MYITKYINA, Kachin State — A 71-year-old ethnic Kachin woman closes her eyes and prays amid a crowd of hundreds of people, all gathered to welcome rebel leaders from the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
“I came here just to pray for our leaders. We want them to have peace,” says Karmg Mam, who traveled all the way from northern Shan State to the Kachin State capital Myitkyina, where a KIA delegation is preparing to meet with government peace negotiators, amid ongoing fighting.
“We want our people to have peace,” she adds, adding that the reasons for the clashes are irrelevant—she simply wants them to end. “I don’t know about the politics.”
Hundreds of ethnic Kachin gathered on Monday in front of Kachin National Manau Park, shouting slogans of support for the KIA and its political wing, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO).
“The KIA and KIO are in our hearts, they are our hearts!” the crowd cheered as KIA deputy chief Gun Maw arrived at about 3 pm, riding in a convoy of vehicles that had traveled from the KIA headquarters near Laiza.
Two days of talks will begin on Tuesday. The KIO delegation will be led by Sumlut Gam, while the government’s team will be led by Minister Aung Min from the President’s Office.
The meeting was requested by the Kachin rebels amid an escalation of hostilities in Kachin State and northern Shan State. Fighting in April displaced thousands of civilians and killed more than 22 government and Kachin soldiers.
The fighting continues as Burma’s government says it is moving closer toward a nationwide ceasefire accord with all armed groups. The government has already signed bilateral ceasefire deals with most major ethnic armed groups—with the exception of the KIA and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), based in northern Shan State.
“There is fighting in our Kachin State. Our people are under attack,” said a 72-year-old Kachin woman who asked to remain anonymous. “We want to have peace. I came here to pray for our leaders.”
Many in the crowd on Monday wore shirts decorated with the KIA flag. Some waved flags in their hands as a sign of welcome as the rebel leaders drove into town. For part of the day, a main road was blocked due to the gathering of people in front of the park, where the peace talks will be held.
“The fighting is not fair. They only attack our Kachin,” said Zin War Naw, a Kachin youth leader who organized the welcome event.
He said he wanted the government to recognize the Panglong Agreement, a deal reached in 1947 that gave ethnic minorities a considerable degree of political autonomy.
“We don’t want independence for our Kachin. There is the Panglong Agreement—we want that to be followed,” he said.