Book Review: ‘Being and Becoming Kachin’ by Mandy Sadan

It is a daunting task to review this voluminous treasure-trove of a history book, but I have made the attempt because of the urgent national necessity more than anything else. This review is aimed at a domestic Myanmar readership, where the greatest impact needs to be made. But other than this, a book like this deserves a wide audience, and this review is meant to make it more widely known and accessible – which isn’t always easy in present-day Myanmar.

It is the first and only work of its kind – a compendium of information that also brings together previously published and unpublished sources, as attested to by extensive footnotes that appear on almost every page. It is the result of over fifteen years of work by the author, who is a lecturer in the History of South East Asia at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. She calls her work a history but not ‘a straightforwardly political one’. Nonetheless, she does not deny what may even be an over-arching political case –

..Yet embedded in this effort is also the need to make such interventions for political reasons and to address more deeply the origins of ‘ethnic’ conflict in Burma and why such conflicts have persisted for so long. A good deal of the discussion about the causes of ethnic conflict in Burma s far removed from a detailed understanding of local cultural and social histories of the kind discussed here.

It has a depth that a political science study cannot encompass and it makes a unique and very timely contribution in many ways. Two phrases crop up frequently throughout the book: one is from the title itself – ‘being and becoming Kachin’ and the other is ‘Kachin ethno-nationalism’. But lest it be seen as subversive, it is not an ethnocentric call to arms. The end of the book covers the contemporary situation, and this is where much of the real weight comes in. The conclusion should be required reading for anyone even remotely connected with policy. The author is unsparing in her remarks, and those concerning national political parties are deservedly scathing –

However, such insights would require far greater sensitivity to non-national political cultures than is currently found within any national party. It seems that the centre still does not know enough about its peripheries, while the peripheries feel they know more than enough about the centre.

Blame is laid upon the process of globalization and regional and global history that have contributed to the division between centre and peripheries, adding that –

This process had a political and economic logic that was much more intense than any act of differential colonial military recruitment or targeted Christian missionising alone could explain. Such experiences were merely some of the outcomes of these wider processes, not their cause.

Taking the historian’s long view, Sadan states that the results that we see are –

…not recent political experiences but experiences that have defined their relationships with neighbouring state systems for more than two centuries.

It is for the Kachin people themselves to either accept or refute such findings. I do not even presume to pass judgement; the Bamar could perhaps refer to their own experience of being colonized, how much it had rankled and eventually led to a hasty and unprepared-for independence.

Sadan herself admits to her book’s limitations – its focus upon Jinghpaw-defined Kachin ethno-nationalism, and that in but one part of the Kachin nexus, which encompasses the Singpho districts in India’s North-East and the Jingpo areas in China’s Yunnan. But she is a firm believer in evolution and does not hold that this’ presently authoritative, controlling discourse is fixed and unchanging’.

As the country (possibly) edges towards federalism, Sadan warns that –

Manipulating Burma’s political structures is only ever going to be partially effective in finding long-term resolutions of the country’s ethnic conflicts. Embedded in any political solution must be a far stronger awareness of the social, economic and cultural contexts from which these movements of violent resistance emerged, not just the political structures against which they may be focused. Important, too, is that the representatives of ‘peripheral’ communities be respected as equal partners in the development of the country’s political future, with greater respect for their distinctive histories, social models and political cultures, which can enrich rather than diminish the national life of modern Burma. Modern Burma is a historical product of their interaction and their effort.

She concludes that –

To make the current conflicts the final manifestation of violence will require a mammoth effort of listening and engagement of the kind that the Burmese centre has yet to experience. It will require Burmese national politicians with the intellectual and ideological capacity and willingness to occupy a space in Burmese political life that no Burmese politician has yet occupied.

The author’s sympathies are clear, and assertions like these resonate with my own views, views that I have held for a long time. However, there needs to be wider traction, and not just among the Kachins alone. Other ethnicities need to be sensitized to these arguments too. The present happens to be a time of resurgent reactionary forces on many fronts, but at the same time avenues and opportunities for breakthroughs are not totally lacking.

A significant outcome of the research that has gone into this history is the overturning of stereotypes. Sadan has pointed to common ground with the Bamar majority in the experience of colonialism. But of greater relevance and immediacy is the present shared experience of globalization.

The author says that the ultimate “aim of this book is to delineate a sense of depth and transformation in this area that is thought to be ‘without history’, preferring to see it instead as historically and intellectually complex and as a vital, integral constituent part of the history of the wider region as a whole.”

The book begins in the late eighteenth century, by when it states that the Jinghpaw social world “was already an established, clearly distinguishable, socially and culturally sophisticated system of considerable complexity.” The author adds that, “Just as this is not a conventional history of Burma, neither is it a political history of the emergence of conflict in the standard sense.” However there are recurrent expositions of the causes that led to conflict. It is only by studying these that we can even imagine to bring an end to the decades of conflict. What has prevailed up to now in the central state and sadly in the ‘peace industry’ are merely cursory, stereotypic narratives.  Perhaps the central aim of this book is about –

Understanding these dynamics in the history of Kachin ethno-nationalism…to dislodge an apparently secure assumption about the causes of ethnic conflict in modern Burma.

