PEKHON, Shan State — Hundreds of ethnic Kayan in Pekhon Township on Wednesday marked the golden jubilee of the founding of the Kayan National Liberation Army, a rebel militia formed 50 years ago to wage a campaign of armed resistance against Burma’s central government.
The golden jubilee celebration was held in Cebu village, southern Shan State. About 200 armed soldiers from the Kayan National Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Kayan New Land Party (KNLP), marched to commemorate “Kayan Revolutionary Day.”
Cebu, a rebel-controlled village located about three hours by car northwest of the Karenni State capital Loikaw, serves as the headquarters of the KNLP, which signed a ceasefire with the government in the mid-1990s.
The event was held early on Wednesday morning, with hundreds of ethnic Kayan gathering to mark the occasion, arriving to the hilltop base by foot or motorbike.
Kayan leaders addressing the crowd spoke of the need for the Kayan people to “maintain their armed revolution” until the ethnic group achieved equality and the right to self-determination.
“Our people need to maintain their armed revolution until the country has a new Constitution,” said Than Soe Naing, chairman of the KNLP.
He said a new charter was needed because the 2008 Constitution—written by Burma’s former junta—granted the military continued influence over the country’s politics, despite reforms from the government of President Thein Sein in recent years.
The KNLP made its declaration of armed revolution on June 4, 1964, some two years after the late dictator Gen. Ne Win took power and undertook a campaign to suppress many of Burma’s ethnic minority groups, including the Kayan.
Saw Lwin, a colonel from the Kayan National Liberation Army, recalled the rebel armed group’s humble origins.
“Our people used homemade guns and knives—that is all they had. They fought back against the regime because our people were treated badly and unfairly,” Saw Lwin said.
The colonel acknowledged that reforms had been enacted since 2011, but said members of the former military regime continued to rule the country, masked as civilian leadership.
The KNLP signed a ceasefire agreement with the central government in 1994, after three decades of fighting in which the KNLP says some 500 armed rebels lost their lives.
Nyein Maung, a senior military officer from the Kayan National Liberation Army, said relations with the Burmese Army were cordial at present, but added that the Kayan rebel group would not react passively to any government provocation.
“We have not gotten our freedom after 50 years. If we need to fight one more time, we will not be hesitant to do so. We will protect our people and pay with our lives,” Nyein Maung said.
A 2006 diplomatic cable from the US Embassy in Rangoon, published by Wikileaks, described relations between the KNLP and the ruling junta of the time as “hot and cold.” The cable cited as an example the Kayan group’s decision to send a delegate to Burma’s National Convention, which aimed to draft a new Constitution and ultimately produced the 2008 charter, while on multiple occasions denouncing the process as a sham.
Kayan leaders said on Wednesday that they would cooperate with other ethnic groups in the fight for a federal system in Burma.
“We need to have a federal system. We should have self-determination for our people,” said Than Soe Naing.
Khun Hla Moe, a cofounder of the Kayan National Liberation Army, said that he had helped to form the Kayan National Liberation Army—a modest fighting force of 30 men initially—when he was just 12 years old.
With the armed group growing in strength, the Burmese Army launched a major offensive against the Kayan National Liberation Army in 1975, during which Khun Hla Moe said the regime forced civilians to serve as porters and detained civilians accused of supporting the Kayan rebels.
“I served as a porter when they [the Burmese Army] came to my village. They did not know me as a rebel. After portering, I took my gun from hiding, and shot them,” Khun Hla Moe said.
The late Shwe Aye, a KNLP cofounder and longtime chairman of the group, was remembered with reverence on Wednesday.
“He was a good leader. I hid him whenever he would come to Pekhon town and the Burmese Army could not find him,” said Khun Hla Moe.
Most of Burma’s Kayan populations live in Loikaw and the lower reaches of neighboring Shan State. The Kayan have one legally registered ethnic political party, the Kayan National Party.