The train to Kachinland clacks thirty hours north from Mandalay on old colonial tracks. The heavy rhythm of the metal wheels beats a mantra for change as the train passes from one world to another: from the river valley to the mountains; from the center to the periphery; from the heart of state control to an invisible border world.
Along the way, the train stops in Shwebo, Hopin, Mogaung. Places with old names that hold memories and forgotten truths. When a column of British colonial soldiers passed this way in 1888 on a mission to subjugate the warrior hill tribes and secure the famed Kachin jade mines, Major Charles Adamson lamented the fact that locals kept so many secrets from the foreign military men. “Of the road from Mogoung to the Jade mines little could be learnt,” he reported. “As those people who knew the road were almost invariably interested in keeping the knowledge from us.”
Secrets have always held power in a place like Kachin, where the interests of governments, businessmen, and local militias have been colliding for over a century. The treacherous mountain geography and dangerous malarial jungles impede both invading armies and the flow of information. The land is secretive for a reason. Kachin State, in Myanmar’s far north, is home to unimaginable wealth. Every year, billions of dollars worth of jade spill down from the mountains that Adamson’s men labored to find, driven by a ravenous, mystically attuned demand from China.
In the Kachin hills, locals and outsiders still battle for control over those resources, and for much more. In many ways, it is a fight for Myanmar’s soul.
* * *
I arrived in Myanmar in the beginning of September 2017, on a one-year fellowship to study Burmese and do research on the country’s civil war. The fellowship and the research were tied to the master’s degree I was working toward at Columbia University—where I was studying international security policy—but the decision to come back to Myanmar was just as much personal as it was professional.
I first visited the country in 2012. It was easily the most complicated, interesting, and difficult place I had ever been, and I wanted to learn more. That first time, as a twenty-three-year-old traveler living out of a backpack, I had been fascinated by a country that seemed to have stepped sideways in time. After five decades spent isolated from the rest of the world under a series of authoritarian rulers, everything about Myanmar felt unique—the people and their politics far more preoccupied with their own convoluted history than with what was happening outside their borders. There were no Western brands in Myanmar, no cell phones, no ATMs in the entire country.
It felt like a story that hadn’t finished telling itself—even names weren’t settled. Was it Rangoon or Yangon, Burma or Myanmar? That sense of mystery and unsettled history was compelling.
I remember coming from Thailand with two thousand dollars hidden between the pages of different novels in my backpack, waiting to be changed into local currency at the black market money changers my friends had told me could be found around a pagoda in downtown Yangon. I remember walking through a Shan marketplace and encountering a psychedelic rainbow of fruit I had never seen or smelled or tasted. I remember making a phone call to a friend back home. Shut off from the global telecommunications boom, there were no SIM cards in Myanmar. So to dial out I had to stand on a street corner at a table run by an old lady, where twelve old rotary phones snaked together in a tangle of wires to plug into the telephone pole leaning out over the busy road. When I was done, a man passing by with a towering plate of desserts on his head handed me an orange cake and thanked me for visiting his country. I was hooked.
Myanmar in 2012 was in the throes of a renaissance. My arrival in March of that year, when the country held its first relatively free elections in fifty years, was possibly the most optimistic period in Myanmar’s postcolonial history. The pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been censored and held under house arrest by the country’s military dictatorship for most of the last two decades, was elected to parliament, and the feeling was that nothing could stop the forward march of progress. In all the major cities I visited, people were upbeat and eager to share their story with someone from outside. After spending half a century living in fear and forced to hide their activities and opinions from shadowy intelligence services, Myanmar’s citizens were finally celebrating the ability to speak their minds. Truth was the currency of the day, and people shared it freely. They told me that a history of secrecy and violence was finally being sloughed off, that it would be replaced by a new world where people had the freedom to speak truth to power.
But it soon became clear that for some, life in Myanmar was still defined by violence and economic exploitation.
During that same trip, I took the train north to Kachin State, where I went to report on the ongoing civil war that had displaced 100,000 people in the previous year. Young men belonging to the Kachin Independence Army explained that the rebel group was fighting to uphold the Kachin people’s rights for equal representation, and that the Myanmar military was bent on destroying not only their traditional systems of governance but their very ethnic identity. That ethnic hatred had fueled decades of violence in Myanmar’s borderlands. But the Kachin war, they told me, was also about natural resources. The northern region was replete with hydroelectric power, valuable teak forests, and billions of dollars of untapped mineral wealth.
By drinking with the soldiers in Kachin State, and by reading the history books I was able to find in dusty old shops when I returned to Yangon a week later, I learned that the northern civil war was not a new phenomenon. Since Myanmar won its independence from Britain in 1948, the country has been torn apart by a single question: Who has the right to rule?
Minority ethnic groups living in the country’s borderlands, averse to being ruled by the majority Bamar population, have waged sporadic insurgencies since 1948. Myanmar is one of the most diverse places on the planet, and seemingly every distinct group has had its own armed faction fighting against the central government at some point in its modern history, whether it be over ideology, religion, or resources. After seventy years of civil war, Myanmar’s ongoing struggle between the central government and its fringes is the longest lasting armed conflict in the world today. The war’s character and temperature have evolved throughout that time. During some years, the fighting is isolated to the resource-rich northern mountains. Other times, the entire borderlands can be under siege. The conflict’s changing landscape builds its own narratives about rights and representation, forcing people to make impossible choices that shape their identities for life.
