‘Duwa Howa Zau Gam leans on a walking stick and turns his back to the weak sun. It is still winter in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State in upper Burma. Half a dozen men in heavy coats circle around us, respectfully keeping their distance but close enough to hear his words. As the scion of Duwa Hkun Hpung, a signatory to the 1947 Panglong Agreement and a veteran of the famed WW2 resistance fighters called the 101st Kachin Rangers, he understands all too well how, in Burma, the sword is perversely mightier than the pen—how, in Kachin State, conflict has overruled culture.’
The Dissident blog, Swedish Pen’s online journal for freedom of speech and freedom of creativity has just published their special ‘Burma’ issue. Author, literary activist and Pen Myanmar director, Dr Ma Thida (Sanchaung), Poet and Bones will Crow editor, James Byrne, Poetess Pandora, and Irrawaddy Journal founder, Aung Zaw all report on the state of Burmese literature, media and censorship.
I was a little bit honoured to be asked to contribute to this edition. Kachin: Culture of the Mountain Lords
Unfortunately it seems in the editing process half the article went missing, so if you are interested, here is the second half of the article,
“This leaves the ethnic cultural groups with few funding opportunities. Kachin communities in India, China and Thailand are fortunate to receive support from the respective governments who fund, for example, the annual cultural Manau dance. The Burmese government, so far, does not.
The ECG’s are not actively suppressed – the Tatmadaw seeing the K.I.A as the more immediate threat – but at the same time, an unwavering conviction in one government, one army, one people has opposed the recognition of cultural individuality which differs from that of the Burmese majority. This is achieved through a ‘blind eye’ approach; essentially, the relevant ministries can overlook the ethnic cultural groups, knowing that by simply withholding funds and dialogue, the influence of these groups on cultural rights and identity is kept in check.
By registering with the government as a legal association the ethnic cultural groups are allowed to accept donations from abroad but there is a rightly held fear of placing their association in the hands of those who would seek to control and monitor their activities. Until the resumption of fighting in 2011, the Kachin Independence Organisation would fund cultural projects in townships controlled by its military wing, through their Department of Culture and Literature which publishes book and magazines in the Jingphaw language on their own presses, imported from China to their capital, Laiza. Community support, therefore, remains as the primary source of income. As a Christian majority state, these donations are often diluted through several different denominations, all of which operate culture committees committed to promoting the church through its literature. The largest of these, the Kachin Baptist Convention, has already translated the Bible into six ethnic Kachin dialects and published modern parables in Jingphaw.
However, it is a secular organisation headquartered on the periphery of the Manau Park, which arguably offers the greatest resistance to the subordination of Kachin culture. As I wrote for an earlier Pen Atlas piece, the Kachin Culture and Literature Co-operation (KCLC) suffer from their illegal status, yet this hasn’t prevented them from embarking on a collection of inspiring projects.
Duwa Lahkri Zau Bauk, the chairman of the literature committee, with energy that belied his 60 years, flicked through the draft copy of the new quarterly magazine, ‘Shapawn Yawng’, almost ready to be sent to each of their 42 offices across Burma. Walu Ja Brim, secretary of the Women’s Association, carefully laid down an exquisite amber necklace used in traditional engagement ceremonies to unite two families and designed by her women’s co-operative programme, explaining how at $250 apiece, most Kachin families opt for cheaper glass imitations imported by their thousands from China. Shadang Sumdu Mung Ban of the youth committee described how he was using traditional Kachin martial arts to prevent the Kachin youth from turning to drugs. Next to them all was the father figure of Walu Sin Wa, the President of the KCLC.
As I sat on the KCLC’s balcony, overlooking this extraordinary confluence of literature, language and arts, it was encouraging to know that, at least here, there were people who could take on the vacant mantle so lamented by Duwa Howa Zau Gam’s generation. Cultural leaders who could pursue the reality of culture being intertwined with conflict, accepting that it is also their cultural differences which birthed the civil war and not confining it to a political or geographical foundation; leaders who can employ culture as a mediating player in the peace process that rises above economical demands; leaders who can offer culture as an alternative path, a guiding rod in a post-transition environment.”