Conference provides a microphone to Myanmar’s ‘minority minorities’
THE Kachin contingent showed uniform unity in their matching militarygreen T-shirts, the Shan shone out in a blaze of orange, and the Kayin maintained a disciplined and tight-lipped presence in their loose-fitting thin dine shirts.
But if the larger minority groups dominated the Ethnic Youth Conference in Panglong, Shan State, over the last week in terms of numbers, it was often representatives of the smaller ethnicities who stole the show in terms of traditional costume - and who expressed the most enthusiasm about being involved.
From Nagaland in the northwest to Dawei in the deep south, delegates made their way to join the week-long conference aimed at strengthening links between young people from different ethnic backgrounds, achieving peace and generating consensus on how a federal Myanmar should look.
And while political and ethnic activism is well-established among Myanmar’s better-known minorities, for a number of those present, the topics being discussed took them into new territory.
J Yaw Daw, of the Lisu Network, described some of the challenges facing his ethnic group, which he said struggles to maintain its identity as a Kachin people apart from the majority Jinghpaw group.
“Some people don’t know Kachin has many groups. They think Kachin language is Jinghpaw, and ask if I don’t speak Jinghpaw, how can I be Kachin?” he said.
He added that in many people’s eyes, Kachin and Jinghpaw are interchangeable. But he said he believes that is changing.
“Now we’re getting a little more chance to get a place. Before, if there was any meeting such as this, the Lisu wouldn’t get any information. Now things are getting a little better.”
He said in the past, Lisu people would be punished or even killed if they rose to too high a position in the Kachin army. But he hopes moves toward federalism will lead to greater equality for his people.
“According to federalism, we will also get the same opportunities and that will be better.”
J Yaw Daw said one thing that had contributed to disparity between the Lisu and Jinghpaw was that the Jinghpaw generally had better access to education. One of his principal reasons for attending the Ethnic Youth Conference was to go back and share the information he gained there with young people in his own community, most of whom, he said, were not particularly interested in politics or activism.
“Before we didn’t know anything about democracy. But after the election, we Lisu got a little bit of light and we opened our eyes. We Kachin tribes should say something about what we need,” he said.
“For the Lisu that is especially about education. We still don’t have big professors. Also some people go to other countries to work and stay there. If we get education, hopefully villagers will get more democracy.”
Myint Naing from Nagaland said people in his region also need education, along with basic amenities including electricity, transport and water. He said the conference had provided an opportunity to develop his awareness of ethnic rights activism.
“For a long time I’ve been interested in this kind of program for Naga people, but there’s no place to discuss such things. It feels a privilege to be here. It makes me feel comfortable raising our issues for Naga people,” he said. “The government has cheated our local people. We want to research things – many things, like the constitution.”
He said he would bring the issues raised at the youth conference back with him to discuss with senior Naga leaders.
“Our leaders don’t want discussions on federalism, they say only ‘independence,’” he said, adding that after attending the conference he would be keen to encourage them to think about the prospect of becoming involved in discussions about federalism.
From the opposite end of the country, members of the Dawei delegation, who made the long journey to Panglong from southern Tanintharyi Region, also expressed their happiness at being involved in the event.
Ko Kyaw Min Htaik said, “I want to introduce the Dawei to the other ethnic people because our area is so far away [from the better known ethnic minority heartlands] that even our neighbours don’t recognise us.
“If we use the English name ‘Tavoyan’, that is more familiar, but when people hear Dawei they just think that’s a city.”
He said one major concern for Dawei activists was that most younger
‘For a long time I’ve been interested in this kind of program for Naga people, but there’s no place to discuss such things. It feels like a privilege to be here.’
Myint Naing Nagaland representative
people of Dawei background are identified as Bamar on their ID cards.
“It is rare for anyone born since the Ne Win era to have [a Tavoyan/ Dawei ID],” he said.
Ko Kyaw Min Htaik said he had been working as an activist for Dawei rights for more than 10 years.
“This is the first time I have left my group to come to something like this, so it’s really fantastic. Before I worked with a small alliance, and we shared our problems, but here there are so many people we feel united.”
Delegates in traditional attire listen to a speaker at the Ethnic Youth Conference in Panglong on July 27.
J Yaw Daw, of the Lisu Network, listens to a speaker at the Ethnic Youth Conference in Panglong on July 27.
THU THU AUNG