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December 15, 2008
Finding freedom in the outer reaches of Myanmar


A map of Kachin State in northern Myanmar. Source: United Nations

The Kachins are an ethnic group in Myanmar, formerly Burma, who reside in their ancestral homeland in the far north of the country.

The rebel group Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) battled the central government for years before agreeing to a cease-fire over a decade ago. Now, the KIO retains relative autonomy in the rural, mountainous parts of the region — a contrast to other regions where the ruling military junta retains strict controls.

Journalists Ryan Libre and Tim Patterson of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting are in Myanmar exploring the Kachin culture and press freedoms in the country.

Myanmar: Open Military Camps, Closed Teashops

Apart from a brief introduction to the Chief of Staff of the Kachin Independence Army, we spent our first day in Myanmar locked inside a hotel room. Our Kachin hosts were apologetic but firm. For the moment, it was too risky to go outside.

The Kachins are a group of predominantly Christian tribes who live in the Himalayan foothills of northern Myanmar. From 1961 until 1994 they fought a guerrilla war against the military government of Myanmar, which is dominated by ethnic Burmese.

The junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar in 1989, partly in order to legitimize their rule over parts of the country like Kachin, which are home to ethnic groups who have waged fierce insurgencies for much of the past five decades.

Myanmar – or Burma , call it what you will – is a closed society with one of the most repressive and corrupt governments in the world. Travel in Myanmar is possible, although the opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has asked visitors to stay away, but journalists can’t just waltz up to the border with camera gear and voice recorders.

The junta is exceptionally paranoid about international media, and nearly all foreign journalists must enter the country on tourist or business visas, concealing their true intentions and avoiding contact with police or other government officials.

Much good journalism has emerged from Myanmar in recent years despite the lack of openness, including a recent project by Jacob Baynham, which was funded by the Pulitzer Center. Most of this undercover journalism is characterized by hushed teashop interviews, references to George Orwell and the occasional interrogation and deportation.

Our trip to Myanmar was different.  We didn’t pretend to be tourists or businessmen. In fact, we didn’t bother with Myanmar visas at all. We were guests of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), which controls small pockets of territory along the Chinese border.

The KIO micro-state is an oasis of relative freedom in a repressive part of the world.

To read more, see the original post.

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