Interview

Myanmar Military Chief ‘Wants Democratization’, Kachin Religious Leader Says After Talks

By Nan Lwin Hnin Pwint 2 December 2020

YANGON—Myanmar military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing promised to help facilitate the return of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and promote the peace process during a meeting with Kachin religious leader Rev. Dr. Hkalam Samson in Myitkyina, the Kachin State capital, on Tuesday.

Dr. Hkalam Samson is also the leader of the Kachin Humanitarian Concern Committee (KHCC), which works in coordination with the Union government to secure the return of Kachin IDPs. Since the breakdown of a 17-year ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in 2011, more than 100,000 civilians have been displaced. Most of them are in camps or temporary shelters in both government- and KIA-controlled areas.

Dr. Hkalam Samson talked to The Irrawaddy’s reporter Nan Lwin Hnin Pwint about his discussion with Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing.

What did you discuss with the military chief? 

Mainly, we discussed the return of IDPs. We also discussed the COVID-19 pandemic and peace. Clearance of landmines is a precondition for the return of IDPs. The military chief said we can ask for help from them if necessary.

So, when will the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military) assist with clearing landmines? Will it assist only after signing a bilateral truce with the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO)?

At first, we waited for the bilateral ceasefire agreement to be signed. Now, we think it is up to them [the Myanmar military and the KIA]. It has been nearly two years since the last fighting took place in Kachin. It is inconvenient for IDPs to stay in crowded camps. As they want to return home, we have formed the KHCC and worked in collaboration with the government’s National Reconciliation and Peace Center (NRPC).

If they were to return with international assistance, it would take time, and the aid has been declining. So we have focused our efforts on the voluntary return of IDPs, and we have sought help from the military to have [unexploded ordnance] removed.

In some cases, there is a need for cooperation between the KIO and the Tatmadaw in demining. At the meeting, I mainly discussed ways to ease the return of IDPs in both KIO-controlled areas and government-controlled areas.

So, will the Tatmadaw help clear landmines to help the KHCC’s efforts to facilitate the return of the IDPs? 

Yes, the Tatmadaw is already helping. It is now helping with demining in Dabang Yang and Nam San Yang [in Waingmaw Township]. We have to submit a list of potential returnees to the government, the Tatmadaw and the KIO to confirm that they want to return voluntarily. The military has to assume its share of the responsibility. They are now demining in Dabang Yang with the assistance of the Nippon Foundation.

The Tatmadaw said it needs to cooperate with the KIO to find the landmines. I even told the commander of the Northern Command that peace can be born out of such cooperation.

I told him let’s build peace by cooperating on the return of IDPs. So, the return of the IDPs is a step forward in the peace process.

Have you asked for help from the Northern Command to clear mines in the areas where the IDPs will return to, or how will the KHCC do its work? 

We have presented lists of potential returnees to the NRPC, the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, and the security and border affairs minister. So, both the military and government have the lists. And we also submitted the lists to the KIO. The Tatmadaw helps in clearing mines. If the KIO will also participate in demining, they need to meet and negotiate.

What progress has been made on the return of IDPs? What actions is the KHCC taking? 

Many displaced persons have returned voluntarily. Some alternate between the camps and their homes, as the camps provide them with food rations. According to official figures, around 10,000 people from over 2,000 households have returned to their homes.

What did you discuss with the military chief in relation to the peace process? 

The military chief said it is rare around the world for [a country’s] armed forces to declare a unilateral ceasefire. He said the Tatmadaw had declared a unilateral ceasefire because it really wanted peace.

He said that while the 2008 Constitution must be followed, as it was ratified by a popular vote, he admitted that some parts need to be amended. He holds the view that all ethnic armed organizations should participate in the peace process as soon as possible and that there is a need to speed up the democratization process.

Regarding the discussion on the 2008 Constitution, we responded to what Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing said. We have from the beginning said that there are things that need to be changed in the 2008 Constitution. We want to change the Constitution.

The military chief accepts that some parts of the Constitution must be amended, but stressed that it is important to build peace first.

Have you seen any sign that the ongoing talks between the Myanmar military and the KIO on a bilateral truce will be successful? 

As [the Myanmar military] has reached an agreement with the Arakan Army [AA] in Rakhine State, it appears that they are no longer that distant from the AA. So, we can expect that they will be able to meet soon.

When we held talks with the KIO on IDPs, the KIO agreed to the return of IDPs. So our view is that the KIO agrees with the idea of a bilateral ceasefire agreement to a certain extent.

Some believe the military chief has become more moderate on the Rakhine issue and is pushing for peace so he can capitalize on it when he shifts to politics. Now he is offering help [in Kachin] though the Tatmadaw has fought all along in Kachin State. What is your view? 

I don’t know the details about what the Tatmadaw is thinking. But I could feel that the commander-in-chief of defense services really wants to see successful democratization.

As he has served in high positions for a long time, he might have the will to lead the country. Because he said at today’s meeting that he has served in the military for 40 years and has been commander-in-chief for 10 years. So, he might be more politically insightful than others. He might have considered assuming a political position.

We members of the public want leaders who can lead the country with goodwill, love and justice.

You said the military chief agreed that the 2008 Constitution needed to be changed. What changes do ethnic people want to see and what can they expect? 

He talked about that. He said the NCA [Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement] began in Laiza. He said he was sorry that the KIA [Kachin Independence Army] did not sign it, though the idea was first presented in Laiza [where the KIA was headquartered]. Charter amendment is also important. I think all those problems can be solved if the leaders hold frank talks. Myanmar’s peace process seems so far [from a resolution], but it is in fact that close.

The things they want can be negotiated. It is only because there are too many steps that progress can’t be made. The Tatmadaw, [State Counselor] Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the ethnic leaders don’t need representatives for talks. Many things can be done if they meet in person.

They have talked about the same goals of democracy and federalism. But the problem is that there are more meetings at the lower levels than between higher-ups. So there has been little progress.

In every meeting with me, the senior general has discussed the same topics that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the ethnic leaders have spoken about. It seems all have similar views.

My final question. What would you like to say to IDPs and the Kachin people about your discussion with the military chief on Tuesday? 

The situation has gotten worse for IDPs over the past 10 years. They may have land disputes. As international aid as declined, I would like to urge them to cooperate with and trust us, as we are working for the return of IDPs.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko

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