Who Are the Kachin People?

Kachin dancers prepare for Water Festival in Burma
Kachin dancers prepare for the Water Festival in Burma, 2014. Paula Bronstein / Getty Images

The Kachin people of Burma and southwestern China are a collection of several tribes with similar languages and social structures.  Also known as the Jinghpaw Wunpawng or the Singpho, the Kachin people today number around 1 million in Burma (Myanmar) and around 150,000 in China.  Some Jinghpaw also live in the Arunachal Pradesh state of India.  In addition, thousands of Kachin refugees have sought asylum in Malaysia and Thailand following a bitter guerrilla war between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the government of Myanmar.

In Burma, Kachin sources say that they are divided into six tribes, called the Jinghpaw, Lisu, Zaiwa, Lhaovo, Rawang, and Lachid.  However, the government of Myanmar recognizes twelve different ethnic nationalities within the "major ethnicity" of Kachin - perhaps in a bid to divide and rule this large and often war-like minority population.

Historically, the Kachin people's ancestors originated on the Tibetan Plateau, and migrated south, reaching what is now Myanmar probably only during the 1400s or 1500s CE.  They originally had an animist belief system, which also featured ancestor worship.  However, as early as the 1860s, British and American Christian missionaries began working in Kachin areas of Upper Burma and India, trying to convert the Kachin to Baptism and other Protestant faiths.  Today, nearly all Kachin people in Burma self-identify as Christians.  Some sources give the percentage of Christians as being up to 99 percent of the population.  This is another aspect of modern Kachin culture that places them at odds with the Buddhist majority in Myanmar.

Despite their adherence to Christianity, most Kachin continue to observe pre-Christian holidays and rituals, which have been repurposed as "folkloric" celebrations.  Many also continue to carry out daily rituals to appease the spirits that reside in nature, to request good fortune in planting crops or waging war, among other things.

Anthropologists note that the Kachin people are well known for several skills or attributes.  They are very disciplined fighters, a fact that the British colonial government took advantage of when it recruited large numbers of Kachin men into the colonial army.  They also have impressive knowledge of key skills such as jungle survival and herbal healing using local plant materials.  On the peaceful side of things, the Kachin are also famous for the very intricate relations among the different clans and tribes within the ethnic group, and also for their skill as craftspersons and artisans.

When the British colonizers negotiated independence for Burma in the mid-20th century, the Kachin did not have representatives at the table.  When Burma achieved its independence in 1948, the Kachin people got their own Kachin state, along with assurances that they would be allowed significant regional autonomy.  Their land is rich in natural resources, including tropical timber, gold, and jade.

However, the central government proved to be more interventionist than it had promised.  The government meddled in Kachin affairs, while also depriving the region of development funds and leaving it dependent on raw materials production for its major income.  Fed up with the way things were shaking out, militant Kachin leaders formed the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in the early 1960s, and started a guerrilla war against the government.  Burmese officials always alleged that the Kachin rebels were funding their movement through growing and selling illegal opium - not entirely an unlikely claim, given their position in the Golden Triangle.

In any case, the war continued unrelentingly until a cease-fire was signed in 1994.  In recent years, fighting has flared up regularly despite repeated rounds of negotiation and multiple cease-fires.  Human rights activists have recorded testimony of horrific abuses of Kachin people by the Burmese, and later the Myanmar army.  Robbery, rape, and summary executions are among the charges leveled against the army.  As a result of the violence and abuses, large populations of ethnic Kachin continue to live in refugee camps in nearby Southeast Asian countries.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "Who Are the Kachin People?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, thoughtco.com/who-are-the-kachin-people-195178. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2020, August 25). Who Are the Kachin People? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/who-are-the-kachin-people-195178 Szczepanski, Kallie. "Who Are the Kachin People?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/who-are-the-kachin-people-195178 (accessed February 5, 2023).