Who Lives Around the Lake
With massive changes in elevation from jagged snowy peaks that cut through much of the region to raging rivers and deep valleys covered in dense, thick jungle, Northern Myanmar was not an area historically known for well-defined borders. Even the name Kachin State is a bit misleading.
To begin with, it helps to know that Myanmar is comprised of two different types of administrative units. There are divisions which are named after regional or other features where the predominant ethnic group is the Burmese. On the other hand, the states are named after the largest minority group of the area hence the name Kachin State after the Kachin People.
Despite being located in Kachin State, the majority of people around Indawgyi Lake are actually Shan-ni, an offshoot of the Shan ethnic group whose range extends through much of the Kachin State as well as areas in Sagaing Division and Shan State along with parts of northeast India.
A general guideline is that the Kachin people live in the mountains and the Shan-ni live in the valleys and other areas below though this changing with the growing urbanization throughout the country.
A Complex Past and Present
For a significant portion of its history, Indawgyi and the surrounding region was under the influence of the powerful Shan Kingdoms of Mogaung and Mohynin. Even today, Mohnyin is the area’s township capital despite being over an hour away by car and through the mountains.
Mogaung and Mohnyin comprised two of the Shan States, a loosely knit-confederation of principalities that spanned across northern Myanmar and even parts of Thailand. The name Shan is actually a Burmese corruption of the word “Tai.” And the Shan-ni actually call themselves Tai-Laeng and can considered be cousins of modern day Thais (elements of which are seen in similarities in religious belief and their script).
The Shan States were almost at war among themselves as often as they were against outside powers such as the Burmese Kingdom of Ava and its later iterations as well as the British empire in the 19th century. The Shan claim these Burmese Kingdoms were actually descendants of them sometimes applying the label “Burmanized Shan” to these eras.
Since Independence, struggle for control over Kachin State has been a complex issue. There is an ongoing conflict between the central government and the Kachin Independence Army. Like many of the ethnic minority regions, the conflict originates from a desire to self-administer their own territories.
The Three Groups Around Indawgyi Lake
Most of the people around the lake consider themselves to be either Shan-ni or Shan-Bamar while there are sizable Kachin minority populations in Lon Ton, Maing Naung and Nam Mun villages.
Since the Shan and Bamar share a common religion, Buddhism, and nowadays primarily speak Burmese, there is more commonality among them. The Kachin are largely Christian and though they can speak Burmese, often choose to speak Jingpo, their dialect and specific grouping within the Kachin people.
Likewise, each of these villages have their own specific quarters or parts of town where the people are predominantly Kachin. There is even a Kachin village leader who serves a parallel role to the overall village leader of the community.
Anything having to do with the government such as the buying or selling of land must still go through the overall village leader while the Kachin village leader will settle disputes among individuals and hold community meetings among other tasks.
When talking to different people around Indawgyi Lake, there is an overall amiability among these groups particularly among younger generations whose friendships transcend these religious and ethnic lines.
However, friendships among older people are less common and there is an overall tension between the Shan-ni and the Kachin. On a larger scale, some Kachin view the Shan-ni as collaborators with the Burmese who have prevented Kachin autonomy while some Shan-ni view the Kachin as provokers of conflict.
The lake is a peaceful place, but the tension between these three groups (the Shan-ni have their own complex relationship with the Myanmar central government) continues to be a broadscale issue that needs to be addressed. Projects like ours among others aim to help bring these groups together so they can work towards the common ideal of peace, development and environmental protection not only here but throughout Myanmar.
If you are interested in learning more about the history of the people of Northern Myanmar, E.R. Leach’s Political Systems of Highland Burma is an excellent place to start. Current English-language news is more difficult to find. Irrawaddy, Frontier, and Kachinland News have varying levels of coverage as well as media outlets from India and China.