We are reminded that there were two Panglong conferences with strikingly different outcomes. In the 1950s and again in the present, Panglong is being revived and leaders in both national camps are calling upon the ‘Panglong Spirit’. However the stark fact is that very little seems to have changed in centre-periphery relations. There is a sense of finality when it is said –

The Panglong Spirit posited ahistorical notions of harmonic pasts that never existed and in which no one believed.  …It represented all that was failing in the new state and the centre’s capacity to engage meaningfully with its multiple peripheries. It gave no sense of whether the Union should be premised upon assimilation, incorporation or progressive convergence. It was void of political direction, detail or accountability other than that everyone should somehow ‘get on’.

The response to this failing is one episode in the continuity of the Kachin ideological discourse. Tracing the roots of this present manifestation –

While the Indian and Chinese states acknowledged the importance of developing ideological visions of the nation and how it should relate to its diverse range of communities, in Burma there was little time or scope for developing complex realignments of ideologies of nationhood. The dominating idiom was of an increasingly militarised Burmese nationalism apparently opposed to the political structures that supported the federal Union. …Neither was there any successful ideological modeling of what economic inequalities might mean for the nation as a whole that might be capable of persuading non-Burmese elites that the new nationalism was more than a surreptitious form of Burmese ethnic chauvinism. …In Burma there was no unifying central ideology that could help to define how non-Burmese peoples and regions could be incorporated positively both philosophically and politically.

In the Kachin Hills one could say that these encounters (with Japanese expansionism, communist ideological consolidation and its interactions with anti-colonialism, and the experience of World War II in Asia) influenced the ideological behavior that blended gumsa and gumlao in the direction of a modern political discourse.

We should not interpret this ideological construction and its local operations as a straightforward appeal to democratic popular sovereignty and majority rule, however. This was definitely an indigenized model of social legitimacy and authority. Rather, the emphasis was on the need for elites, new and old, to explain their actions, often in public forums, to invite critique and then to explain their decision making, and upon this basis a notion of social consensus would be built. A key component was the emphasis placed upon publicly witnessed consent as a primary mode of establishing broadly distributed, socially legitimate authority for political actions.

The author goes on to say that earlier upheavals and chipping away of hierarchies of authority –

…made these ideological shifts possible without appearing at this time to be revolutionary, unlike for example developments in the Shan States where the authority of the local Sawbwa came to be increasingly challenged in what appears, eternally at least, to be in a revolutionary way. It was and still is a political culture in which debate is expected to be intense, lengthy and hard fought, but when agreement is reached, it becomes remarkably binding upon those participating in the process. It strength is that it is capable of producing high degrees of political consensus, particularly in the face of perceived threats.

This model does not rely on the notion of a primordial ethnie locked into eternal antipathy with the state. Instead, it involves a more sophisticated social apparatus through which responses to wide-ranging challenges are developed in the absence of formal institutions.

Political consensus building of this type, therefore, was partly a product of a distinctive political culture blended with new political dynamics.

This stands in sharp contrast with the Burmese centre with its social and political fragmentation. It was partly in reaction to this that the Burmese military fell back upon the model in which it was created – that of the Japanese military in the 1940s – and later forcibly superimposed it upon the Burmese state as a whole. Ironically the creation of a Praetorian class at odds with the majority of the people only worsened the situation.There are other, equally critical ramifications in the Burmese political sphere – as seen in ‘democratic’ parties for instance. A person like Aung San Su Kyi is inherently a product of that model and culture.

Both practitioners and academics engaged with Burma lament the weakness of institutions in the country and efforts are being made to embark upon ‘institution building’. Whilst acknowledging the necessity of this for the country, there is this tradition of non-institutional consensus building that is working well in all weathers and seasons. A question that needs to be asked is: with Western-style institution-building help or harm it? As things stand, this part of Kachin culture is priceless. National leaders ignore this at their, and the country’s, peril. Although it is necessary to understand what went wrong and reflect on what might have been, one has to go beyond that. History has to inform policy and decisions, particularly at the national centre, and this entails not only Burmese but ethnic histories too.

The central challenge now (as if this country is short of challenges) is to how such an awareness could re-shape the path to peace. Almost simultaneous would be as to how it could mesh with the current movements towards a federal order. Even in the entity of Kachin state, and the Kachin areas, these processes necessitate the deployment of tremendous efforts.


Being and Becoming Kachin: Histories Beyond the State in the Borderworlds of Burma

By Mandy Sadan

Published for the British Academy by Oxford University Press, 2013

469 pages of text, and a bibliography of another 26 pages.

(This review will be continued).

The author, Dr. Khin Zaw Win, is director and founder of the Tampadipa Institute in Yangon.