The millions of people who have poured onto the streets in opposition to the February 1 military coup in Myanmar have the appearance of a unified movement in urban centers like Yangon, where everybody from doctors to dancers has taken up the fight for democracy.
But in faraway Kachin state, more than 1,110 kilometers north of the commercial capital, both the dynamics of the protest movement and the political context in which it is unfolding are quite different.
Not far from the border with China, the Kachin State capital of Myitkyina sits largely outside the glare of most international media, even more so now that coronavirus travel restrictions have prevented people from going in or out. Here, there is a longstanding and visible military presence, and soldiers arguably act with greater impunity due to the lack of outside scrutiny.
This has certainly been the case in the way that soldiers have cracked down on anti-coup protesters in Kachin, who have reported being beaten, shot with rubber bullets and slingshots, and arrested over the last week. There are fears of more violence after two protesters were killed in the city of Mandalay on February 20, which brought the coup’s death toll to four, and more mass protests likely to unfold over the coming days and weeks.
In the week immediately following the coup, the streets of Myitkyina were relatively calm. Youth supporters of the detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) government initially came out to protest against the military takeover, calling for the release of elected NLD leaders and echoing the demands of the mass protests in Yangon.
In a development that may seem strange to outsiders but not to close followers of local politics, the state’s chief minister — NLD-appointee Dr. Hkyet Awng — was detained and stripped of his position by the junta, then replaced by his own younger brother Hkyet Hting Nan. Hkyet Hting Nan is a former parliamentarian with the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and formal chair of a USDP proxy party called the Unity and Democracy Party of Kachin State.
The USDP got pummeled in elections last November, which were won overwhelmingly by Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, a humiliating loss that many experts believe could have fueled plans for the coup. After the takeover, the junta said there was “terrible fraud” in the election, though international observers have dismissed the allegations.
The junta’s new Kachin State minister is frequently described by locals as a “Kachin crony” for renting out his large land holdings for use as controversial banana mega-plantations as well as for his own mining ventures. Kachin analysts predict he will use the chief minister’s position to further enrich himself and his business associates.
The Hkyet “family dynasty” lays bare the shallowness of the symbolic and tokenistic approach to ethnic political representation ironically employed by both previous governments and the current junta. Neither of the state’s chief ministers has been representative of the Kachin people they claim allegedly to serve. Their appointment — rather than election — prescribed under the military-drafted 2008 Constitution, is fundamentally damaging to democracy, as well as to long-held ethnic aspirations of sharing power within a federal system.
It is noteworthy that only when Kachin youth, many dressed in black, joined their counterparts to protest against the coup, did calls for federal democracy start emerging among the protest chants in Myitkyina.
Because of ongoing conflict between ethnic armed groups and security forces in the area, military expansion in Kachin State long pre-dates the coup.
On February 13, residents of Myitkyina noticed that the city’s primary source of electricity, the Buga power plant, had been occupied by several dozen Myanmar soldiers. People did not know why the military had asserted control over the plant, but worried they would shut off their power.
In response, Myitkyina residents defied the 8 p.m. curfew and surrounded the plant, demanding that troops leave. “We will fight you to the death if you don’t leave the plant,” a resident was heard saying. The soldiers fired rubber bullets to disperse the crowd, and five journalists were subsequently detained while covering the standoff.
The Buga power plant is strategic not only because of what it provides, but because it is locally known to be owned by the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), a Kachin political and armed organization that the Myanmar military has designated as illegal.
Buga has been Myitkyina’s main source of electric power since it was established in 2008 during a 17-year ceasefire between the KIO and Myanmar’s armed forces. The ceasefire broke down in 2011 and there has been sporadic fighting ever since, leading to the internal displacement of more than 100,000 people.
The military has been broadening its footprint in the far northern town of Putao for the past decade, likely due to its rich natural resources and its strategic geographic location near the borders of both China and India. Coup mastermind and military chief Min Aung Hlaing made official visits to Putao twice in 2020, citing an interest in the “development” of this isolated settlement and the surrounding areas.
Just three days before the coup, on January 29, the entire unit of Myitkyina’s regional Infantry Battalion 21 — around 200 men and their family members — was deployed to Putao to be permanently based there. On the same day, the former Vice President Myint Swe — the current Acting President following the arrest of the NLD’s President Win Myint — toured Putao with the now detained former chief minister Dr. Hkyet Awng.
As tragic as the coup may be for the supporters of the NLD, the suffering for Kachin and other ethnic communities has never ceased under any of Myanmar’s administrations. But the movement against the junta has presented an opportunity to connect across these political, ethnic, and religious divides.
The Kachin youth leading protests in Myitkyina want more than the simple restoration of the “disciplined democracy” laid out in the military-drafted 2008 Constitution and adhered to by the NLD. Yet they understand that they can’t bring systemic change alone and will have to work with all across ethnic, religious, and political lines chanting together, “Federal Democracy, Our Cause, Our Cause!” for all.
Stella Naw is a political writer and activist focusing on peace and conflict in Myanmar, with a particular focus on ethnic groups in northern Myanmar.