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LOCATION: Northern Myanmar (Burma); China; India; Thailand
POPULATION: 1.5 million
RELIGION: Christianity (Baptist and Catholicism); Buddhism; Animism


The people known collectively as Kachins, who live in mountainous northern Burma (renamed Myanmar by the military government in 1989), are a group of seven tribes: the Atsi, Jinghpaw, Lashi, Lisu, Maru, Nung, and Rawang.

The tribes share similar Tibeto-Burman languages, a clan system, and many customs. They migrated into Burma from China to the northwest and established highland settlements governed by independent chieftains. The Kachins were fierce warriors who never acknowledged the dominance of Burma's various empires until the arrival of the British. Initially the Kachins fought the colonizers, but then joined Britain's Imperial Army. Kachin guerrillas proved indispensable to the Allied forces in the Second World War, fighting in their native forests against the Japanese invasion.

Some rebellion, aimed at establishing an independent Kachin nation, occurred soon after Burmese independence, but it was after the military takeover of Burma's government in 1962 that large-scale Kachin insurgency occurred. One of Burma's biggest anti-government armies was recruited from the hill people and financed by trade in locally-mined jade and gold. Called the Kachin Independence Organization, it continues to hold considerable territory, although it has observed a ceasefire with government forces since 1994. A much smaller militia called the Kachin Defense Army also has a ceasefire agreement with the Myanmar government.

The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) was allowed to participate in constitutional conventions held by Myanmar's military government. KIO participation in the conventions was seen as a political compromise by many former supporters in Kachin State and overseas exiles. The KIO issued statements supporting the Myanmar government's policies and engaged in commercial joint ventures in logging and gold mining, which gave the KIO the image of having abandoned its original revolutionary goals. A few small Kachin underground or exile political and environmental groups have emerged in recent years as potential alternatives to the KIO.


The Kachin State of Myanmar borders China, Tibet, and India. Myanmar has an estimated 1.5 million Kachins, about 100,000 of whom live in the Shan State. Kachin-related indigenous people also live in China, India, and Thailand.

The huge Irrawaddy River flows south from Tibet through Kachin State, past the main cities of Myitkyina and Bhamo. Ranges of Himalayan foothills rise as high as snowcapped Hkakabo Razi (19,314 ft), Southeast Asia's highest mountain, near the border with Tibet.


Kachins speak a Tibeto-Burman language, in seven main dialects, and with many regional variations. A written version of Kachin using the Roman alphabet (without F, Q, V, and X) was devised by American missionary Olaf Hansen in 1895. The writing system is hard to use because of the lack of accents showing the different tones of voice that alter the meanings of words in Kachin.

The typical greeting in Kachin's Jinghpaw dialect is "Kaja ai I?" meaning "Are you well?" Another common greeting expression is "Shatsa sa ni?" (Have you eaten?). To take leave, you say, "Naw wa sa na" (I am going), and the reply is "Angwi sha wa u" (go back slowly).


Kachins traditionally believed that the original ancestor of their tribes was a blacksmith. They thought that the moon was the spirit of a young girl, and some girls are thought to be able to foretell the future by communicating with the moon. Particularly among Animist Kachins, there is a belief in malicious witches called phi, including the Yu Phi, who disguise themselves as animals or insects to harm people or animals.


About two-thirds of the Kachins are Christians, mostly Baptists and Catholics. The rest are Buddhists or Animists, who worship the spirits in nature. Spirits are always present in the Kachins' mountain homeland, and even Christian or Buddhist Kachins often believe in a group of spirits called Nats. There are good and bad Nats: the good ones include a merciful spirit called Hpan wa ningsan chye wa ning san, who (known as Karai Kasang) is also the god worshipped by Christians. This Nat accepts only live offerings that the worshippers set free, such as birds. There are also good Nats of the earth and heaven, and household Nats. A series of bad Nats bring harm to hunters, fishermen, or women in labor and cause accidents or other misfortune.

