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Myanmar: God, golfing and guerrilla war

Life behind the lines of Kachin state’s bloody ethnic conflict.

For nine months, the church has also maintained a wartime vigil, praying around-the-clock for an end to the conflict. Groups rotate between six small prayer rooms. Tu Lum, a 57-year-old KIA veteran volunteering for one of the prayer groups, has come for three days a week for the past eight months and says he will continue “as long as the fighting takes place.”

“We’ve been praying for nine months already — everyday, 24 hours,” Khawng Lum says.

Traditionally animists, the Kachin took readily to the gospel preached by colonial missionaries. The most revered is the Swedish-American missionary Ola Hanson, who was posted in northern Myanmar between 1890 and 1928. Hanson was the first to transcribe the Kachin language into Roman script, and provided a translation of the Bible and the Swedish hymns that are still sung in Kachin churches today.

In his book "The Kachins, Their Customs and Traditions," published at the height of British rule in 1913, Hanson predicted a bright future for Myanmar’s minority peoples.

“The future of the hill tribes is bound up with the future of Burma,” he wrote. “The Burmans of the past have had their day, they have done their work, and are slowly but surely passing away. Burma is a melting pot where a new people with a new destiny is in the making.”

But things took a different turn. The ethnically Burman majority, tired of being oppressed under colonial rule, reasserted themselves after the British departed in 1948, fueling an unending string of civil wars along the country’s ethnic periphery.

For the Kachin, divided from the Burmans by language, religion and decades of suspicion, the prospect of a lasting settlement with the central government is remote. For some it’s not even desirable.

“There are two forces fighting: one side are the evil forces, one side are the godly forces,” says the pastor Khawng Lum. “It’s better for us to separate away from the Burman majority and establish or build another country.”

Until then, life in Kachin goes on.

Back at the golf course, Lum Hkawng, 38, is hanging his comrades out to dry. After just eight months playing the game, the ex-KIO administrator and Greg Norman fan has developed a powerful drive and an ice-cool putting game. “When I was a youth I used to play football. [Then] I saw [golf] on TV and got interested in playing,” he says.

As the players get set for their final trip around the six holes, the light is quickly fading into a roseate dusk framed by the darkening hills of China and Myanmar. By the time it’s dark the game will be over; then it will be back to town, and the burdens of the KIA’s long fight for autonomy.