Saturday, May 17, 2014

Return to Myanmar: Kachin State

Another trip to Myanmar in April 2014 - this time to the Kachin State... a place high in the foothills of the Himalayas and filled with Christian fundamentalists thanks to British missionaries traveling through colonial India. There were more Baptist churches than Buddhist temples differentiating it as a foreign land from Rakhine State and Yangon with its sparkling golden temples and saffron robed fascist monks. 

Besides the altitude and the religions, Kachin was a less paranoid experience. The smiles and shouts I received from teenage boys on motorcycles felt more like innocent sexual harassment than anti-UN hatred. Even if the tension is less palpable, the conflict is more active and there had been recent conflicts right before I left Yangon. I was unable to make it to the non-governmental controlled areas or to see the flags of China fluttering over the frontier from Laiza.

The international community, which is quite small, is not seen as a threat to the locals as they are in Rakhine and people in general were friendly, curious and open. The people wear very colorful traditional clothing too and the textiles were amazing. Being so close to the border with China also meant there was a very Chinese vibe to the food and the amounts of cheap consumer items available, even in poor Myanmar. The state felt richer than Rakhine State as well.

Shop in market selling Kachin Textiles

Kachin reminded me more of my time in Manipur, India where I went in 2010 with MSF.Manipur suprised me because it was notning like the "India" of my imagination. At one point, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, and Myanmar were all part of one giant colony for the British and the ethnic groups up in the hills of Northeast India, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and China all seem quite similar. Like Manipur, there is a big problem with intravenous drug use, particularly heroin in Kachin. It seems ironic that evangelical Christianity and IV drug use characterize parts of India and Myanmar - opiate of the masses, indeed. The Christianity is a legacy of colonialism but the drug use is more recent and tied to the conflicts and the obscene influence of mining in the region.  

The north-east Indian states of Manipur and Nagaland, which lie along the border with Myanmar, have ethnic conflict, armed civil insurgency, a heavy military presence and high unemployment which is exactly the same description as Kachin, a state that has been wracked with ethnic conflict and sits right in the "Golden Triangle" In Myanmar. It's also the site of all the jade and gold mining in Myanmar and sits on a lawless border with China.  Some estimate that up to 70% of male youths are addicted to IV drugs in Kachin.  The jade mines of Hpakant in Burma’s northern  Kachin State have long been notorious for high rates  of HIV and IV drug use. A single shot of heroin costs about 1000 kyat or about a dollar. 

But I didn't see much of that when I was there. The weather was a lot cooler than Bangkok or Kachin so I spent my time cycling to the office and training Kachin women on gender-based violence. I adore being a trainer and I always get energy from meeting with women and men working on gender-based violence and trying to instill in them the skills to help the survivors. The Kachin women are so serious and earnest. We laughed a lot and played games but they never stopped trying to learn and they always wanted more. 

Good Counseling!

Importance of Eye Contact or Intimidating stare?

Bad Counseling

Trying out counseling for themselves.

Survivor-Centred Skills


The Trainees

I went to the "Confluence" - the place where two rivers meet to form the Irrawaddy. Its going to be a site of a huge dam (a second "three gorges")  that will mostly serve China and Thailand's energy needs. The dam's reservoir will submerge important historical and cultural sites at the Mali and N'mai Hka rivers, as well as what is widely recognized as the birthplace of Burma. The areas is also seen as one of the world's top biodiversity hotspots and a global conservation priority: its a reserve for tigers and the river has an endangered dolphin species that lives in it. Groups within Burma oppose the dam not only because of its environmental impacts, displacement, and threats to cultural sites. But its also near a major earthquake fault line.  If the Myitsone Dam were to break during an earthquake, it would endanger the lives of hundred of thousands of people by flooding Myikyina.

There are some seriously sad photos of how much the gold mining and jade mining have ruined this lovely spot. It's a flashpoint for the conflicts here and the dam has been delayed, but for how long? After a relaxed day there eating grilled fish and picking up some interesting rocks, we returned to Myitkyina to discover that there had been a kidnapping there the same day we were there. The "troubles" in Myanmar are all around but only if you keep your eyes open - no wonder its becoming a popular tourist destination - but as we drove home, we saw a military patrol complete with rocket-propelled grenade launcher going through a local village. Although the women I trained didn't like to talk about it, the Burmese soldiers have been known to rape Kachin women and sexual violence is a big part of the conflict here.  
Me at the Confluence
The town of Myitkyina is very cute and not very big. Bigger than Sittwe in Rakhine but with some small interesting roads to cycle down and on the Irrawaddy river. There's a nice little market and the food is mostly vegetables and lots of fruits. It was mango season when I was there. The food was pretty tasty - much less greasy than the Burmese curries that I detest but I still was able to get my fill of fermented tea leave salads (lapet thoke), shan noodles (Shan Kauwk Swe), and Burmese fish and noodle soup - a form of Burmese Catfish chowder (mohingya). My friend Marise has set up a good life in Myitkyina and loaned me a bike and had me over for happy hour so it was the perfect balance of work, social life, and fun!


Road near the office

Training center in the Himalaya foot hills

Harvesting Guavas

Participants at the training

Lychee sellers at the market.
We culminated one long evening of wine drinking and discussion by singing Karaoke with new Kachin friends in a private karoake bar. I sang a heartfelt duet to Endless Love and received some polite applause before cycling home to my sparse little hotel.

I spent one day visiting the Women and Girls Centers that we have set up in Kachin to help empower women there. They are also a place where GBV survivors can receive support and counseling and referrals for services. I was providing some coaching and support to the center managers and met many of the women who were there for activities those days. Its the very beginning of the program but I feel proud to be involved in it and hope that my training helped in some small way to make things better.

Laughing at the WGC in Wai Maung

Feeling like a movie star in Myitkyina WGC

WGC provide day care too

Hungry WGC workers at the training

Unlike the dramatic events around the census and the attacks on aid workers that I experienced in March 2014 in Rakhine, I had an uneventful and fulfilling trip to Kachin. While I struggle from time to time with my decision to be a consultant and I feel so tired from traveling and airplanes and contracts and working from home, I love being in new places in this fascinating world of ours. I adore meeting and connecting with people from different countries. I'll always remember certain images that you can't capture with an iPhone: 
  • the kind and lovely case worker from the Wai Maung center who always brought me lunch during the trainings - her kind and calm face made me wish she was my therapist. 
  • Singing "If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands" in one of the women's centers in Myanmar, Jingpho, Japanese, and English. 
  • playing "obstacle course" with the participants, teaching them to trust each other as we wandered around the church to the amusement of the local contruction workers. 
  • watching an enormous beetle that looked like a prehistoric creature wander towards my brand new computer and freaking out until my male coworker got rid of it for me and then having to endure his jokes about my gender discrimination the whole trip
  • cycling home at 11pm on a completely empty street with a mild buzz from Myanmar beer and the wind in my hair and a million stars in the sky.
  • listening to the sound of the whistle from the train to Mandalay and imagining myself in the footsteps of George Orwell and climbing aboard to go backwards in time.

Myanmar (or Burma) is a special land. The people are amazing and beautiful and its fascinating and heartbreaking to see what the neglect and political corruption has done to this land. Trips like this remind me to be grateful for having the opportunities I have in my life and inspire me to see more and more and more. 

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