Kachin Faith- and Identity-Based Networks: Social Capital, Resilience and Resistance

by Ashley South

This article develops some ideas and reproduces material from a report on the Kachin armed conflict and local responses, prepared for the Overseas Development Institute’s Humanitarian Practice Group in December 2018. The breakdown of a 17-year ceasefire in Kachin State between the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, in June of 2011 led to the displacement of more than 100,000 civilians and the collapse of trust between large sections of the civilian community and the Myanmar government and Tatmadaw. In the absence of a national response sufficient to meet humanitarian needs, and with the government blocking international humanitarian access to vulnerable communities, Kachin civil society groups have taken the lead in assisting and protecting their own people. Local humanitarian actors have been particularly inspired by Kachin faith-based and ethno-linguist identities. This is an important resource, helping to support Kachin resilience, and resistance to an often violent and militarised state. However, as discussed further below, faith and identity-based networks can sometimes be rather exclusive in character.

Sustainable solutions to the humanitarian crisis in Kachin State can only be achieved through a negotiated political settlement to decades of armed ethnic conflict here and elsewhere in Myanmar. There are no humanitarian solutions to political crises: only when the Myanmar government and army are willing to negotiate a just and equitable political settlement can these conflicts, and attendant humanitarian suffering, be resolved. Looking specifically at Kachin State, in the meantime, while conflict is ongoing, more can be done to support the rich and complex faith- and identity-based networks which constitute significant elements of Kachin social capital, and which are key resources in the community’s resilience and resistance to militarisation and state domination.

In his influential analysis, Robert Putnam uses the term “social capital” to refer to “features of social organisation, such as trust, norms, and networks, that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated actions.” For Kachin communities, bonds relying on a shared sense of inter-group identity and values come from membership to ethno-linguistic and faith-based communities. The faith-based aspect of identity is often overlooked by a highly secular international aid industry. This is problematic, given that international aid agencies’ access to conflict-affected Kachin communities in Myanmar is limited by government restrictions. Therefore, many international donors and aid agencies provide assistance and elements of protection in partnership with local agencies, many of which are closely associated with the churches. Furthermore, people living in conflict-affected areas of Myanmar are usually part of communities of faith – Buddhist or Christian (the majority of Kachin), Muslim or animist. Their faith-based ‘social capital’ is a major part of what helps people to survive under difficult circumstances, to share limited resources, and to love and help each other. 

Resumed armed conflict within the context of deep-rooted Kachin cultures 

By attacking the KIO and civilian populations accused by the Tatmadaw of being associated with the KIO  the Tatmadaw has shown its contempt for the idea of a peaceful, multi-ethnic union. While government leaders talk about peace, they have done little to protect citizens from violent assaults by the state armed forces. According to the UN Human Rights Council’s Fact-Finding Mission (2018) and other sources, the Kachin conflict is characterised by widespread and systematic breaches of international human rights and humanitarian law, particularly on the part of the Tatmadaw. 

Kachin communities’ efforts to mitigate the threats they face are intrinsically linked to their ethnic and social structures. Ethnic identity among the Kachin – and many ethnic groups in Myanmar – is fluid, with self-identification as “Kachin” adapted to local social and political factors. Kachin society is clan-based, with complex links between different segments and family lines celebrated and reproduced through traditional practices and a rich oral culture. Connections within and between Kachin communities constitute important elements of social capital which have been mobilised by local actors to protect and reproduce the idea of a Kachin nation during a time of conflict and crisis. These networks of community are key to the unique spirit of Kachin resilience.

Kachin social networks traverse international and internal borderlands and the front lines of conflict. Kachin identity has evolved over the last two centuries, mostly under the leadership of elites of Jinghpaw ethnicity (the Jinghpaw being largest Kachin subgroup). In the past half-century, the great majority of Kachin in Myanmar (although not in India or China) converted to Christianity – primarily Baptist and Roman Catholic denominations. The mainstream Baptist church in Myanmar is organised into different ethnic conventions. The predominantly Jingphaw-led Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC) is regarded by the government and Tatmadaw as more staunchly and “narrowly” nationalistic than the Catholic Church, with its Universalist doctrine. However, such assessments must be judged with caution, given the government’s long-standing practice of using ethnicity and religion to divide and spread dissent within minority communities. Indeed, in the modern history of Myanmar, the experience of the country’s ethnic nationalities has been characterised by domination by the majority Burman nationalist elites that first captured the armed forces in the 1950s, and then the state, through the 1962 military coup. Since at least the 1960s, the militarised and centralising state has seemed bent on consolidating the “Burmanisation” of culture and history – suppressing diverse ethnic identities, and imposing a centralising and assimilationist idea of Myanmar, based on the language and traditions of the Bamar majority. 

Kachin nationalists sometimes seek to downplay the complexities of their ethnic identity, in order to promote the “Wunpawng myusha” (Kachin nation). Nevertheless, some leaders of the Lisu, Rawang and Shan-ni communities have long-standing grievances with perceived “Jinghpaw domination”.