The Kachins have intermediaries to the world of the Nats, such as high priests who know a special vocabulary and take part only in major ceremonies, including weddings; priests who conduct ceremonies with offerings; and assistants who perform animal sacrifices. There are also interpreters of the Nats' wishes, spirit mediums, and interpreters of the natural world, who function like Chinese Feng Shui specialists.

Missionaries from the United States and Europe introduced the Kachins to Christianity during the British colonial days, and Kachin evangelists then spread the new religion through the hills. Christianity was adopted without discarding Kachin traditions such as the clan system. Actual churches are rare outside of the few cities and towns, so church services are held on Sundays and holidays in village meeting halls or homes. Kachin Christians sometimes have difficulties holding large meetings or conventions, as those need to be approved by the military government, which is suspicious of Christian gatherings.


In traditional Kachin society, ceremonies were held in connection with the planting of rice and other crops. Before planting the fields, offerings were made to the spirits of the earth, and the farmers rested for a few days. Harvest ceremonies were also held. Because Christianity is now so widespread among the Kachins, holidays such as Christmas and Easter are important celebrations, with music, community feasts, and church services in cities, towns, and villages.


Many Kachin mothers now give birth in a clinic or hospital, if there is one nearby; otherwise, their babies are born at home. Infant and child mortality rates are high in most areas of the Kachin State, mainly due to malaria, except where the elevation and cold temperatures prevent malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

Young people help their parents in the fields or shops. In the towns and cities, it is common for teenagers to be active in church groups, and some even travel to other parts of Burma for church meetings and to seek converts to Christianity.

Traditionally, Kachins are buried a week after death. For Animists, special ceremonies are performed to make sure that the spirit of the dead person goes away from the living. Funeral music may be played on slightly broken instruments. Christians hold a prayer service and often mark graves with a cross.


Kachins shake hands when introduced and when greeting or saying goodbye. They are generous hosts and always offer food, or at least tea, to visitors. The guest is expected to politely refuse the refreshments at least once—perhaps several times to be "overcome" by the hosts' insistence. Then they will please the hosts if they eat large amounts of the food offered. Particularly honored guests, such as those who have endured great difficulty to travel from far away, may be given a special welcoming ceremony. They are presented with bamboo cups of rice wine and a basket containing cooked chicken and rice wrapped in leaf packets, to be shared, and may be given a sword and shoulder bag (if male) or Kachin clothing (if female).

Kachins are raised to value cooperation and an uncomplaining spirit. Children are discouraged from fighting with each other and encouraged to share their possessions and food. Although they have been known as brave, tough warriors in battle, adult Kachins rarely seem to argue among themselves.


The Kachins are living in an ongoing health crisis. They have been subject to unchecked epidemics of cholera, plague, and HIV/AIDS. Malaria, including the deadly blackwater fever, is rife in low-lying areas, as are tuberculosis and other lung diseases throughout the Kachin State. With very few trained doctors available, fake "injection doctors" roam the hills in their place, giving malnourished people vitamin shots with dirty needles, thereby spreading the HIV/AIDS virus and other ailments among unknowing people. Traditional healers can be more beneficial, and the many medicinal plants of the Kachin State provide the hope of cures for many diseases—if logging does not destroy the forests before they can be properly studied.

A massive increase in logging in recent decades has decimated the great temperate rainforests of the Kachin State in all but the most remote regions of the far north. Logging trucks move back and forth, day and night, carrying hardwood logs from Kachin forests for sale in neighboring China and India. Environmental concerns have also been raised about gold mining by companies from China that enter Kachin State in joint ventures with Myanmar's military government or the KIO. The gold miners use highly toxic mercury when processing ore dredged from the rivers, and gold mining also erodes river banks.

Most Kachins live in houses built of bamboo and wood, up on stilts or low to the ground with dirt floors. The hills are cold and foggy, sometimes even snowy, so houses have wood stoves or open hearths inside them. In stilt houses, people sit and sleep on the floor; in the single-level houses, they sit on wood or rattan chairs and sleep on bamboo platforms. Much of what is used by the Kachins is crafted by them of bamboo or wood, but trade goods do enter from China and India. The Kachin State has few road, railway, or air links. Heavy trucks, motorcycles, elephants, ponies, and mules are typical modes of transportation over the many hills and mountain passes.

