Almost immediately after canceling an overseas trip to the United States, prominent Burmese activist Min Ko Naing traveled to war-torn Kachin State where he met refugees and other people affected by the ongoing conflict.
Accompanied by colleagues from the Rangoon-based 88 Generation Students Group, Min Ko Naing, a former political prisoner, unexpectedly canceled his trip to the US where he was due to receive an award for his devotion to democratic values this week. He said he had decided to show solidarity with over a dozen of his fellow 88 Generation activists whose applications for passports had been denied.
On Saturday he traveled to Myitkyina, the Kachin capital, where about 1,000 local residents gathered to greet him. He then continued to the township of Hpakant in western Kachin State where hundreds of Kachin refugees are sheltering from hostilities between Burmese government forces and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
At each stage, Min Ko Naing addressed enthusiastic crowds, shook hands and spoke with supporters.
“Instead of gunfire, I wish to hear bells ringing from churches instead of gunfire, I wish to hear bells ringing from schools,” Min Ko Naing said, according to Pastor Bau Tu Ja at the Kachin Baptist Church in Hpakant who relayed the message to The Irrawaddy.
The pastor was one of some 500 Kachins who had gathered inside the church to welcome the popular 88 Generation group leader. Min Ko Naing was accompanied by colleagues Htay Kywe, Pyone Cho, Mar Kee and Thet Zaw on Sunday.
Bau Tu Ja said that he admired Min Ko Naing because he had declined an opportunity to receive a prestigious award by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in the US, but had come to a war zone to meet with refugees instead.
“We respect him and his political beliefs. We also thank him for visiting us. We are proud of him,” said the Christian pastor.
Speaking to Associated Press on Saturday, Min Ko Naing said, “On principle, I will not travel alone when my colleagues are denied their citizens’ rights. We should be treated as equals and be given passports together.”
Min Ko Naing and four other Burmese activists—Hkun Htun Oo, Aung Din, Cynthia Maung and Kyaw Thu—are scheduled to be honored with awards by the NED in Washington on Thursday next week.
Pyone Cho told The Irrawaddy on Monday that his group had met with civilians in Myitkyina and refugees in Hpakant where they visited and consoled the displaced people. The 88 Generation Students Group also offered some donations to the refugees they met, he said, and met with some KIA soldiers in Hpakant on Sunday.
Rev. Lama Yaw, a pastor at the Kachin Baptist Convention in Myitkyina, on Saturday said that the 88 Generation Students representatives emphasized the necessity of peace between the government and the Kachin rebels, and that ethnic minorities must be granted equal rights in order to build a true federal state in Burma.
Bau Tu Ja said: “We want peace, not in Hpakant alone but the whole of Kachin State. Despite the many developments under President Thein Sein, we have seen no changes in our region.
“The war is ongoing. The government troops are still in Kachin State, and civilians still live in fear. We want the government to withdraw their troops and have political dialogue with the Kachin rebels to find a solution for real peace and democracy,” he said.
According to KIA sources, the Burmese army has escalated its military offensive against KIA bases around Hpakant since August, forcing some 8,000 people to flee their homes.
A schoolgirl died and five other children were injured when crossfire mistakenly broke out between two Burmese army units for nearly three hours last week nearby Hpakant. The 88 Generation Students leaders met with parents of the dead schoolgirl and offered their condolences.