Located in the smallest state of Myanmar, Loikaw is a very discreet capital city. Isolation combined with half a century of conflicts against the Junta made this mountainous area with a huge touristic potential even more remote. Despite a recent cease-fire, many armed groups remain in the region.
Only a year ago, tourists were not allowed in this modest and seemingly peaceful state capital city. Today, a few travelers pass by, inhabitants, not used to it, still stare at them. Loikaw is Kayah State capital city, East of Myanmar, near the Thai border. The region is isolated and surrounded by mountains. From Yangon, it takes at least a 16 hours bus trip to reach this 1200 meter high city.
Only a few Karennis but persistent fighters
Kayah State takes its name from the Kayah ethnic group. But the inhabitants prefer Karenni (red Karen), because it embraces the other ethnic groups such as Kayaw or Kayan people. The Karenni people are 300.000. Usually, tourists only know them because the « long-neck » women are Kayan. But most of them migrated to more touristic areas where they can make more money : Bagan, Inle lake and above all, Thailand.
Even if Karenni people are only a few, they fought an intense rebellion against the military government for fifty years. A never-ending civil war has slowed down economic development in this mountainous area. That’s why Loikaw keeps the features of a quiet, rural city.
A huge touristic potential
Paddy fields, mountains, forests, Loikaw can exhibit its landscapes without shame. Dark, irregular mountains draw the scenery and in the city itself, Taung Kwe golden pagoda, perched on craggy limestone rocks is glistening. Downtown, Baluchaung river snakes quietly through the city and two lakes add somehow a seaside town atmosphere. Here, tourists could find what they are looking for.
Pagodas are not the only touristic attraction or the only religious landmark. There are churches, such as Christ the King Cathedral, which looks eccentric but strangely beautiful for a European observer. By coming to Loikaw, visitors can easily realize they left Burmese territory. The Longyi is almost old-fashioned for the men. And at least half the Karennis are Christian. The social importance of the Church can easily compete with that of Buddhist temples. And a lot of Karenni youngsters have a Christian name and learned English in missionary schools.
Omnipresent armed groups
Nowadays, open conflicts with Nay Pyi Daw are over. But armed groups remains, most of them kept their weapons. “They are hidden somewhere in the jungle” they say. In many streets, there is a humble house decorated with the sign of a local political party/armed group. People here like acronyms a lot. And the proliferation of organizations is sometimes confusing : KNPP (Karenni National Progressive Party), KNLP (Kayah New Land Party), KNPLF (Karenni Nationalities People Liberation Front), KNPDP, ABSDF, KNG… There are eight Karenni armed groups and most of them have an office in Loikaw.
All of them eventually signed a cease-fire agreement with the government. KNPP was the last group to accept it, in March 2012. Despite the cease-fire, – which is still unstable – armed groups demands are numerous and far from being satisfied by the government. First of all, these ethnic armed groups want a federal state and a federal army, which would grant them more autonomy and would make the ethnic armed forces part of the Burmese Army.
A war over natural resources
Kayah State has important natural resources: hydroelectric power, precious metals, teak wood… However these resources remain exclusively government property, and the authorities exploit them in association with Chinese or Thai firms. Local people almost don’t benefit from them. Since the military came to power in 1962, Kayah farmers have been the victims of land confiscation, forced labor or forced relocation. Still today, some places such as dams, are protected by land-mines.
Located at an hour drive from Loikaw, Lawpita dam provides power for one of the most important electric power plant of the whole country. The dam lake is the biggest also, for it is twice as big as Inle lake. But electricity goes to Yangon or abroad. Around Loikaw, many villagers still use candlelight. During the rainy season, to avoid overflow, a huge amount of water is released from the dam by the authorities, which causes a sudden and considerable rise of water level and floods the near-by villages. For all these reasons, Karenni armed group still struggle and local people still feel resentment.
They now wait for the outcome of the democratic process. The 2008 constitution written by the Junta worsened the relationships between armed groups and central government. Armed groups interest resides in the disappearance of the Army from the political scene. Karenni organizations are henceforth slowly transforming the armed groups into political parties. This change is unavoidable and necessary if they want to assert the Karenni people rights on the political scene.