The Kachins of Kent, Washington

While the world hails the advent of peace and democracy in Myanmar, refugees from there bear very different news.
Crosscut archive image.

U Aung San, independence leader and father of Aung San Suu Kyi, with Kachin women in 1946, as he attempted to unify the soon-to-be-independent Burma.

While the world hails the advent of peace and democracy in Myanmar, refugees from there bear very different news.

The world’s woes are never far from Seattle. They arrive in human waves, fleeing war, repression, and ethnic cleansing in Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Bhutan, and, above all, Burma  – the source, in recent years, of the largest shares of refugees coming to both the United States and the Seattle area. Those refugees are nearly invisible in the city itself, however. They do not settle in the pricey neighborhoods where many of us tend to live, nor in the South Seattle districts where previous waves of Southeast Asian and East African refugees settled. They wash up in the even cheaper anonymous beige apartment complexes of cities to the south – Tukwila, whose school district The New York Times declared the most diverse in the United States, and Seatac, Burien, Renton, Federal Way, and, especially, Kent – Seattle’s new Global Belt.

It was there I went a week-and-a-half ago seeking a different perspective on the events that have put a once-hermitic land on the front pages in recent months. In the past two years Burma (or Myanmar, as its military regime renamed it in 1989) has made more progress toward democracy and reconciliation than in all the years since 1962, when the army seized power and undertook what may be the wackiest and saddest program of willful impoverishment and immiseration this side of North Korea.

It all started last year when the junta ceded formal power to a civilian government, albeit one headed by a handpicked ex-general under a constitution passed in a rigged referendum that consigned most parliamentary seats to the military. Thein Sein, new president,  then moved swiftly, loosening the chokehold on media and public gatherings, founding a human rights commission releasing hundreds of political prisoners (while still holding hundreds more), and, most important, releasing the democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Daw Suu Kyi’s party won the last national election, in 1990, by a landslide, but the regime then abrogated it. She’s spent most of the years since under house arrest, an icon of quiet strength and nonviolent resistance. She and her party then consented to contest a handful of parliamentary seats put up for vote last month – the first free elections since 1990 – and won overwhelmingly again.

Never did a backwater by-election stir such cheers worldwide. Britain suspended sanctions entirely, and the European Union followed last week.The United States has re-established diplomatic relations, lifted many of its sanctions, and sent Hillary Clinton to Yangon, the first secretary of state to visit the country.

But the winds of change have yet to reach Burma’s mountainous backlands and borderlands, home to a kaleidoscope of peoples – well over 100 recognized groups with their own languages or dialects, many lumped into eight recognized “ethnic races” with their own official states. One or another, often more, of those groups have been battling the central government for decades – in one case, the Karens, since independence in 1948: the world’s longest running civil war. They’ve demanded the autonomy they thought they were promised under the federal “Union of Burma,” as the country was originally charted, their share of the timber, mineral, and hydrological wealth on their lands, and, in many cases, freedom from religious persecution. In recent decades they’ve fought to fend off increasingly harsh repression and reprisals, from forced labor and the burning of their villages to rape and execution.

One by one, however, the Myanmar army, one of the world’s largest, has won or wrung ceasefires from them, including even the diehard Karen National Union. President Thein Sein proclaimed that he wanted to reset relations with the minorities and help their youth wield “laptops instead of guns.”

But then, last June, war broke out in Burma’s northern Kachin State, along its porous border with China. The army had broken a 16-year ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Army, the second-largest and oldest minority force after the Karens. The fighting has since turned savage, with reports of rape, torture, and 75,000 civilians driven from their villages, many across the Chinese border. China, the Myanmar government’s main investor, patron, and arms supplier, stood watchfully by.

There are more than a million Kachins in Burma, but they’re a tiny share of this area’s immigrant population – perhaps 50 adults, plus their children. Seattle is not a prime destination for them, despite its well-developed refugee services; many have moved on from here to their people’s new American heartlands, in Texas and, especially, Omaha, where they hold their national festival each year. The living’s cheaper there and jobs are easier to find in the food processing plants. But Shawng La isn’t interested in going to the dusty flatlands. He says he stays here because the Northwest reminds him of his homeland’s rains, lush forests (teak and other hardwoods instead of cedar and fir), and snow-capped mountains, the last burst of the Himalayas. 

