In an earlier post I initiated a geo-twitter experiment to see how much it is possible to learn from twitter about a complicated issue. My twitter feed serves as a sort of selective (and non-expert) news feed for Southeast Asia. It selectively aggregates tweets that show up through searches of Twitter on Burma, Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand, and Malaysia (as well as related items -- Kachin, Karen Burma, ...). I also add tweets based on news stories I come across in newspapers and web news sources from the region. The idea is to select a number of the news items that reference these parts of Southeast Asia in the twitter fire hose and see whether they begin to add up to an intelligible picture. Southeast Asia doesn't get extensive coverage in the western press, and using twitter appears to be a way to get a more detailed understanding of what is going on.
Part of this experiment is a Google map that locates as many of these items as possible on a master map. The idea was that a spatial display of the news feed would help to give some shape to some of the main social, cultural, and military events going on in the region. When you look at the map, you'll see that the news items fall into a handful of large clusters. (The map has had a surprising number of visitors -- over 6,000 visits in three weeks.)
In Burma there are basically three clusters on the map right now: news on the ethnic armies in the Kachin/Shan provinces in the north; news on the Burmese army offensive against Karen independence forces on the Burma-Thai border (and the refugees and displaced persons who have been created); and news of the government's corruption and brutality as well as the trial of Aung San Suu Kyi.
Here I'm going to focus on one cluster -- the Kachin region in north Burma -- and simply reproduce the items that have come through in the past month. Here are the posts that are tagged on the map of north Burma above. Does this begin to give a somewhat coherent view of what is happening in this part of Burma?
- Burmese Army conduct in Kachin | (5/7/09) There is a culture prevalent in Nong Mong (Naw Mung in Kachin) city in Putao district in Kachin State, northern Burma where high ranking Burmese military officers marry native Kachin woman and later abandon them and their children, a source said." link
- Ethnic Groups in Myanmar Hope for Peace, but Gird for Fight |(18/06/09) New York Times LAIZA, Myanmar — The Kachin tribesmen who inhabit the hills along Myanmar’s border with China have a reputation as stealthy jungle warriors, famous for repelling Japanese attacks in the Second World War with booby traps and instilling terror by slicing off ears to tally their kills. Now, as they have many times in their war-scarred history, the Kachin are hoping for peace but are prepared for battle with Myanmar’s central government. “Whether or not there will be war again, we have to be ready,” Maj. Zauja Nhkri, the head of an officer’s training school that is part of the Kachin Independence Army, which has around 4,000 men under arms.“If our army is strong, we can maintain the peace.” As Myanmar’s military government prepares to adopt a new and disputed Constitution next year, a fragile patchwork of cease-fire agreements between the central government and more than a dozen armed ethnic groups is fraying. link
- Edmund Leach, Ethnography of Kachin | Edmund Leach -- Political Systems of Highland Burma -- A Study of Kachin Social Structure (1954) link
- Junta to resettle 200,000 Burmans in Hukawng Valley | (17/06/09) KachinNews The Burmese military junta plans to resettle 200,000 Burman people in ethnic Kachin's Hukawng Valley (also called Hugawng in Kachin) in the country's northern Kachin State before 2010, said regime insiders. The new Burman settlers, who make up the majority of the country’s population, will be mainly settled in areas close to three Kachin villages known as Nawng Mi, Sahtu Zup and Wara Zup on the Ledo or Stilwell Road also called Burma Road during WW II, added insiders. In the guise of Rangoon-based Yuzana Company's crop plantation in the Valley, only Burman people from different areas of lower Burma have been resettled in the Valley since late 2006, said native Kachins from the Valley. link
- Getting news out of Burma’s more remote corners | (11/06/09) New Mandala: Rejecting and accepting headlines up at Laiza -- "Getting news out of Burma’s more remote corners — such as the Kachin Independence Army/Organisation headquarters at Laiza — can be a difficult job at the best of times. When there is inherent, and perhaps even deliberate, ambiguity thrown into the mix it is almost impossible." link
- Inside the Kachin Independence Army | (22/01/09) PulitzerCenter: Inside the Kachin Independence Army (youtube video) link
- KIO in preparation mode, refurbishing armed wing | (17/06/09) New Delhi (Mizzima) The ethnic Kachin resistance group – Kachin Independence Organisation is refurbishing its military in what appears to be preparation for an impending war with the Burmese Army. Sources on the Sino-Burma border area said, the KIO off late has been re-grouping the members of its armed wing - the Kachin Independence Army and is recruiting new members. Awng Wa, Chairman of the Kachin Development Networking Group (KDNG) working in Kachin state told Mizzima that he has witnessed KIA cadres retreating into their forest camps and beefing up security around their areas of control. He said, the KIA is also calling back its old members and recruiting new cadres and is vigorously providing trainings to younger batches. link
