Pri Ja N-Jang is a Catholic from Myanmar's Kachin State who now lives in Toronto. Photo by Michael Swan

Kachin refugee in Canada buoyed by Pope’s message

  • January 3, 2018
Despite being unable to use the word Rohingya while he was in Myanmar, the Pope’s message on religious diversity and respect for minorities got through loud and clear, a Catholic refugee from Myanmar told The Catholic Register.

“His message is very clear about love and peace — support each other and pray for each other,” said Pri Ja N-Jang, a Catholic from Myanmar’s Kachin State who now lives in Toronto. “He was praying for all the ethnic people in the conflicts, including the Muslim people in Rakhine State.”

Like the Rohingya people, the Kachin face persecution from the Myanmar government. Pri came to Canada 15 years ago before a 17-year-old peace agreement between the Kachin Independence Organization and Myanmar’s army, known as the Tatmadaw, fell apart in 2011. Since then at least 100,000 ethnic Kachin, mainly from Kachin State in northern Myanmar, have become refugees inside their own country.

Estimates of the number of people living in camps for those displaced by civil war in Kachin and in neighbouring Shan state range as high as 200,000. The mainly Baptist or Catholic Kachin minority has been fighting for a semi-autonomous state that would have powers over education, culture and economic planning.

On Dec. 14 the Tatmadaw began shelling near the Kachin Independence Organization stronghold in the town of Laiza. This was followed by fighter jets deployed near camps for the internally displaced in Mansi.

The Kachin struggle dates back to promises of autonomy made in the post-war years. Those promises were never fulfilled and today Kachin cultural practices, Jingpho language and Church activities are all closely watched and policed by the Tatmadaw, with the exception of a few mountainous strongholds held by the Kachin Independence Army.

The Kachin homeland is a source of jade, gold, amber and timber. It also holds enormous hydroelectric energy potential at the source of the Irawaddy River — potential that China wants to see exploited. The proposed Myitsone Dam would displace thousands of Kachin, flood millions of hectares and disrupt the annual flooding that sustains rice farming downstream.

Underlying these disputes is the question of who gets to make decisions that affect Kachin culture and survival. Without respect for diversity or meaningful rights for minorities, Myanmar is prey to populist, ethnic and religious nationalism preached by activist Buddhist monks and to policies of the Tatmadaw.

Educated, urban people in Myanmar understand the aspirations of minorities and are sympathetic to a democratic devolution of powers that would ensure their rights, said Pri.

“But I think there is somehow persecution mostly in remote country, where the civil war is going on. It mostly happens in ethnic states,” she said.

Life in Canada has taught Pri that ethnic and religious diversity are no threat to national unity.

“I appreciate living in Canada, with a multi-ethnic, diverse culture,” she said. “I do wish that system would be built up in Myanmar too. But you need more education. It’s going to take time for it to be seen as other than a foreign idea.”

Like Pope Francis, Pri doesn’t want to be quoted using the word Rohingya for fear of how the Tatmadaw might react. She plans on visiting family in Kachin State in the next year.

Pri has some confidence that State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and the urban elites who support her are steering a course in the direction of recognizing the diversity Pope Francis praised while in Myanmar Nov. 27-30.

“It is the aim of our government to bring out the beauty of our diversity and to make it our strength by protecting rights, fostering tolerance, ensuring security for all,” Suu Kyi said during the papal visit.

But there are limits, said Pri.

“If she stands up for Muslim people in Rakhine State, there might be some violence and she might lose power,” Pri said. “Then who will lead the country?”

After generations of fighting for a place in Myanmar, most Kachin are willing to play the long game and see whether Suu Kyi can gradually nudge the army and its rural base into a new mindset.

“We don’t want a war at all,” Pri said. “We don’t want any civil war at all. People want to deal in a civil way, diplomatically, at a meeting, negotiating for what we want. But we’re fighting a government system which is dominated by the military. The State Counsellor even doesn’t have all that much control.”

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