What wealth Kachins manage to acquire is usually in the form of jewelry, which is easily portable. A family's "bank account" takes the form of rings or earrings made of the gold and colorful jade or amber found in Kachin State, and sometimes elaborate silver wedding jewelry. In general, the Kachins place more value on friendships and kinship than on material possessions, and even small children would usually rather play games with other children than play with toys.


Marriage usually occurs in the late teens or early twenties. Few Kachins remain single and large families—six or more children—are the norm. Some Kachins believe that since their ethnic group is few in numbers, having many children is important to their survival as a culture. The clan system determines who marries whom. With everyone belonging to one of the main clans, it is common knowledge which clans a girl or boy can marry into, and which are taboo. When outsiders are adopted as Kachins, they are assigned to one of the clans and given a Kachin name that, in part, comes from their birth-order in their family.

Some Kachin families own pack-ponies or even elephants, and they take good care of them. Many keep dogs for hunting and as pets.


The Kachin tribes traditionally wear homespun thick cotton jackets with baggy trousers for men and wrap-around sarongs for women. The special occasion outfit for Jinghpaw women, which is nowadays worn for weddings and dance performances, is highly ornamented. Large silver disks decorate a black velvet jacket, worn with an embroidered red sarong and leggings, many silver necklaces and bracelets, and rattan wrapped around the waist and hips. These heirloom costumes are becoming quite rare.

For everyday wear, most Kachin men now wear shirts, trousers or sarongs, and often sweaters or heavy jackets, as the climate can be quite cold. Kachin women in most areas wear sarongs with blouses or T-shirts. They often knit their own sweaters with yarn imported from China, and also knit warm outfits for children and babies. Children often wear several layers of clothing to school in the mountains because the buildings are unheated. Girls wear lipstick and either cut their hair short or style it in intricate French braids. A type of Kachin sarong with traditional embroidery on a black cotton background became a symbol of democracy throughout Myanmar when opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi wore it.


The Kachins grow some cold-climate foods such as potatoes, which are not so common elsewhere in Myanmar. These crops are combined in Kachin cooking with wild game such as boar and venison, domestically raised chicken and goat, and edible plants gathered in the forest. Rice is grown in hillside fields or brought as a trade commodity from China. The Kachins are known for eating large quantities of rice and whatever accompanying curry they can afford. If they can afford it, they typically eat a few bowls of rice with their late-morning breakfast and a few more with the late-afternoon supper. Tea or coffee (a luxury) is served with fruit, crackers, or cookies during the rest of the day.


Educational opportunities are few in the Kachin State. There is a severe shortage of schools, teachers, and educational materials, especially in rural areas. There is discrimination against Kachin students in Myanmar's educational system, and few opportunities for higher education exist in the Kachin State. Some high school graduates attend Bible study academies in the cities. Little is written in the Kachin language, so most of the school texts are in Burmese and very outdated. Kachin parents often express the hope that their children will get more of an education than they were able to. In 2008 Kachin students in Myitkyina were active campaigners for a "No" vote on a national constitutional referendum held by Myanmar's military government, which was pressuring the population to vote "Yes."


Kachin traditional music, using the repetitive rhythms of metal gongs, is played mostly for dancing. The best-known dance is the ton-kha, in which lines of men and women form a circle and step in and out holding kerchiefs in their hands. Western-influenced hymns are sung at Christian church services. Some churches have electronic keyboards, and guitars may accompany the hymn-singing. International pop and rock songs are also well-liked by many Kachins. The Kachin rebel forces had small marching bands with bagpipes, like those of Scottish troops who served in Burma in the days of the British Empire.

The centerpiece of traditional Kachin culture is the Manau ceremony, which combines religion, dance, and visual arts. This elaborate celebration is usually sponsored by a duwa, a member of the traditional aristocracy. They hold a Manau for various reasons: celebrating prosperity or warding off ill-health or evil spirits, and inviting a good Nat to a new community. The Manau involves all members of society from throughout a district and provides a place for young people to meet and for distant relatives to reunite. It is an expensive production and takes a year to prepare (and a year to recover from it, say the Kachins).