- KIO campaigns against Burma junta over 'known-result' | (25/06/09) The 'Known-Result' --- where the people of Kachin State have rejected the Burmese junta’s proposal of transforming the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the armed-ring of KIO into a battalion of 'Border Guard Force' is being widely spread in a campaign by the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), one of largest ethnic ceasefire groups in the country. The special campaign has been launched by the KIO to explain the pressure by the junta on the KIA to transform at both the organizational level and among the Kachin public in Kachin State and Northeast Shan State since early this month, said KIO leaders. link
- KIO wants KIA to be "State Security Force" | (25/06/09) The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), one of strongest ethnic ceasefire groups in military-ruled Burma would rather transform its armed-wing to a "State Security Force" rather than a "Border Guard Force" it has told the junta, said KIO sources. The KIO has officially informed the junta of its willingness to transform the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) to a “State Security Force” (SSF) instead of the junta’s proposal that it be changed to a battalion of a "Border Guard Force" when the two sides met at Mali Hka Center in the junta's Northern Command headquarters in Kachin State's capital Myitkyina on June 21 (Sunday), said KIO leaders. link
- A land the world forgot: A photojournalist sneaks into Myanmar to report on the Kachin freedom movement | (18/06/09) NewsReview.com The car came to an abrupt stop. “Get out,” the driver said. My friend and partner in journalism Tim Patterson and I stumbled in the moonless night through an uneven, bulldozed field toward the sound of a river. When we reached the river, we crossed a creaky bamboo footbridge and scrambled up a loose-dirt hill to an older SUV with its lights off. “Welcome to Free Kachin,” our contact said, smiling broadly. link
- Burmese junta allows felling of 100,000 tons of timber | (8/06/09) Burmese junta allows felling of 100,000 tons of timber per company per year link link
- Kachin Schoolchildren Beaten And Hospitalised By Burmese Army | (17/06/09) Burma Campaign Around 15 schoolchildren and young men have been beaten, and some hospitalised, after Burmese Army soldiers went on a rampage through Mayan village in Kachin State, Burma. According to Burma Campaign UK sources, the attacks happened after youths in the village prevented soldiers from gang-raping a 17 year old girl. On the morning of 31st May a young man in the village, Lasaw Naw, was brutally beaten by a group of army soldiers in an unprovoked attack. link
- Kachin youths assaulted and detained for preventing rape by Burmese soldiers | (10/06/09) [Kachin News] Kachin youths assaulted and detained for preventing rape by Burmese soldiers: Many... link
- Kachin Recruiting Drive Launched as Tension Mounts | (17/06/09) The military wing of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) is recruiting former soldiers as tension builds over the Burmese regime’s instruction to ceasefire groups to reassign their troops as border guards. A Kachin military source said the recruitment drive by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) was to heighten the force’s preparedness. “We are alert and ready to open fire if our leaders order it,” he said. link
- Burmese army bases in Kachin |(23/2/07) New Mandala: "Over at Hugawng Kachin, there is a useful little post with comparative maps of the Burmese army battalions based in the Kachin State in 2006 and 1994 (when the Kachin Independence Organization ceasefire was signed). In 1994 there were 26 battalions located mainly near Myitkyina and along the north-south trunk route through the southern part of the State. Now there are 41 battalions based in the State with a proliferation of smaller outposts at strategic points from Hpakant to Sadung. Anybody who has recently driven on the road between Myitkyina and Bhamo will have seen the number of relatively new bases north of Bhamo. These are all clearly marked on the 2006 map." link
- Three Kachin peace groups give into junta | (29/06/09) Three Kachin ceasefire groups in northern Burma last week, gave into the demands of the Burmese military junta of transforming their armed-wings into the kind of forces that the regime wants, said sources close to the groups. The New Democratic Army-Kachin (NDA-K), the Lasang Awng Wa Peace Group in Kachin State and the Kachin Defense Army (KDA) in northeast Shan State agreed to transform their armed-forces to a Border Guard Force or local militia, said sources in the three outfits. link
- Burmese military Junta allots large tracts of virgin land to senior KIO leaders | (10/6/09) The Burmese military junta allots large tracts of virgin land to senior KIO leaders: The Burmese military junta has allotted thousands of acres of vacant-virgin land this year to senior leaders of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), one of largest ethnic ceasefire groups in the country, said local sources link
- KIO accepts junta's idea of transformation of armed-wing | (9/06/09) [KachinNews ] KIO accepts junta's idea of transformation of armed-wing link
- Forest ranger assaulted by soldiers over sharing bribe | (13/6/09) [Kachin] Forest ranger assaulted by soldiers over sharing bribe: (corruption, logging) text
- KIA lance-corporal disappears on way home | (28/06/09) Lance-corporal So Ba Du of the Special Gorkha Squandron of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) disappeared while returning home from the squandron base in Laiza headquarters to Myitkyina in Burma's northern Kachin State on June 7, said KIA sources. The incident comes at a time of mounting military tension between Burma's ruling junta and the KIA after the latter was pressurized to transform to a battalion of the Border Guard Force (BGF) by the regime. link
