09/07/2013 02:00 EDT | Updated 11/07/2013 05:12 EST

In Myanmar's north, a persecuted minority dreams of Canadian-style federalism

MYITKYINA, Myanmar - Rev. Hkalam Samson got a good laugh out of his native friends the first time he visited their reserve near Winnipeg, awed by the low speed limits he interpreted as deep respect for Canada's aboriginals.

But Samson was in for a sobering reshaping of his understanding upon learning the signs were intended to prevent drunk-driving deaths. Suicides by three peers at their Manitoba seminary college during his two years of studies there also gave him pause.

Yet on comparing his own experiences as a minority, persecuted for decades under Myanmar's brutal military regime, Samson asserts the human and political rights afforded to Canada's natives are "more than enough."

That's why the church and community leader of 20 years is advocating for the recently-reformed government of his southeast Asian country also known as Burma to usher forward its emerging democracy by remaking his homeland in Canada's image.

"In Canada, you practice federalism. Each provincial government runs its own region. They tax, police their own territory," he said.

"If we have this kind of government, no problem. We are very happy. We can resist hardship."

Samson was born in northern Myanmar's mountainous Kachin State, a member of a two million-strong minority that has waged a decades-long battle for autonomy against successive military-dominated governments denounced last year by Canada for instigating "atrocious and unacceptable human suffering." It's a struggle with no end in sight, despite the country testing the waters of democracy.

While Samson readily draws parallels between Kachin customs and physical appearance and those of aboriginal Canadians, the Kachins' ultimate goal is instead tantamount to transforming Kachin State into Quebec. They want Myanmar morphed into a federal union, demarcated along ethnic lines, instead of the current system beholden to a central government they argue pays lip service to international concerns about widespread human rights abuses.

"Whenever we talk about (gaining a) federal democracy, we talk about Canada, Switzerland, Sweden. Those are the model countries," said Dumsa Dau Hka, an adviser to the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the rebel group that styles itself the white knight of the Kachin people.

"That is what we Kachin want."

Canadian parliamentarians investigated violations against the Kachin in spring 2012, convening an all-party subcommittee that condemned the Myanmar military for an ethnic and religious-based "program of persecution" they compared at the time to Syria.

Samson was there too, returning to Canada for the first time in nearly 15 years to testify in Ottawa. He praised Canadian-style governance and requested international pressure be brought to bear on his country's government towards solving the worsening humanitarian crisis.

But just over a year later, a journey to Samson's ramshackle hometown of Myitkyina — the capital of Kachin State and a short flight from the Himalayas — reveals his people are still languishing, distant as ever from the pulse of change in the heartland.

"The military intelligence came into my camp. Took me and put me in a room. Started to question me," said Brang Shawng, a hollow-eyed 25-year-old released in late June from imprisonment for allegedly blowing up city buildings. "I resisted many times. But they beat and tortured me. I finally (falsely) confessed. ... I was scared, I did not want to die."

The father of three is living once again in an internally displaced persons' camp on the city's outskirts, one of 129 total camps throughout the state.

Pulling up his traditional sarong-like longyi, Brang Shawng displayed splotchy scars from left thigh to ankle. He explained through a translator that the military pinned the crimes on him because he shares the same name as a rebel army captain.

Four middle-aged women tearfully described a separate incident in which two of their husbands and a brother and uncle were arrested while trekking to find work. They have now been jailed indefinitely on forced confessions of being rebel soldiers. Their boss stayed free by paying a bribe.

"We see no change," Roi Gawng said when asked for her impression of the central government touting Myanmar's burgeoning democracy on the world stage.

"They ignore the Kachin people," added Lashi Lu.

The hinterlands of Kachin State stand in stark contrast to the booming metropolis of Yangon, where street vendors hawk Aung San Suu Kyi T-shirts and foreign businessmen fill over-priced hotel rooms.

International governments lauded the pro-democracy heroine's release from almost 15 years under house arrest just after elections were held in 2010. But the new constitution, enacted following the vote, maintains 25 per cent of seats in parliament for the military, and ex-officers in civilian garb dominate the ruling party.

In 2011, the military unilaterally broke a long-standing ceasefire with the KIA rebels, turning Kachin State into an active war zone.

Rife with torched villages, rapes, land grabs and landmine use, more than 100,000 Kachin were forced from their mountain homes until late May, when fighting de-escalated into a chilly stalemate.

Representatives for both the KIA and the government said in separate interviews they're hoping to restart peace talks by mid-September, although both sides maintained they have no ability to trust the other's intentions.

A special advisory to the president said the central government is "sincere" about negotiating a federal union-type arrangement for Kachin State, but blamed the rebels for a lack of progress.

"This is very easy. It is not a dilemma," Hla Maung Shwe said in an interview in his Yangon office, as the lights flickered on and off due to the city's poor infrastructure.

But, he added, political dialogue on federalism is a non-starter until the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the political entity that controls the KIA, signs onto a national ceasefire accord encompassing all of Myanmar's myriad ethnic armed groups.

Asked for his response to Canadian outrage over human rights violations by the military, he said the international community has "too high expectations.

"Our capacity is too low. Myself, my president, we need time," he said.

He went on to add that troops also face strife on the frontlines, but independent observers only point at suffering by the Kachin.

"The problem is both sides," he said. "Myanmar is not Syria."

Advisers in Myitkyina to the rebels' top brass also said they're committed to jumpstarting political dialogue, explaining that's why they don't plan on immediately forcing the human rights issue in upcoming talks.

Over two breakfasts of roti and chickpeas in an austere cement-floored dining room, the KIO's chief political advisory added that armed resistance remains pertinent, but violence is not the Kachin's path to self-determination.

"What's the use of playing offense for us?" said Lieut. Col. Gawlu La Awng, who heads the KIO's technical advisory team.

"The military issue is not the prime issue. Our issue is for all those political issues to be solved."?

The organization signed a seven-point plan towards peace with the military in late May, agreeing to a "de-escalation and cessation of hostilities" rather than ceasefire, following two years of intense fighting.

The only item checked off to date has been the re-opening of the imposing political office compound in Myitkyina.

"One out of seven," La Awng chuckled. "Still very tricky. We're living here as captives. It is a kind of trust-building (exercise.)"

Mediators with the Myanmar Peace Centre, a government-appointed group of arbitrators, downplayed human rights concerns and accused the KIO of spreading "propaganda (that's) very dangerous."

Nyo Ohn Myint, the canter's associate program director, said the organization has "confused" the Kachin people into believing the government is insincere.

"That's their view, because it is very illiterate in those areas," he said during a wide-ranging, two-hour interview.

Andrew Lian, head of the centre's legal department, added he's seen no evidence to support reports of atrocities.

"(Canada's) government, plus the American government, plus the United Nations - everyone is misinformed."

A March 2012 report by Human Rights Watch accused the military of "serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, including deliberate or indiscriminate attacks on civilians, unlawful killings, torture and ill-treatment, the use of child soldiers and the use of abusive forced labour in conflict zones."

The report also chastised the KIA for conscripting child soldiers and its ongoing use of landmines, facts that La Awng confirmed.

For underground Kachin activists in Myitkyina, surveillance and repression are inescapably woven into the fabric of daily life.

Kareng Ja Naw, 30, spent three years behind bars after a random checkpoint search during routine travels. His offense? Carrying a stack of documentary films about human rights.

His friend Zai Du, 27, translated a secretly-obtained copy of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights into the Kachin language, then distributed copies to 90 remote schools.

"Mentally I feel unsafe. Wherever I go, whenever I speak," he said. "I'm very careful. There's a lot of watching eyes."