AUGUST 2014, Yangon. The question I really want to ask Senator J Yawu, the first Lisu member of Myanmar’s upper house of Parliament, is, “How did you ever get elected?” We are scheduled to meet at his family flat on Saya San Road, above a convenience store in congested central Yangon. Due to a monsoon downpour, streets have turned into rivers, and I’m mortified to be running late.
I’m in the process of updating a book I wrote in the 1990s, which would eventually be published by the University of Colorado Press in 2017 — the first comprehensive overview of the Lisu, an egalitarian minority of 1.5 million people who live mainly in remote, mountainous areas of China, Myanmar, and Thailand. Returning to the Lisu world after a 15-year absence was jarring. The scale of change I encountered shocked me — it was different in each country, and in ways I had not foreseen.
Thailand had devolved from Southeast Asia’s “land of the free” back toward military dictatorship, while China, without becoming less authoritarian, had lifted hundreds of millions of people, including the Lisu, out of poverty, to become the second largest economy in the world. Events in Myanmar were the most surprising: the country’s pariah regime had instituted new reforms — press freedom, fairer elections, independent political parties — in order to woo foreign investment. Obama was about to come calling, and Aung San Suu Kyi would soon return her National League for Democracy to victory. This would include some sort of power-sharing with the military, still the most powerful institution in the country — and with a history that did not bode well. Still, the rest of the world, especially the West, sought to encourage democratic values in Myanmar through foreign investment, in the hopes of curbing China’s influence in the region.
J Yawu’s breaking into the elite upper house as a socialist National Union Party (NUP) member was in itself remarkable considering his background as a defrocked Lisu Roman Catholic priest who had married his pregnant Jingpo girlfriend. Only two percent of Myanmar’s Lisu Christians are Catholic, and J Yawu lacked the usual prerequisite for senate election — family wealth. Also unusual for Lisu in Myanmar, an overwhelmingly Buddhist country, is that he grew up as an animist. His father had been converted by and lived with Protestant missionaries in Putao in the 1950s, but he fell back into old ways after being excommunicated for marrying outside the church. J Yawu was steeped in Lisu botanical and medical lore before converting to Catholicism at age 15 while attending St. Anthony’s boarding school.
After his father’s death, which left his mother in poverty with eight children to raise, the head of his school, Reverend Father Peter Kareng Gam Awng, began acting as his guardian. J Yawu was eventually sent to the Philippines to study. He attended seminary in May-myo in the Shan highlands, taught school in the Golden Triangle zone, which is controlled by the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), and was ordained in 1998 after four more years of study in Yangon. Prior to his excommunication, he served parishes in Myitkyina, Putao, and the Philippines.
We’ve spoken by phone, so I know the senator’s command of English is good. In pushing me to meet him, the Lisu bush telegraph had done its job transmitting messages from contacts in Thailand, China, and Myanmar. But now, climbing a murky flight of stairs with my husband, I have little idea what to expect from his surprising invitation: “Come to dinner! Meet my family.” I knock at one of two doors on the landing — the wrong one. The door creeps open, six women peer up from sewing machines, and we are shooed toward the other door.
The senator from the National Union Party greets us with a radiant smile, welcoming us into a single room, perhaps 20 feet long, with a kitchen at the far end. Four children, ranging in age from five to nine, amuse themselves reading and playing on floor mats. Busy preparing dinner, J Yawu’s wife Jacinta, along with her sister and mother, have set a low round table surrounded by 10 tiny stools. Two more doors, neatly labeled “Shower Room” and “Toilet,” complete the flat’s amenities.
At the center of this domestic scene, J Yawu’s personal affect is dazzling. Stocky and of average height, he glows with health and jolliness. Four walls and modest circumstances cannot contain him.
The family’s main home is in Myitkyina, he explained, but they stay in Rangoon during academic terms because all the kids go to school there. When Parliament is in session, he lives in the new capital of Naypyidaw, his wife (whom he refers to as his “sweetheart”) often joining him on constituent walkabouts. These jaunts are time-consuming — and calorie-burning — because his Northern Kachin district is the largest, most remote, and most sparsely populated in Myanmar. It has few roads but “lots of rivers and leeches,” according to its senator. While he pursues his political duties, his mother and sister-in-law pick up the slack on childcare.