I left in 2012 having only glimpsed the country, and for five years I searched for a way to come back and continue learning about the Kachin war, Myanmar’s intricate history, and its peoples’ longing for their own truth.
* * *
When I returned to Myanmar in 2017, the unresolved issues of ethnic conflict and governance in the borderlands were threatening to undo all the progress and hope of 2012. The country had begun opening to the world and was flirting with democracy, but was still reckoning with deep-seated racial hatreds and a military juggernaut that was allergic to truth telling and afraid of losing power.
I found a guide, and a friend, in a young man named Bum Tsit. In Kachin State, where the thirty-year-old jade businessman lives, the armies fight for political power, for territory, and for their version of the truth. But most of all they fight for the land and what is buried underneath.
Jade is Myanmar’s most valuable resource and its biggest secret. Over the past two decades, hundreds of billions of dollars of the green stone have come down from its northern mountains. For the armies battling in the jungle, jade is the perfect commodity through which to launder secrets. It is untraceable. Its value is fungible. A handful can be worth millions of dollars. And when it flows through the ungovernable reaches of Myanmar’s borderlands, that money moves the needle toward war.
As an extractive industry, it can sometimes feel like jade is taking something from everyone it touches. For the ethnic Kachin people living in the area, the loss of local ownership has become linked to their very identity. For miners, the chase for jade can lead to death. And for businessmen like Bum Tsit, chasing the green vein can cost everything.
In the Kachin mountains, governance has all but collapsed under the relentless trauma of war between ethnic militias and the national army. In the vacuum, powerful military groups are perpetrating one of the largest natural resource heists in the history of the world. Kachin State is home to some of the country’s most bountiful natural wealth. The hills are awash in gold, teak, amber, and jade, worth many billions of dollars. Yet the majority of that wealth is systematically syphoned away from both local communities and government tax collectors into the hands of shadowy business groups. At the same time, armies use their access to the region’s natural resources to fund their military operations and enrich themselves. Local grievances about these abuses of power fuel a conflict without end. Like many issues in Myanmar, the war in the north feels like a deadly cycle of blame, greed, and violence. One that is largely ignored by the outside world.
Only those on this northbound train seem to be paying attention.
* * *
Toward the end of the train ride, passengers disembark in Mogaung, the starting point for the trip to the jade mountains. Kyin Aye, a twenty-five-year-old Buddhist from Rakhine State, in the country’s southwest, remarks that this is the farthest north he’s ever been. “I don’t know anything about this place, about Kachin,” he says. “I only come for one thing, to make money in the jade mines.”
He is one of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers that come to Kachin State every year toward the end of the summer rains, when the water levels go down and the roads open up. In these northern mountains, they can live off the leftover jade scraps from the large mining companies and still earn three to four times more money for their manual labor than anywhere else in the country. But what really goes on in the mines is unknown to most of the young men heading that way. The promise of wealth is a gemstone hidden in the rough. Many go into the mountains but never return.
In Mogaung, the would-be miners are held up. The road to the mines is closed. This happens periodically, as tension between the national army and the local Kachin insurgents heats up or cools down. A battalion moves across the road, an artillery piece drags along. Traffic slows. People wait. “You don’t realize until you get to Kachin, because no outsiders can really tell you about this life, but you have to be very patient to work here,” says Aung Min, another miner who is coming to Kachin to work for the third straight year. “But you also have to be ready to act fast. Stop, start. Stop, start. That is life in the mines.”
* * *
Myanmar’s secrets might decide the country’s future. But another group of citizens hopes otherwise.
Perhaps no group celebrated the country’s would-be reforms more than its journalists and artists. Beginning in 2010, when the government began loosening its censorship rules, photographers and writers began chronicling the evolution of a country waking up from a long, self-imposed nightmare. These stories were as much for a domestic audience as an international one, as Myanmar’s truth tellers tried to help their compatriots grapple with new social upheavals against a backdrop of five decades of propaganda and fearmongering.
Phoe Wa, a young photojournalist from southeastern Myanmar, benefited greatly from those reforms. As a high school student, he enrolled in a journalism workshop, and eventually found a job in a local newspaper. After another round of elections in 2016, when Aung San Suu Kyi’s reformist National League for Democracy, known everywhere in Myanmar as the NLD, took power, he naturally thought that these freedoms would keep increasing. But within the first year of the NLD takeover, those expectations started to founder. Journalists, student groups—anyone who was overtly critical of the government or military—were forced back into silence. As the army embarked on ever-more aggressive campaigns against the country’s minority groups, the promise of democracy was turning into despair.
My return to Myanmar coincided with the most divisive moment for Myanmar’s truth tellers since the country gained independence. No issue was more polarizing than the fate of the Rohingya Muslims, a minority group living in Myanmar’s far west. Long persecuted by their Buddhist neighbors, the Rohingya’s voices were nearly silenced in September 2017, when the national military began a coordinated campaign of rape, murder, and arson that drove over 700,000 people from the country in the world’s largest refugee exodus since World War II. The United Nations called the campaign “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” but the Myanmar government has successfully hidden that truth from its own people. The country’s leaders deny that the Rohingya are citizens of Myanmar. Military officers claim that Muslim villagers torched their own homes to dupe the international community into supporting them. Politicians enlist hordes of anonymous online commenters to praise them as the defenders of Myanmar’s traditional culture in the face of “Islamic terrorists” that want to destroy Buddhism.
In Myanmar, the truth is malleable.
Copyright © 2021 by Daniel Combs. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.