Burma: Faith and Resistance in Kachin

Photography by Ryan Roco

Text by Bertil Lintner

“To be Kachin is to be Christian,” says Tsinyu Tanggun, an official at the Baptist church in Momauk, a small town in Burma’s northernmost Kachin State. More than 90 per cent of Burma’s one million Kachins are Christians while the rest follow pre-Christian Animist practices. Churches, most of them Baptist but also some Roman Catholic, can be seen in virtually every town and village. Christianity has become even more important among the Kachins since renewed fighting broke out between local guerrillas from the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Burmese government’s forces in June 2011.

Attacks by the government’s army ended seventeen years of ceasefire with the central authorities, and there are now more than 100,000 people in camps for “Internally Displaced Persons”, or IDPs, in Kachin State. A recent report by Human Rights Watch also outlines indiscriminate attacks by the Burmese army, including heinous acts of sexual violence and torture of villagers suspected of being KIA supporters.

Against this background, it is hardly surprising that the Kachins see their struggle as a “Just War”, a fight to defend the interest of a mainly Christian people in a predominantly Buddhist nation. This is a concept that the KIA’s propaganda department has promoted through music and film that it distributes all over the state, and that is also what many Kachins told me when I visited rebel-held areas in December 2012, and government-controlled territory a year later.

The concept of a “Just War” also appears to have been sanctioned by the Kachin Baptist Convention, and preached by its pastors in their pulpits. “We pray for victory for the KIA,” said a pastor in Myitkyina, the Kachin State capital. I got the same message when I attended a Kachin service in a local Baptist church in Oakland, California, last Easter. They told me they collect money for the IDPs — and expressed their support for the KIA.

The Kachins, actually a group of people belonging to half-a-dozen different tribes, were converted to Christianity by American, mainly Baptist missionaries at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. A hill people, they were seen as savages by the people of the central plains, and the Burmese king Mindon, who ruled in Mandalay from 1853 to 1878, even warned the first missionaries who had come to spread the gospel in the northern mountains: “So you are to teach the Kachins! Do you see my dogs over there? I tell you, it will be easier to convert and teach these dogs. You are wasting your life.”[1]

But the missionaries were not deterred, and the conversion rate among the Kachins soon became one of the highest among any foreign mission in Southeast Asia. The missionaries also Romanized the main Kachin dialect, Jingphaw. The Bible and Christian hymns were translated into Jinghpaw, and the “savages of the hills”, thanks to the church, now had their own written language.

The arrival of the missionaries in tribal areas in Southeast Asia fermented a social, cultural and economic transformation. Christianity gave many poor hill tribes, and the Kachins were one of them, a common creed instead of scattered beliefs in the power of spirits. With education came self-esteem and ethnic pride — and an entirely new national consciousness.

Since Christianity was introduced in the Kachin Hills more than a century ago, the new faith and traditional, ethnic identity have become inseparable. Almost inevitably, this resulted in a gap between the people of the hills and those in the central plains and has led to serious, seemingly never-ending conflicts. The Kachins are among more than a dozen hill peoples, who for decades have been fighting against Burma’s central government. The Karens, another people with a strong Baptist component, took up arms in 1949, only a year after Burma had become independent from its former colonial power, Great Britain. The Kachins resorted to armed struggle in 1961.

The Kachins, nevertheless, have faith in their ability to resist — and in the religion that more than a century ago have them a new life. “In the end, truth and justice will prevail,” a Kachin wrote to me in an email. “And we believe God will not abandon us.”

Ryan Roco is a researcher and photographer. His work from Burma and greater Asia has been published and exhibited internationally. Visit his website at www.ryanroco.com or follow him on Twitter @ryanroco.

Bertil Lintner is a journalist living in Thailand who has written seven books about Burma including “The Kachin: Lords of Burma’s Northern Frontier” and “Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency Since 1948.


Q & A with photographer Ryan Roco

On February 7, 2014, Ryan Roco talked with The Revealer’s international editor, Natasja Sheriff, about his experiences documenting the conflict in Kachin State, northern Burma.


Natasja Sheriff: When did you go to Kachin for the first time? What drew you there?

Ryan Roco: I had moved from New York to Thailand to cover what I had understood to be civil war in Burma. As a photographer, I was there to take photos of what I had read about, the atrocities I had heard of, perpetrated in the context of conflict.