We settle down into this harmonious family hive. I relate our experiences walking around Putao and in Myitkyina, passing on the Lisu comment that “big politicians [such as J Yawu] do nothing but talk, talk, talk.” I ask what he thinks he has accomplished for constituents at the local level. He replies:
National leaders impact both state and local levels. Example: I am on the Rights Committee, one of those “distant” federal committees of 52 people from around the country that investigates human rights violations, crimes, wars, and land acquisition questions. Recently, a former military commander confiscated farmland. His company already owns two million acres and stole a few thousand more. We investigated, and he had to give it back. You can’t solve that at the local or state level. The case is important because it sends the message throughout the country that land confiscation is now illegal. Compared to the past, it has almost stopped.
In another case, [former president] Than Shwe’s best friend wanted to confiscate 45 acres in Rangoon. He is a construction king and boss of Myanmar’s legislature, notorious for showing that the military is still powerful. Even he was made to give the land back. He is appealing the decision, so we wait and see, but recent reforms have drastically reduced land theft in both urban and rural areas. We have had an anti-confiscation law since 1982, but only after a new law was passed a couple of years ago and our committee formed has it been enforced.
I also fought with others against the huge Chinese dam project that had already started construction by the confluence of the Irrawaddy [in Central Kachin State, 100 kilometers north of Myitkyina]. It would have destroyed thousands of acres of farmland. I consulted with leaders from around the country — bishops, priests, pastors, monks; they all gave me ideas for a paper I wrote opposing the project. I presented it to President Thein Sein, who congratulated me privately but asked that I not say anything to the media for 10 days. After six days, he suspended construction. I’m not claiming I stopped it, but I was part of stopping it, and this directly benefits my constituents. Local and state government cannot solve our biggest problems; we can tackle these only at the national level.
What about ending the civil war in his own Kachin State, I wonder. Does he support the Kachin Independence Army or the government? “This conflict could be over in one week … but then what?” J Yawu asks dramatically, lifting his palms heavenward. This is news to me; I’d never heard anyone say that before. On the edge of my seat, I ask: “What would happen?” He answers:
The government needs these conflicts to justify the Tatmadaw’s [i.e., the army’s] outsized power and influence. Wars provide distractions. When a conflict gets hot in one place, you can bet they are up to something sneaky somewhere else … maybe Chinese pipeline construction or an oil deal, maybe a land grab, could be anything. There’s so much the army controls all around the country, so many projects [through the ruling majority USDP] they have their fingers in. So conflicts serve their purpose — to cover kleptocracy and shady business deals.
Remember, Parliament is 80-percent military, active or retired. Our opposition coalition is no match for the USDP. Myanmar needs reform, the present government actually wants reform, but there are too many who think, “I just need to get a little bit richer first.” [Former junta leader] Than Shwe still controls the army; the conflict will end when he wants it to. This is out of our hands.
So whether I support the KIA or the government really makes no difference. I should love the Tatmadaw: my father was a policeman, I am the grandson of a colonel in the British Burma Army, and my uncle is a USDP member in Parliament’s Lower House. But I know the army is too powerful and too corrupt to reform. I saw their true colors as a student in 1988 when they fired on me and other innocents. It hasn’t changed; blind obedience is the basic requirement to rise — and it is incompatible with democracy. I know about blind obedience because I was raised with it at seminary, but my church at least elects its leaders. The Tatmadaw is also more involved with logging and narcotics than the KIA, so they are the bigger evil.
Adding everything up, using “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” logic, strategically, I should support the KIA.