The Manau is led by high-ranking Animist priests who make offerings for the good of the community. The priests wear elaborate robes of brightly-colored embroidered silk and woven rattan headdresses topped with tall peacock and pheasant feathers. Offerings, prayers, music, and dance take place in an open ground. The area is decorated with pennants and streamers, and Manau poles are set up where the priests preside. The poles, 10 ft tall or higher, are painted in bright colors with abstract patterns of triangles, diamonds, and spirals.


The Kachins are mostly farmers. The mountainous climate and rocky soil make agriculture hard work in most areas, although a variety of cold-climate crops could profitably be introduced in the future. In Putao's valley (warm although far in the north) oranges and other fruits are grown.

Joining the military has long been a favored occupation for young Kachins. In the colonial period they joined the British Army, and at independence, the Burmese Army. Thousands still are enrolled in the Kachin Independence Organization's armed forces, although a ceasefire is in effect. For those less interested in the military life, religious studies are popular.

Jade is very important to the Kachins. Jadeite, the most precious kind of jade, is found in large quantities only in Kachin State. The bright green jade is best known, but it also comes in white, lavender, blue, and honey-colored shades. Huge boulders and tiny pieces of jade are brought out through government controlled areas, for sale around the world. Kachins working at the big jade mines have often been mistreated and are especially susceptible to drug and alcohol abuse.


Kachins enjoy playing and watching soccer, volleyball, and badminton. Some study martial arts such as kung fu. Children run races and play jump-rope games, making their own ropes by looping together collections of rubber bands.


In some areas people have DVD players and karaoke machines, which are usually powered by a small generator, as electricity is in short supply in Kachin State. They often show "homemade" DVD dramas produced and acted by people in Myitkyina or Bhamo. In some places satellite dishes have been rigged up, so Kachins can watch international television such as the BBC World News and Asian MTV. Otherwise, short-wave radios are relied on for information on the outside world, as well as word on developments in Myanmar. There is very little Internet access in Kachin State, but the cities have some cafes where computer games can be played. Kachins also enjoy getting together to sing hymns or pop songs, accompanied by guitar players. Sometimes church youth groups will travel from village to village presenting Christian music shows.


Kachins are talented jewelers, making ornaments from the local gold, silver, amber, and jade. They also make traditional swords with embossed silver scabbards, baskets, and bamboo drinking cups. Kachin embroidery, often using diamond-shaped designs that symbolize the mountains, is distinctive, and different patterns can identify tribes or regions.


During the late 20th century, widespread human rights violations by Myanmar's military, including massacres, village burnings, rape, torture, and forced labor, uprooted tens of thousands of Kachins. While these abuses have been less widespread since the KIO 1994 ceasefire ended open warfare, they do continue in many parts of Kachin State, and refugees still flee to other countries.

In the cities and jade mining region, many have turned to heroin abuse. The HIV/AIDS epidemic has spread through the most remote parts of the Kachin State, largely from injections of heroin and other drugs with shared needles. The Kachin Independence Organization responded in 1991 by banning opium growing and heroin trading; they successfully substituted food crops for opium poppies, but in the Burmese government-controlled areas, the drug trade is still carried on openly. There is little educational material about AIDS in the Kachin language, and the whole population of the ethnic group is under threat from the epidemic.


In old Kachin society, women's status was considerably lower than men's, but this is changing as women seek more education and stand up for themselves. Kachin women often own small shops or restaurants, and in KIO-controlled areas they are particularly active in education and healthcare, as well as serving as soldiers. In those areas they have formed a women's organization that runs kindergartens and promotes good nutrition and economic empowerment. In the cities and towns, women are active in church activities and some are in popular Christian singing groups. Kachin society tends to be conservative and somewhat disapproving of gender identities other than heterosexuality.


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—by E. Mirante