friends from town to save face. The anxiety that emanates from all and sundry is unmistakable. “We do not look for the war,” one source says, brow furrowed, “But the war comes to us, whether we want it to, or not.”
In this position, it is hard to covet the esteemed role of the Village Chief, given the perpetuity of the push-pull between tribal loyalties, and governmental retribution. One source, himself the son of a former chief, detailed the depth of his fear and resentment at the prospect of being bestowed with the title. My source recalled a childhood memory: his father had been forced to accept a gun from a militia group. He had tried to demur, knowing the trouble a gun could bring to their community. But as with all unequal power dynamics, he did not have the right to refuse. So he took the gun.
It was not long before government soldiers came through the village. Perhaps suspicious, perhaps malicious, or perhaps just curious, the soldiers opted to search the Chief’s home, and found the gun. When he was unable to divulge the locations of the group who had gifted him the weapon, the Chief was beaten mercilessly before the townspeople. Forced to consume water in great volumes, and subjected to vicious kicking until he vomited, he was assaulted over and over, until my source, his son, was taken from the scene by a family member.
Hatred for the government is born in many forms, and for many reasons. Now in his thirties, the man has sworn to never forgive the assault of his father, which he credits as the cause of the descent into alcoholism and poverty that destroyed his family. However, this does not immediately align him with the motivations of the freedom fighters either, who are also loathed for their barbaric recruitment systems, intimidation of villagers, and lack of strategic process beyond violence. There is distinct terror for family that at any moment, a loved one might be whisked into the war against their will. That this can come to pass so readily is very telling of the complex political crosshairs in which everyday people find themselves…for picking a side is no more than the roll of a dice, but without the quiet comfort of knowing that, at least, it will be one’s own hand to cast it.
Return to TBS next Thursday for the final instalment of Scarlett Hawkins’ three-part series on Myanmar