But J Yawu can’t quite bring himself to do it. An uncle and a “cousin-brother” served as high-ranking intelligence officers in the KIA, and both were assassinated (by having spikes driven through their heads) during internal purges over ethnic and religious differences in 1999 and 2006. In the earlier years of the struggle, he said, many Lisu shared the KIA’s aspiration for independence. Their solidarity was religious as well as political, as the KIA leadership and rank-and-file were mostly Jingpo Baptists from around Myitkyina — where most Lisu are also Baptist. When the Kachin Baptist Convention was divided into Lisu and Jingpo branches, however, the coalition unraveled and the Jingpo group began to dominate. After that, KIA Lisu leaders were systematically driven out or killed.
He concurs that today few Lisu are involved in the conflict other than as unwilling conscripts. He says the military strategy has always been to seek Lisu support to help them “win over” whomever it is they are fighting at the moment: the KIA, the Shan, the KNU (Karen National Union).
“The army has no loyalty to the Lisu,” he says, “and [the] KIA is ruled by Jingpo Baptists; we [the Lisu] are always the pawns of one side or both.” He adds that it’s the same for all minorities (the Lisu are the 13th largest of 135 recognized minority groups in the country). That’s why he thinks the Crossbow Party’s platform plank to infiltrate and democratize the army “sounds good, and of course it should be law. But unfortunately, it won’t work.” Discrimination against minorities is at the philosophical heart of army culture, according to J Yawu, who adds: “Actually, their policy is to eliminate us.”
I ask the senator what he thought of the new US engagement policy toward Myanmar. He responds:
The “anti-anti,” pro-embargo position was not productive; the Chinese were the only ones who benefited from it. Obama’s approach [is] good. I met Hillary [Clinton] when she visited Myanmar — I was very lucky and talked to her for 24 minutes! [An aide timed their conversation.] I explained why the sanctions were not working, why the time for engagement has arrived. I guess a lot of people told her that.
All this before dinner is unnerving. J Yawu’s candor about politics is unlike the measured and cautious approach taken by Lisu I’ve encountered elsewhere. He doesn’t seem afraid, yet I am afraid for him. I ask about the risk of criticizing powerful people and institutions, and he brushes off the paranoia I learned to adopt while working next door in Thailand as a foreign correspondent in the 1990s.
“Oh, I am free, not censored” as a member of the opposition, he says, “unlike my uncle with the USDP who cannot say a word without an okay from the government.” He mentions that he has been warned against using Bible quotes in public talks but doesn’t always comply because, as he paraphrases the Gospel of Mark, “The law is made for man, not men made for laws.” He goes on to claim that 76 Christian churches have been destroyed and not one Buddhist temple that he knows of. “Though 40 percent of our country’s people are ethnic minorities,” he says, “overall 90 percent in Myanmar are [Theravāda] Buddhists — because minorities assimilate and Buddhism is the state religion.” (The balance is four percent each Christian and Muslim, with animists, Mahāyāna Buddhists, and Hindus splitting the final two percent.)
Over a delicious dinner combining Lisu and Jingpo elements, we heard about J Yawu and Jacinta’s romance and recent rapprochement with the Roman Catholic Church:
Well, we fell in love, and we are both Catholic. When my sweetheart became pregnant, I left the church and married her. I decided that if I can’t be holy, at least I’ll be honest — I didn’t want to stay on as a sneaky priest, like some do. We couldn’t have our marriage properly blessed because I was excommunicated, but she and I continued to attend church, though we couldn’t take communion. We always sat in the front row to show that even though we sinned, we had not deserted the church. As our children began arriving, we brought them with us.
For years I wrote letters to Pope Benedict, asking forgiveness and telling him I really think God’s plan was for me to fall in love and help my country through politics, not the church. Finally, just before Benedict abdicated in February 2013, he sent our bishop a message allowing my reinstatement! The day the bishop called to give me this news was my happiest ever. I ran to find my sweetheart, and we went straight to the church and got married again. Within a couple more days, that pope was gone.
During dinner, the two smallest children take turns sitting in J Yawu’s lap. The family circle appears to expand and contract organically until all the kids have reassembled back at the other end of the room, reading, giggling, and playing. We are told that the children speak Lisu, Jingpo, and Burmese. I wonder how much English they understand. They are remarkably affectionate with each other and with the adults, and while generally well behaved, they are not cowed or particularly quiet.