Faith-based groups and other local civil society actors

Kachin civil society organisations (CSOs), most of which receive some form of international assistance, are the primary providers of humanitarian assistance and protection to displaced Kachin civilians. Faith-based agencies, such as the KBC and Roman Catholic-affiliated Karuna Mission Social Solidarity (KMSS), play particularly significant roles, and are joined by a range of more secular organisations.

Through their intimate connections with and within the communities affected by armed conflict, churches, church-based organisations and other local groups have been able to respond quickly to reports of new displacements and facilitate transportation of families to established internally displaced person (IDP) camps, particularly in KIO-controlled areas. For example, on 4 November, 2018, Kachin church leaders, together with the Peace-talk Creation Group, a Kachin CSO drawn from business and political circles, negotiated the release of the fifteen civilian aid workers detained by the Myanmar Army nearly 2 weeks previously.

Faith-based relief organisations have also directly provided emergency assistance and basic services to IDPs in government and Kachin controlled areas. For example, the Catholic Diocesan Emergency Relief team has often responded to emergency situations more quickly than other aid actors, including international agencies, and is often first on the scene to provide spiritual support and distribute short-term aid – mostly with funds collected in church on Sundays. Churches have also played an important role in facilitating access for IDPs to some minimal educational services, with teachers sent as volunteers by churches to remote communities originally, sometimes in conflict-affected areas, as indicated by the fact that these teachers have in some cases fled together with communities into the camps. Furthermore, church leaders have played a critical role in humanitarian diplomacy, negotiating with the Tatmadaw and other parties to the conflict, to facilitate movement of civilians out of conflict zones. 

This engagement by faith-based groups is based on spiritual solidarity and Christian fellowship as well as the spirit of humanitarianism. Often, faith-based relief workers take great political and physical risks in working across the frontlines of conflict, engaging with both the Tatmadaw and Kachin Independence Army (KIA) officials on the ground. They appear to have been able to play this role because the Tatmadaw and government officials respect the clergy – especially Catholic priests, whose status they associate with that of Buddhist monks, who are also celibate. However, crucial as their support is, the protection role that faith-based groups can play is limited –by the tactics of conflict actors – who have mostly displayed little regard for the protection of civilians, and by local  many local volunteers’ reliance on funding from collections in churches or from remittances from church members, and the Kachin overseas diaspora . 

The strength of Kachin civil society owes much to the re-emergence of local NGO networks during the seventeen years of relative peace which followed the ceasefire between the KIO and Tatmadaw beginning in 1994. During this period, the KIO consolidated a state-like identity, with a range of para-government functions including various administrative and service delivery departments (for example in the fields of health, agriculture, education etc). Kachin CSOs, including national NGOs and faith-based organisations, plus the KIO’s social service departments, played important roles in assisting and protecting conflict-affected civilian communities, including helping to resettle 10,000 IDPs between 1994 and 1996. Among the most well-known NGOs to emerge at this time were Metta Development Foundation and Nyein Shalom (“peace”) Foundation, which work primarily on community development and peace-building. Both originated in the Kachin community, but grew to become nation-wide networks. The role of civil society groups in Kachin politics, development and humanitarian affairs became significant in part because the international community, including international aid actors, did relatively little to support the rehabilitation of Kachin communities in the 1990s – a period when the country was subject to international sanctions designed to pressure the military regime into reform. 

Historically, compared to Thailand, China has been much less open to international aid agencies and the global humanitarian/interventionist agenda. This, together with China’s reluctance to engage with international aid agencies or the global humanitarian agenda, has meant that ethnic armed organisations operating – and civilians living – in the northern borderlands of Myanmar adjacent to China, such as in Kachin, have received less international attention than their counterparts in southeast Myanmar. While Kachin activists and aid workers have understandably sometimes seen this as a disadvantage, such relative isolation has arguably led to the development of greater self-reliance among the Kachin community and its civil society organisations.

Other Kachin civil society actors and organisations have also played a critical role in protection of conflict-affected populations. In response to large numbers of IDPs fleeing the resumption of armed conflict in Kachin and northern Shan States, local NGOs and CSOs have provided emergency and longer-term aid. Kachin civil society groups have also been prominent in peace advocacy, including through two CSO consortiums: the Kachin Peace Network and the Joint Strategy Team, both of which have been influential in advocating on behalf of conflict-affected Kachin communities, and for just resolution to the armed conflict. Much of the work undertaken by these groups is done confidentially, in order not to expose important but sensitive initiatives to the risk of suppression by government authorities. 

Humanitarian activities undertaken by Kachin CSOs are wide-ranging, including transport of IDPs to camps, distribution of food and non-food items, provision of targeted nutrition services to vulnerable people, management of health services, support to camp management, livelihoods activities including skills training in and outside of camps, public health education, child protection, water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), mine risk education, and community empowerment. Several CSOs also have case management systems to identify and support the most vulnerable individuals in camps. For example, pregnant and lactating women are targeted with additional nutrition and medicines, and many other vulnerable individuals are identified and supported with other case management services. However, CSOs face a range of restrictions in their work. Some have reported having to stop programs due to lack of funding; some have been threatened with arrest and prosecution by the authorities (due to their perceived closeness to the KIO); and some have faced physical restrictions on their movement to reach populations in need.  

