The Book

The Kachin and Their Country

The Kachin Hills are the northernmost mountain ranges of Myanmar. Bordering on Tibet, they form part of the outer spurs of the Himalayas. The hills and the state capital of Myitkyina (pronounced MEE-chin-uh) will be both the next and the last destination on my journey before I fly back to Yangon. Of the several rivers that flow down from the high mountains, two, the Me Hka and Mali Hka, meet at a point about twenty-five miles (forty kilometers) north of Myitkyina to form the grand Ayeyarwady, which then courses through rugged hills before it passes first through Myitkyina, then Bhamo (the northernmost point navigable for steamers), Mandalay, Bagan, and then the large delta area near Yangon, when it empties into the Andaman Sea.

The mountains of this area generally reach a height of around ten thousand feet (three thousand meters), but on the Tibetan border the highest mountains reach nineteen thousand feet (fifty-nine hundred meters). Deep valleys with subtropical vegetation and terraced rice paddies lie between the mountain ranges. The tropic of Cancer traverses Upper Burma halfway between Mandalay and Myitkyina. Kachin State shares borders with India (to the north), China (to the north and east), Burma's Sagaing Division (to the west), and Shan State (to the south).

Myitkyina, with a population of about fifteen thousand, is the only community in Kachin State that comes close to what could be called a city. Others, such as Putao, Bhamo, and Hpakan, are towns of different sizes and importance relative to each other and Myitkyina. Bhamo, some 118 miles (190 kilometers) south of the state capital, is perhaps a bit more interesting and lively than Myitkyina; from there one can take a ferry boat to Mandalay and, with interruptions, all the way south to Yangon. Travel from Bhamo by road to the south and to Namkhan in Shan State is not permitted, nor is it recommended; the route penetrates the opium and heroin area. Many of the hill villagers along the border have profited from opium cultivation, but they have now fallen victim to heroin addiction themselves, and to the AIDS epidemic as well. In fact, a publication titled "Report on the Pan Kachin Development Society" mentions several villages where the majority of the men are HIV-positive. The Kachin, however, are not the major players in the narcotics business in this region; it is the ethnic Chinese, on both sides of the border, who are the big drug traffickers for the drugs coming up mainly from the Kokang and Wa states.

Putao, the northernmost town of the state, has some scenic alpine areas nearby, but special permission (seldom granted) is required to go there. Because the road between Myitkyina and Putao is in such poor condition, the only way to reach the area is by air. There are, however, some intriguing places to the west, such as Hpakan (also known as Pakhan, Pakant, or Hpakant), which is the jade center of Burma, and the beautiful Indawgyi Lake, Myanmar's largest. But special permission is necessary to go to both of these locations too. Because of the prospect of another potentially frustrating application process, I decided not to try to go to these areas.

Kachin State is inhabited mainly by Kachin people, who account for some 3 percent of the nation's population. The name "Kachin" is generally used for all inhabitants of this state who are not Burmese or Shan. The Kachin are Tibeto-Burmans. Although most of the Kachin consider themselves Jinghpaw, they are not a united, single tribe but a diverse conglomeration of various hill tribes like the Jinghpaw (Jingpo, Chingpaw), Maru, Lashi, Azi, Tailon, and a few others. These major groups then consist of numerous subgroups. Instead of "tribe," it might be more precise to designate the various groups and subgroups as "clans" because the Kachin were never united under a king or Shan-style princes; theirs was a system of village and clan chiefs. Kachin also live in India and China-more than a hundred thousand in Yunnan Province alone. Their language, for which they use the Roman alphabet today, is an officially recognized minority language in China and the dominant local language in Kachin State.

Long ago the Kachin lived in the hills, where they planted dry rice, buckwheat, millet, and barley. Later, some of them moved into the valleys and became wet-rice farmers. The kin-based clan structures still prevail in the countryside. The Kachin are in general of fair complexion, their features are a little broader than the Shans', and they seem less reserved than the Shan, perhaps because their English is much better, a result of the missionary schools. The traditional religion is a form of animistic ancestor and nat worship; however, many have become Christians (Catholics, Anglicans, and Baptists) and some are Buddhists. The Kachin have always been known for their fierce fighting spirit. In the nineteenth century, the British did not take long to grant them a semiautonomous status (1885-1948), which was administered by the British as part of the Frontier Area. Kachin men served loyally in the British colonial army, not only in central Burma but also overseas.


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