I ask J Yawu about the religious divides among Lisu and whether he agrees with Ashley South, the Australian academic I’d met with in Rangoon who stated that “religious conflict is as great as political difference” in Kachin State. He replies:
It’s true. The various sects don’t get along well, are full of schisms, and Protestants really look down on Catholics. On the other hand, the nonsectarian “Unity Movement” is strengthening, and Lisu understand that to have a national voice, we must stick together politically.
Offering us a tot of a “traditional” medicinal cordial (with a pickled bug and some interesting herbs in the bottom of the bottle), he comments: “The thing about Catholics is that we can drink, and Protestant Lisu don’t like that.” I mentioned that a young Assembly of God pastor had complained to me that “they [Catholics] think they can have it both ways.” J Yawu laughed and agreed, telling me he’d distilled the cordial himself.
Both J Yawu’s father and grandfather were botanical experts who taught him the many plant-based cures that he relies on during his constituent walkabouts. He proceeded to expound on these remedies — for example: “Honey is great for repelling leeches, and believe it or not, if you instantly apply earwax to a cobra bite, you won’t die.” He adds:
The Catholic mission came late, and we are a tiny minority. But we’re gaining popularity lately since Lisu like football and they see football players making the sign of the cross on TV. Pope Francis is also very popular. Most Lisu faith is not very complicated: just believe in God or you will go to hell.
This seems like a good moment to pop my question: “How did you manage to get elected? Your Catholicism and lack of family money must have been obstacles.” Flashing his most beatific smile of the evening, J Yawu responds, “Oh-h-h-h-h, my opponent!” as if that were sufficient to explain his victory. He goes on:
The man was a Rawang [an even smaller minority than the Lisu], very rich and involved with a Rawang militia, a group supported by the military. People were disgusted by him because he led Rawang boys into a battle where they were used as cannon fodder/human shields by a joint force of [the] Karen National Union and Tatmadaw way down in the south. It had nothing to do with their cause, yet many were killed.
This caused people to hate the Tatmadaw even more, along with my Rawang opponent who they felt had led lambs to slaughter. The religious aspect was that my opponent was Assembly of God, and they don’t like [the] Church of Christ [the two dominant evangelical sects in his Kachin State senate district] — so rather than vote for one of them, they voted for me, a Roman Catholic. I was known as a good guy because I’d done development work with NGOs in Kachin State … water systems, waste disposal, agricultural development. Since I was no longer a priest, people didn’t hold my religion against me so much. It was enough that I was religious, which Lisu always think is a good thing!
Demographics worked in my favor, too. My district used to be 40 percent Jingpo but had become less, maybe 30 percent, as the Lisu population grew to the number two spot, with the same or just a little less [population] than the Lowo. Lisu will always vote for a Lisu over a Rawang, especially since this Rawang had blood on his hands.
The final reason I won is that the Tatmadaw had not prepared enough phony ballots to turn the election for my opponent! They had only 10,000, but I received 29,000 votes. So even though they burned up another 2,000 NUP ballots, I still ended up with the margin of victory.
I have to ask again if it is not dangerous for him to speak so freely. “Well, if there is a huge electoral victory by the USDP that is backed by a military clampdown, I must rush to China,” he says with a laugh. He adds more thoughtfully:
We have friends and associates there. And we would have some warning if the government turns direction radically. They really don’t want economic sanctions to return and stifle investment. When I explained to the pope that this is what God wants me to do with my life, I believed it. I believe it still — because I cannot do more than this, I am in full swing!
He leapt up to mime a line drive toward the back wall of his modest family digs, making the “whoosh” sound of a speeding projectile traveling a long distance.
This essay is adapted from The Lisu: Far from the Ruler (University of Colorado Press, 2017).
Michele Zack is an American journalist. While working for Asiaweek and Far Eastern Economic Review, she lived and worked in Thailand during the 1990s, where she wrote the first version of her book The Lisu: Far from the Ruler, eventually published by the University of Colorado Press in 2017.