I met Shawng La and three of his friends – Lashi Branglar, Lahtaw (he uses just the single name), and Robert Changkhum – in a second-floor walk-up in one of the many motel-style, ’60s-to-’80-vintage apartment complexes on Kent’s East Hill that have made that town a magnet for refugees seeking cheap housing and a toehold in their new American home. I'd reached them through a Burma-born caseworker with many contacts in the various groups. In recent years Burma has been the leading source of refugees coming to the United States and to the Seattle area. But they are relatively invisible here, perhaps because they are so ethnically diverse and because they come from rural cultures and start few restaurants – the most visible signs of immigrant groups. Search for “Burmese restaurants Seattle” and you’ll find Yelp reviews of one in San Francisco and Thai, Vietnamese, and “Asian fusion” eateries here.

Shawng La and his friends are in the prime of life, 29 to 37 years old. They’ve been in the United States, and Kent, one to three years. Under the circumstances their command of English is impressive, but they still labor to express themselves, especially about subjects as complex and nuanced as their homeland’s politics.

Shawng La was the first to come here, in September 2009. He first found janitorial work at Sea-Tac Airport, sometimes sleeping there between shifts. Afterward he worked construction, then went to vocational school, learning furniture-making. “Now I stay home with the children, because my wife has job.” But she is pregnant, and soon it will be time for her to stay home and him to seek work again.

Changkum is a mechanic at an ice-maker manufacturer in Seattle. Lahtaw preps car bodies for painting. Branglar, a truckdriver in Burma, works as a machine operator. “I’m lucky,” he said. “Thanks to World Relief Agency I have a job.” He says he makes just $1,400 a month. He and his wife share a studio apartment. “When we have baby, we will have to get one bedroom.”

We met in Lahtaw’s somewhat larger, simply furnished apartment. A gospel verse, Luke 11:23, adorned one wall, hand-written in the curlicued Burmese script – an alphabet without sharp corners, supposedly designed for inscribing sutras on pattra palm leaves without tearing them. About half the Kachins in Burma are Christians, as are most of those (and the member of the other minorities) coming to this country. From the early 19th century on, American Baptist missionaries brought bibles and literacy to Burma’s so-called “hill tribes”: “My grandfather told me before the missionaries came Kachin people were like Amazon people,” said Shawng La. They were famously fierce and able jungle fighters, terrifying the Japanese when they aided the British and Americans during World War II.

But the missionaries also brought an enduring source of division and persecution in a largely Buddhist country. “In my village we built a big church,” Lahtaw said. “But it’s still unfinished. The government came and told us to stop building.” He concedes his village was relatively fortunate. “Sometimes they destroy the church and build a pagoda.”

“The government is building pagodas everywhere!” Changkum interjected.

Religious division has worked to the government’s advantage. It finally broke the back of the Karen rebellion, the oldest and most persistent minority challenge – and at 63 years the longest-running civil war in the world – by arming Buddhist Karens to battle the mostly Christian Karen National Liberation Army. That’s left the Kachins, who have fought off and on for nearly as long, as the last serious armed resistance, and the target of the military's fury.

The four all declared they had never been in the Kachin Independence Army or otherwise involved in combat, and I tend to believe them. Shawng La, a man with a meltingly mild manner and gentle voice, sounded like an abashed schoolboy rather than a seasoned fighter when he confessed, “Sometimes I want to hold gun. Sometimes I wish I could go back and fight. If the American government would give us guns….”

I recalled a heartbreaking spectacle in a Karen jungle camp, which I’d reached by crossing the mountains from Thailand, in February 1989, five months after a mass uprising spearheaded by restive college students. After fleeing the bloody crackdown on Burma’s predecessor to Tiananmen Square and the Arab Spring, more than 300 fleeing students had found refuge there. They were surprised to discover that the Karen rebels, hostile brutes according to government propaganda, were actually sympathetic hosts.

The students, who looked more like boy and girl scouts than soldiers, were determined to go back and fight. They had cheap camo uniforms and three old rifles between them. They massed and marched in a show of discipline; one collapsed from the heat, hunger, and malaria. They implored me to go home and persuade the CIA to send them arms.

