By Libby Hogan
Those moments when the recorder is turned off, you sit back in your chair and the conversation sidetracks and winds this way and that, usually over a sugary 3-in-1 premix coffee — they are some of my favorite moments on assignment. Being shown family photos, sharing jokes. Seeing the similarities and differences between your life and theirs. Connecting beyond just a one way mode of communication where one person asks questions and the other answers. After working as a journalist for two years in Myanmar, I often found myself finishing interviews with the question, and what are your hopes for the younger generation?
As Myanmar continues to change rapidly, I became interested in documenting how life is changing for young people belonging to Myanmar’s many different ethnic minorities. This became the focus for my Young Explorers project.
After reporting on the conflict in the north of the country in Kachin State, I yearned to tell deeper, detailed stories about the indigenous people who were being displaced. I wanted to research more about their identity and the myriad of tribes that had lived peacefully for years side-by-side. How were their traditions being disrupted because of war? While the international news spotlight focuses on the conflict in Rakhine State and the horrific human rights abuses against the Rohingya, few reports have been written about the Kachin who have also been experiencing a gruesome war for more than seven years.
And so I planned to travel to the land at the foot of the Himalayas in Myanmar, where the two rivers, Mayhka and Malikha, meet. I wanted to visit the rugged mountain range and meet the ethnic groups that live on the mountains such as the ethnic Rawang and Lisu. However, just three weeks before I embarked on my trip all travel authorizations permits were canceled. The reason: Another skirmish between the military and Kachin resistance armed group. So I changed my plans.
Kachin State was recognized as a state at the same time the country became independent and emerged from under the thumb of British rule in 1948. The first president, Sao Shwe Thaik, was of Shan ethnicity — an ethnic group that shares many similar traditions to the Kachin. Sao Shwe Thaik traveled to Kachin State on Jan. 10, 1948 and met with the Kachin Chief to inaugurate the official existence of Kachin State.
I decided there was no better time to visit the area than on state day. And so I found myself and my two team members — Su Su Hlaing and Aung Aung Phyo — buckled in on the rickety flight from Yangon to the state capital Myitkyina.
Kachin State Day was as I had imagined it: a flurry of colorful national dress and proud smiles. Men wearing tusked headdress, feathers spiked high, hats with painstaking-detailed beaded designs, and the constant rattle of silver tassels. This year the celebration was kept short. It was an event to show the fierce pride of Kachin people acknowledging their independence as a state in Myanmar, yet the undertone was tense. Different ethnic leaders made speeches calling for peace and an end to the fighting.
The Manaw dance — a dance to workshop the Animist Madai spirit — is the most sacred celebration of the Kachin, but this year marked the seventh year it had not been danced. The indigenous Kachin are protesting, stating they will only dance again when there is peace. It was at this point that I decided to investigate the cultural cost of war.
The contradiction of feelings was overwhelming. While the Kachin are proud of their culture, they are pained to know it is being torn apart by the war. That feeling of sadness and despair was palpable.
I conducted a range of interviews with people from different sectors and backgrounds in Kachin State, to achieve a diverse range of perspectives. From a political arena to an IDP (internally displaced person) camp. Some of the common worries were fears IDPs would never be able to return home, no education for IDPs, the lack of job opportunities for the youth, no customary rights over land and an increasing drug problem across the region.
However, among these views there were also many who refused to give up and were fighting for peace and development in Kachin State, such as politician Ja Hkawn Maran, youth activist Gyar Yon and drug vigilante group Pat Jasan.
This project is timely as State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi is trying to broker a peace agreement with the military and all ethnic armed groups in the country.
I am continuing to collect these stories and I am also planning to expand this project to document the voices of young people across other parts of Myanmar. I want to hear their perspective on what are the biggest challenges young indigenous people face, how is their culture changing and fusing with new influences of modernization and social pressures.
Libby Hogan plans to continue interviewing young people from the many different ethnic minorities across Myanmar. She’s curious to document what young people are choosing to preserve and reject, their unique challenges at this moment of change, as their voices were so often silenced or ignored under the previous military regime.