NS: You said you went to cover what you thought was civil war. You went expecting a certain kind of conflict, is that what you found?

RR: It was not a high intensity conflict, but it was one that often took place in areas that you just couldn’t reach. These were largely military positions, very few civilians; you just don’t have the type of urban destruction and fall out that you see in conflicts like we see in Syria and so many other conflicts. The terrain was extremely difficult. It started to make sense to me why there were so few images coming out of these areas compared to what had been written about the war.

In Karen and Shan states the conflict was more sporadic and certainly of lower intensity. While I was in Kachin, not only had I been granted access by the Kachin Independence Army to reach their most frontline positions but I was there at the time of one of the heaviest Burmese offensives, and it was incredible. The disproportionate amount of force was overwhelming. The artillery barrages would last for more than 30 minutes, constant, so much so that you can barely stick your head out to see what’s happening.

NS: How did the role of religion in daily life start to become part of the story you were trying to tell?

RR: I felt like my purpose was to show the reality of this civil war, of the infighting inside Burma, and to try and show it through a more cultural lens, to try and understand the Kachins as a people; that’s something I had the privilege to do because I was able to stay there for so many months consecutively.

I began to attend church services, to visit families and I began hanging out longer at the camps of the displaced instead of bouncing from frontline to frontline to get the dramatic images of the soldiers with guns, and all the sort of cliché images that we see from conflict.

As an outsider working there, the overlap between religion and the Kachin identity was something that was immediately apparent. If it’s not part of the story that people are telling when they go there, then it’s simply because they’re choosing not to tell it. Once I had moved past just looking at what I perceived to be conflict, I started to look more at the people, and then it was an obvious decision to start looking into religion.

I’m constantly critical of media coverage from these areas, maybe because they’re so close to my heart because I’ve spent so much time there. But I feel like religion is something that is used to dramatize narratives in Burma, often, rather than perhaps used to humanize them. I’m hoping that my photographs give a more human element to a narrative of conflict. The narrative is inherently dramatic, but open up the complexity and nuance to show what it looks like to be part of this minority group, in this oppressive country and to be at war.

Every so often you see Christian-based wire services report that a pastor was killed in Kachin state, or a church was burned or something happened in the context of a Christian setting; then it’s reported all over the internet as Christian persecution. I can’t say that in any of my time there that I witnessed anything that I would have called a direct religiously motivated type of persecution or violence. In that sense, I don’t think that religion is part of the conflict.

NS: You mentioned in our communication before this interview that religion has, in some ways, also become a justification for war, and part of the conflict itself?

RR: There was a point during my time there, when I realized that things I had perceived to be very separate—religion, ethnicity and nationalism—were impossible to break up. Some examples specifically, I’m debating if I want to call it propaganda, include media that is produced by the Kachin Independence Organization, featuring footage of Kachin Independence Army training, shots from various news reels and battle scenes, depicting the fighters in this glorious light. Yet, on this publicly distributed DVD, you also have this introduction that shows soldiers praying, families praying, images of Jesus and some songs about how we need to pray for our soldiers and how we need to pray for our battle and how, if we are right, we will be victorious.

NS: In our earlier communication, you talked about ‘Just War’. How did that emerge during your reporting?

RR: I arrived in Kachin for the first time three weeks after the fighting had started [in 2012]. There had been a [17-year] ceasefire before that, but I had not spent any time there. From that time until two years later, I noticed the distinct difference in the role, or at least the attitude, that the church and pastors had towards the war.

At the beginning, it seemed very easy for them to feel as if they were somewhat removed and insulated from the conflict, by the church. They said ‘we can’t take sides’, ‘we support the Kachin people but we can’t support this fighting’, ‘we hope for peace’, ‘we pray for peace’, ‘we also pray for the Burma army’, and ‘we pray that this country and that the Kachin people can be free and have rights’.

But in my later days there, speaking with these same pastors that I’d met two years previously, they no longer espoused these kind of ideas and this separation. It felt distinctly different, like there was now this endorsement [of the conflict]. And I remember having a conversation with a pastor about that, and whether it was something that they had identified as happening, and he spoke soberly about human rights abuse.

It became evident to me that, from his perspective, the war is justified, and it was because of these kinds of atrocities being perpetrated against innocent people, innocent Kachin civilians.


This interview has been edited and condensed for publication. 

With support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs.


[1] http://kachinnet.net/kachin-alam/labau/27-the-ola-hanson-story

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