“Kachin want human rights,” Robert Changkum told me in Kent. “We miss our families. We want to go home.”

Shawng La recounted how he and his family were driven from their home 12 years ago. They had a citrus orchard that was finally ready to deliver fruit. An army officer appeared and demanded the farm. “My father said, ‘Can you give me four or five years, time to make some money from it, and then take it? I have a big family to feed.’”

The officer said no. Shawng La’s father implored him. “The officer pulled out a gun. If you don’t give them what they want, they give you a bullet. My father looked at me and saw I was scared” – and gave up the orchard.

“My father went to work at the Pagan jade mine, but couldn’t make enough money. So he borrowed money and sent me to Malaysia. My brothers and sisters are still there. But for jobs, they have nothing.”

Changkum fled Burma for the same reason that millions of young men have fled scores of other lands: “The soldiers came and said I had to join the army. They try to make every student 17, 18 years old join. The soldiers don’t study, they learn nothing. I didn’t want to."

Branglar was living in Shan State, south of the Kachin homeland, driving trucks to and from Thailand. On one trip he counted the military checkpoints where he had to stop and pay bribes on his load of rice, brooms, fish paste, onions, and garlic: “Forty-seven gates! The cargo was worth 300,000 kyat. I paid the soldiers maybe 100,000. When I blow out a tire, I can’t afford to fix it.”

Still, it could be worse: “Many Kachins are living in the jungle and mountains."

But when I spoke to Branglar again, last night, he was audibly shaken and anxious. He said he'd just talked to his father, and the situation had grown dire. Soldiers were swarming over their village and roaring over in helicopters. His 70-year-old-aunt, who "has nothing," couldn't go up the mountain to harvest the rice paddies that are her only means of support.

With the rainy season coming on, Branglar urged his parents not to go to the jungle themselves. "Next week I try to send them money. I don't have much money, but I try. I don't understand – why doesn't UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights] go there?"

The minorities’ troubles derive in part from the natural wealth of their lands, and their proximity to powerful neighbors avid for that wealth – especially China, which shares half of Kachin State’s borders. Beneath the rich forests lie jade (the biggest and most prized stones in the world), gold, silver, iron, and other minerals. Erosion from dig-and-run mining regularly overruns stream, homes, and croplands. Now an even bigger resource bodes even more drastic effects on the land and its inhabitants. Kachin State has vast hydropower potential. The energy-hungry Chinese are racing to develop it, with the well-greased compliance of military officials. The series of dams they’re building along the Irrawaddy River has been compared to the Three Gorges project on the Yangtze.

The latest round of fighting broke out last June after the military ordered the Kachin Independence Army to evacuate a guardpost near one dam project. The Kachins captured three soldiers, later released. The Myanmar forces attacked, and expanded to a wider assault.

In September President Thein Sein dazzled critics at home and abroad, and reportedly incensed his own generals, when he ordered work on the largest of the dam projects suspended. Outsiders hailed it as another turning point.

But Thein Sein has also called on the army to cease attacking the Kachins, to little evident effect. They wonder how long his suspension of dam-building can hold, and how he could ever enforce it. In March Kachin observers reported that the military was continuing to order villagers near the dam site to evacuate and the Chinese were massing construction materials at the border.

“Thein Sein is a president with no power,” sneered Lahtaw. “Just a name,” sighed Shawng La.

Aung San Suu Kyi has long called for an end to attacks and rapprochement with the minorities. But the exiles in Kent doubt whether even she could deliver.

In Burma, as in the Balkans, historical memory is an open wound and haunting precedent. Suu Kyi’s father was the still-revered independence leader U Aung San. In 1947, as independence approached, he persuaded the Kachins and several other minorities to join in a federal union rather than seek their own independence. But he was assassinated by Burmese rivals a few months later, and the military regime that seized power in 1962 abrogated what was left of the federal system's guarantees of autonomy.

“Now our race, our time, everything is broken, because of one mistake,” sighed Shawng La. He and his peers hold little hope of better days, for their homeland or themselves. “We are not with enough experience, not enough English. We don’t care what kind of job we have, we just want our children to have education. We are like a candle for our kids. Our kids are our hope.”

Still he smiled and noted one bright side to such somber conversation: “In Burma, if we talk like this, we would have died hours ago.”


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.