- Junta rakes in 1,000 million Kyat from auction of seized cars | (25/06/09) The Burmese military junta has earned a whopping net profit of over 1,000 million Kyat (an estimated over US $909,091) from its biggest auction ever of seized cars in Myitkyina, the capital of the country's northern Kachin State. The revenue was raked in, in a matter of days, local sources said. Hundreds of car dealers, brokers, businessmen and the rich, mainly from Rangoon and Mandalay dropped in at the car auction venues in the Kachin State Football Stadium and the Burmese Army compound of the No. 37 Infantry Battalion in Myitkyina in the 2nd week of this June, said local residents. link
- Iron ore mine could destroy 7000 in Shan state of Myanmar | (2/07/09) Burma Newscasts reported that Russian and Italian engineering companies are reported to be involved in the development of a huge iron ore mine in Burma’s eastern Shan state that campaigners say could displace more than 7,000 homes. The already volatile Shan state is home to Burma’s second largest iron ore deposit, on the site of Mount Pinpet. Excavation of the site began in 2004, and work includes the conversion of around 11,000 acres of surrounding land for construction of a cement factory and iron processing plant. The Pa-O Youth Organization in a report released said that more than 25 villages’ home to around 7000 mainly ethnic Pa-O people could be destroyed by the Pinpet Mining Project. link
- Surprise addition in KIO delegation negotiating with junta |(6/07/09) In a surprise addition to its seven-member delegation, negotiating with the Burmese ruling junta, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) has included its Western Regional Commander. The inclusion comes at a time when there is gradual escalation of tension between the KIO and the military regime, KIO sources said. A KIO delegation was constituted last month to negotiate with the junta on the proposal regarding the transformation of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the armed-wing of KIO. Col. Lahpai Zau Raw, 4th Brigade Commander (B.C) and the KIO's Chairman of the Western Regional Committee based in Northeast Shan State was included in the KIO delegation on June 27. Now there will be eight delegates, said sources close to the KIO headquarters in Laiza on the Sino-Burma border in Kachin State. link
- Junta deploys fresh troops secretly in Kachin State | (25/06/09) The Burmese military junta is secretly deploying more combat troops in Kachin State at a time when negotiations are on with the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) over the transformation of its armed-wing into a battalion of a "Border Guard Force", said local sources. As of the second week of June, able soldiers have been selected from different battalions and secretly infused into local Burmese Army battalions and military bases in the frontlines in different regions of Kachin State by the instruction of Lt-Gen Ye Myint of Chief of Military Affairs Security of the junta. They include two unidentified Light Infantry Divisions, said a source close to Burmese troops. link
- Junta bans construction of 'Manau Poles' in Bhamo | (2/07/09) In a fresh ban, the Burmese military junta has prohibited the construction of ‘Manau Poles’ – a mark of ethnic Kachin culture in Bhamo in the country’s northern Kachin State, said local sources. Kachin residents in Bhamo told KNG, that Kachin ‘Manau Poles’ were banned from being constructed in June on the orders of the junta’s Northern Regional (or Kachin State) Commander Brig-Gen Soe Win. link
These two dozen items raise several related story lines: the persistence of ethnic identities and independence movements in several parts of Burma; the persistence and military significance of the Kachin Independence Army / Kachin Independence Organization; the brutal behavior of the Burmese army around its bases in Kachin and Shan states; the corrupt exploitation of resources by the junta; and the ongoing negotiation between the Burmese junta and leaders of the KIO over the Burmese demand that KIA transform itself into a border control unit under control of the Burmese army.
So it seems as though the experiment is at least somewhat successful: there is enough content in the twitter feed to provide a basis for beginning to see some of the lineaments of the current social and military situation in Kachin State. It's a different kind of exposure from what commentators have discussed so widely about twitter in Tehran -- almost none of these items come from local participants. Instead, they are postings by interested observers who are reading expatriate web sites, blogs like New Mandala that attract academic experts on Southeast Asia, news sources like Kachin News and The Irrawaddy that specialize in the region, and twitter contributors such as kambodscha, jonfernquest, and andrewspooner who have long experience and knowledge of Cambodia and Thailand. But when you mash it all together, you get a remarkably nuanced picture of the current social reality. And there are surprises as well -- for example, after two weeks of dozens of items on the Burmese army's assault on Karen camps on the Thai border, that issue has gone silent.
(If you absolutely insist on more traditional sources of knowledge, here are two books separated by about sixty years that shed light on Kachin society and politics: Edmund Leach, Political Systems of Highland Burma: A Study of Kachin Social Structure and David Steinberg, Burma: The State of Myanmar.)