For much of the first 20 years of her life, Maran Ja Seng Hkawn was raised by her grandmothers in Kachin, Burma’s northernmost state, without her parents or siblings by her side and under the scrutiny of military intelligence.
Her crime? She was born into a revolutionary Kachin family.
Decades on, the 50-year-old daughter of a late rebel leader is poised to enter Kachin State parliament as an elected member when it reconvenes in early February. She is one of only five representatives from Kachin parties to have won a seat in the 8 November elections, which saw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) sweep the board.
“I’m happy that I’d be able to work in a legal and official capacity … Of course, I don’t know whether I would be able to do everything I wish to but I’m going to work to achieve a federal union that is fair and based on the wishes of the ethnic people,” she said.
When Ja Seng Hkawn was six months old, her father left to join the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), the political wing of the insurgent Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which was fighting for independence. Her mother followed him to rebel-held territory with her older brother when Ja Seng Hkawn was three, and gave birth to five more children there.
“I grew up in the arms of my grandmothers from both sides of the family. I couldn’t even remember what my parents looked like,” she told Myanmar Now, sitting on the terrace of her riverside home in a quiet suburb of Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin.
“We couldn’t go 10 miles beyond the city without permission. We were constantly questioned. But I never felt scared or humiliated,” she added, her slightness and soft-spoken manner belying a political steeliness.
Ja Seng Hkawn said she knew “by instinct” she would be joining her family, which she did, 30 years ago, abandoning her teaching job and joining the KIO struggle for Kachin self-determination.
By then, the dream of independence had been revised to a federal union after her father, Maran Brang Seng, was elected KIO chairman in 1976. Ja Seng Hkawn lived among the insurgents from 1986, working closely with her father, and bore witness to a period of upheaval and change.
There was heavy fighting between the Burmese army and the rebels, resulting in the loss of numerous KIO strongholds including, their headquarters in Pajao. But the KIO also managed to find western allies sympathetic to their cause.
“Brang Seng was the first Kachin leader to reach out to the outside world in a broader, non-partisan sense,” Bertil Lintner, a Swedish journalist and author of books on Burma’s ethnic insurgencies, told Myanmar Now.
REBEL TO ACTIVIST
Brang Seng suffered a stroke in October 1993 and passed away in 1994, months after his deputy signed a ceasefire with Burma’s junta, an accord that lasted 17 years.
Ja Seng Hkawng stayed in rebel ranks for 16 more years, before returning to Myitkyina in 2010, intending to participate in the country’s elections. But the Kachin State Progressive Party (KSPP), founded by Dr. Manam Tu Ja, another former KIO stalwart, was not allowed to register.
“When I first came back here I was very surprised. People were so scared and didn’t even dare speak to each other,” she said. “Over there, it was much freer. You could be honest with everyone and speak your mind, whether it’s the chairman or the army chief.”
She began her political career in Burma by bringing together women to advance the rights of the Kachin minority.
“We started Kachin Women’s Union at my house, bringing two women with some influence from each township. We would meet here, get hold of whatever documents we can find on human rights, women’s rights, democracy, and read and discuss them. We were like kids,” she recalled.
Then the ceasefire broke down in June 2011 and fighting erupted, displacing tens of thousands of people.
“There are so many issues in Kachin. The government was talking about national reconciliation but constantly increasing the number of troops. There are environmental issues, including the Myitsone dam. There’s land grabbing. There’s also rape of ethnic women … many cases that people have not heard of,” she said.
When President Thein Sein suspended the controversial Chinese-led Myitsone dam project in September 2011, a group of Kachins, including Ja Seng Hawn, decided to hold a celebration. They tried to get some kind of support from Aung San Suu Kyi, another famous soldier’s daughter, but there was no response.
Suu Kyi visited Myitkyina on the same day, not to attend the Myitsone event, but to rally support for the NLD ahead of by-elections.
“Everyone was sad. Of course, we’d like her to give the event some respect,” she said. Still, she went on to organise several other events, emboldening the local civil society.
Like many ethnic leaders, Ja Seng Hkawn believes Kachin State’s interests would be best served by Kachins managing their own affairs.
Yet her views did not seem to be shared by the electorate – out of a total of 70 elected seats in the state, only five candidates from two Kachin parties won. She blamed the result on a divided vote and the fact that voters’ main motivation was to throw out the military-backed government.
“In 2010, we weren’t allowed to form a party. That turned upside down in 2015 when lots of political parties were set up,” she said.
There were attempts to merge or form alliances – she believes the Kachins should be united if they are to achieve federalism – but nothing materialised, and before the election, everyone was over-confident of their prospects, she said.
Ja Seng Hkawn ran under the banner of Kachin State Democracy Party (KSDP), another party founded by Dr. Tu Ja, for Injangyang (2) constituency. Her husband, also a former KIO officer, ran with a different party. He lost.
“There’s much that we’ve done in Injangyang, but much more needs to be done. Farming is the only livelihood and it’s not secure. When it was time to register for the elections, I decided to go with Injangyang and a party that I know well,” she said.
Due to insecurity, elections were held in just one of the 35 village tracts in her constituency. She won 203 out of only 386 votes – a little over 50 percent.
“I ran for the state parliament because there’s so much to be done here. I didn’t want to go to the national parliament and spend five years yawning. At least here, you can use whatever opportunity you have to change things (on ethnic and women’s rights and Kachin self-determination) on the ground,” said Ja Seng Hkawn.
She is, however, worried about the implications of a single-party dominating the parliament.
“If it’s like the National Unity Party (Ne Win’s party) being substituted by the Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP) and now the USDP would be substituted by the NLD, I don’t think that should happen,” she said.
Ja Seng Hkawn is one of a number of passionate and prominent Kachin women who are shaping the state’s social and political landscape, from Lahpai Seng Raw, winner of the Ramon Magsaysay Award, Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize, to champions of peace, women’s rights and land rights.
She has many strings to her bow. The MP-elect is also chairman of Kachin State Public Company Limited, which runs utilities and other businesses together with the government – in what the Economist called a “novel private-public partnership”.
“We wanted to show other Kachins that there’s more to economy than extraction and selling timber,” she said. Another motivation was to push reform of Burma’s overburdened and inefficient public sector, instead of just criticising from the outside.
So far, the company has signed contracts with the state government to run two small hydroelectric plants and provide ticketing and other services for the Mandalay-Myitkyina train.
She also continues to campaign for the scrapping the Myitsone project at the source of the Ayeyarwady River. In 2013, she visited China to lobby for its cancellation but nearly lost her cool in a meeting with officials from the Commerce Ministry and the Export Import Bank of China, which has provided Burma with multi-million dollar loans.
“They kept wanting to talk about how to re-start the project. I got so tired of explaining that I said, ‘There’s no way [to continue]. If you kill the Ayeyarwady, you’re killing the whole country.’”
A devout Christian, Ja Seng Hkawn is frustrated by the breakdown of the ceasefire and resumption of hostilities.
“In the 50 years of conflict in Kachin, this is the first time the villagers have been displaced for this long. The weapons are now much more powerful and create much more damage,” she said.
The solution, she says, lies in a federal system that promotes the rights of Burma’s minorities.
“My father worked to achieve the people’s desire for a federal Burma and Kachin self-determination. I will continue to work for this.”