Self-protection strategies and tactics

Kachin communities have adopted a number of strategies aimed at protecting themselves from the effects of the armed conflict. The act of fleeing is itself a primary strategy of civilian self-protection that has been adopted by Kachin families and communities for decades. 

In the past, Kachin people sought safety in jungle areas, waiting “in hiding” for short periods for the violence to pass before returning home. However, since 2011 this strategy has not been feasible as the violence has been more prolonged and intense. During the initial period of flight to jungle areas, displaced villagers often share food and other resources. Sometimes other nearby civilians provide short-term assistance, in the form of food or shelter. Usually, this is organised by local church leaders. Church-based networks are also crucial in providing information to displaced communities about the safest places to seek refuge.

Most of those fleeing fighting have quickly sought refuge in IDP camps or more informal camp-like settings. Most appear to have fled together with people from the same congregation of village,  when seeking safety either in government-controlled or KIO-controlled areas, settling in different sections of camps based on their villages of origin, with the aim of achieving some form of society-based protection for themselves. Kachin IDPs tend to choose their destination based on several factors, including the existence of family or clan connections with people in the destination IDP sites, and whether they have friendly or unfriendly prior relations with the local political authority (KIO or government). Kachin IDPs also tend to show strong preferences towards fleeing together with their fellow villagers, following local religious leaders, and seeking refuge in church compounds. In general, Kachin IDPs are more likely to live with co-religionists in government-controlled areas, where most camps are located on church compounds, than in KIO-controlled areas, where camps are generally not. These patterns of co-religionist displacement and relocation reinforce the religious dimensions of Kachin identity  Thus, patterns of civilian protection can serve to shape and reinforce social identities that can in turn be mobilised, including for recruitment by armed groups.


The identities and frameworks of action deployed by local Kachin actors are often different than those of predominantly Western patrons and donors. The humanitarian enterprise has deep roots in the socio-political and religious history of ‘the West’. Notwithstanding the significant and substantial range of activities undertaken by Christian-oriented or originated aid agencies in Asia, the mainstream ‘aid industry’ is often aggressively secular.  

While regional aid actors, namely China, tend to reinforce state agency and capacity, Western aid agencies increasingly focus on eliciting local participation and supporting local capacities. However, this language and intention of empowerment can mask power dynamics, whereby agendas and values are largely determined by Western donors and aid agencies. This is apparent in conflict-affected parts of Myanmar, where Western donors may require local actors to mask the faith-based nature of their work and cultural orientations in order to fit secular norms and frameworks.

The article has explored disjunctions between primarily, if not exclusively secular Western donors, mainstream aid agencies and local faith-based actors. Christian identities and values are of central importance to many Kachin communities and CSOs. The downplaying of the faith-based component of local response by Western donors and aid agencies is somewhat ironic, given their stated aims of eliciting local participation and building social capital, in contexts where local resilience is deeply interconnected with religious identities and practice. 

During my research in Kachin State and elsewhere in Myanmar over the past two decades, local interlocutors/informants/friends have often expressed concerns about what they perceive as the “projectization” of humanitarian response. They feel that their engagement comes out of an organic sense of communal identity, but that international aid approaches and donor demands are based on short timeframes, and tend to re-configure local initiatives in terms of projects rather than organic interventions. These constraints can undermine the development of long-term, deep and sustainable community relationships. As much as possible, therefore, international agencies and donors should resist temptations to “projectize” community responses by insisting that local initiatives conform to pre-conceived international frameworks of planning and implementation. International aid agencies should support local protection response cultures and mechanisms rather than co-opting them.

The faith-and identity-based networks of local agency and capacity discussed here are pluralistic and open-ended in character. They contribute towards a Kachin nation – and broader union of Myanmar – based on rich and diverse identities. This potential “unity in diversity” can be contrasted with the deeply unhelpful trope of unity under a strong leader, which has characterised so much of Myanmar’s political culture and history.

Traditional Kachin social structures are generally inclusive, according to scholars such as Laphai Awng Li, from the Myanmar Institute of Theology, in his analysis of Kachin Mayu, Dama, and Kahpu Kanau indigenous kinship systems and mutual self-help groups. Such configurations, including the famous Kachin Manau dance, allow for the incorporation of and respect for “non-Kachin” outsiders.

Strong Christian cultures are a blessing, and contribute much towards social capital of Kachin communities. However, these values may entail conservative social mores. My research indicates that there is a growing awareness among Kachin CSOs of the problems faced by some marginalised groups among displaced populations – for example, the plight of physically disabled people. At the same time, few interviewees expressed interest in or knowledge of the problems that may be faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) or other sexual or gender identity-related sub-groups. Both international and national stakeholders should beware of championing local protection approaches without being aware of the possible negative aspects of non-liberal conventions and values. “Embracing Diversity” requires an open-minded and open-ended conception of who belongs to the political and social community. 

Given the uncertainties of continued funding for humanitarian crises globally, it is important to support conflict-affected communities in building sustainable local models of recovery and rehabilitation. The Kachin faith-based and ethno-linguistic networks described here may prove to be the future of humanitarian response in a ‘post-aid’ world.

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