Merging harvest festival traditions with Christian worship introduced by American missionaries in the 1800s, communities displaced by civil war in northern Myanmar gathered this week to celebrate their own version of Thanksgiving. High up on the mountains of Kachin state near China, they joined in song and prayer to give thanks for the blessings of the past year and to ask for health, safety, peace and prosperity in the next.
While Myanmar is predominantly Buddhist, Christian missionaries were especially influential in the country’s border and mountainous areas during the British colonial era. Since the 1800s, large segments of ethnic Kachin, Karen, Karenni and Chin populations have practiced Christianity. The Kachins, who live in Myanmar’s hilly northern regions, were largely animistic until coming into contact with missionaries beginning in 1877. Today, much of Kachin community life is centered around churches, including Baptist, Catholic and Anglican denominations.
According to Kachin Baptist Reverend Marip Bawk San, who is also an archivist and historian of Kachin folk legends, before the arrival of missionaries, Kachin people called November’s harvest celebrations Nlung Nnan Sha Poi, or the Festival of Eating New Crops. Today, most Kachins celebrate the harvest through expressions of thanks to God, and they call the festival Chyeju Dum Poi, or Festival of Thanks.
On Thanksgiving, celebrated for Kachins toward the end of November but on different days depending on the community, people typically decorate head strap baskets called shingnoi with flowers known for deterring crop-destroying insects. They fill the baskets with fruits, vegetables and household items to donate to their church, which then distributes the donations to community members in need.
This year, 72-year-old Labya Roi San and her grandson put pumpkin, taro, long beans, ginger and other vegetables the family grew in a garden near the displacement camp where they live into a basket. Since fleeing her village when conflict broke out between the military and Kachin Independence Army nine years ago, Roi San has seen three grandchildren born in Je Yang, one of many camps in the area.
The Kachin harvest festival is steeped in legends passed down generationally. Reverend Marip Bawk San recounted one to VICE World News:
Once upon a time, the rice in Kachin Land was unhusked and eaten raw. Humans, birds, fish and other animals consumed it recklessly, so the rice was sad and fled to the sun. Humans and animals became hungry, and traveled to the sun, asking the sun king to give them back the rice. The sun king gave them a new kind of rice, with a golden hull. Since then, Kachins have surrounded their rice crop with taro, ginger, chilies, and corn to protect it from being consumed by insects and wild animals.
Today, belief in such legends has faded with the predominance of Christianity. “Every year, we happily celebrated receiving rice back from the sun king, without knowing how to give thanks,” Marip Bawk San said. “After we converted to Christianity, we came to celebrate by giving thanks to God.”
Ring Nu Awng photographed his mother, Kaw Shawng (pictured above), in his family's shelter in Je Yang camp. She used to farm her own land, but after fleeing her village in 2011, she joined other conflict-displaced people as a day laborer on Chinese-owned coffee, banana and peppercorn plantations. Two years ago, she opened a shoe shop in Je Yang camp. In her village, Kaw Shawng prepared Thanksgiving meals for her family with rice and vegetables harvested from her farm. But in the camp, she purchases the ingredients at a nearby market.
Kaw Shawng is among more than 100,000 people displaced in Kachin and neighboring Shan States over the last decade, but the conflict is much older. It traces back to a broken promise between Burmese and Kachin leaders months before the country’s independence from Britain in 1948.
The Kachin people had been allowed to self-govern when Myanmar, then-called Burma, was under British colonial rule, and Kachin leaders agreed to join the Union of Burma upon independence after Burmese leaders promised them autonomy in internal administration. This promise was never granted, and the Kachin Independence Organization has waged an armed struggle since 1961. A ceasefire was established between the KIO and Myanmar’s armed forces in 1994, but it collapsed in 2011.
Although active fighting has slowed in recent years, most of those displaced since 2011 remain in camps, including more than 38,000 who live in areas governed by the KIO, where the Myanmar government has restricted humanitarian aid since 2016. With a population of 8,700, Je Yang is the largest of 138 camps and displacement sites across Kachin State, and is located near the KIO headquarters of Laiza, which sits on the border with China’s Yunnan Province.
The main Thanksgiving event for Kachins is a prayer service. This year, due to the coronavirus pandemic, most Kachin churches held services online. Although Kachin State has largely been spared coronavirus cases, Myanmar had identified more than 83,000 cases and 1,800 deaths nationwide as of Nov. 25. Roi Tawng, a Baptist pastor in Je Yang camp, where no cases have been identified, said communities in the camp gathered in smaller groups than in years’ past, and that this year, she led her congregants in praying for safety from the virus.
Kareng Kaw, 81, also fled her village in 2011, and has seen two grandchildren born in Je Yang camp. Celebrating Thanksgiving in the camp is very different than in her village, she said. “We used to make a delicious festival meal with crops and livestock from our farm, but here, we can’t.”
Additional reporting by Jaw Tu Hkawng