Interview

No Peace in Myanmar Without Sacrifices: Kachin Christian Chief

By Ye Ni 18 September 2019

The military’s Northern Command attempted to open a lawsuit against Dr. Hkalam Samson, president of the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC), for telling US President Donald Trump that there was no religious freedom in Myanmar. 

But the case was dropped at the orders of military chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. 

Within days, the commander-in-chief met Dr. Hkalam Samson at the military’s Central Command in Mandalay.

Senior Editor U Ye Ni of The Irrawaddy Burmese edition visited the KBC headquarters in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State, to ask Dr. Hkalam Samson about peace and internally displaced people (IDPs). 

The Tatmadaw (military) withdrew the lawsuit after a verbal order from Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing. What do you want to say?

I welcome the move. U Zaw Htay from the National Reconciliation and Peace Center (NRPC) contacted me through the Peace-talk Creation Group (PCG) on Sept. 8. 

He said they were trying to convince [the military] to withdraw the lawsuit. The next morning we were informed through the PCG that the lawsuit had been withdrawn. The plaintiff Lieutenant Colonel Than Htike went to the court and withdrew the lawsuit. We, the KBC and all the Kachin people welcomed the move. 

The lawsuit was filed against you because you went to the White House in July and talked with President Trump. What could you say about the US government’s view on Myanmar and how much interest did the president have in what you told him?

I was at a religious conference with representatives from about 70 countries. Many of the participants were from countries ruled by military dictators. As most of them were survivors, they shared their experiences of how they had escaped. 

The participants also met the president. I was among them but I could not understand why they chose me to talk to the president on their behalf. It was not my idea. In my opinion, the US wants Myanmar to be a democratic country as soon as possible. 

They think Myanmar will be a peaceful and fair country only after it has become a democracy. 

Moreover, the US called for the withdrawal of the lawsuit against me.

On the rehabilitation of IDPs, whom you have devoted your life to, as far as we know, IDP returns started in Namsan Yang after the military’s truce was declared in December 2018. However, it was halted. What were the difficulties?

There were many difficulties. The IDPs returning to Namsan Yang were unsafe to return under international principles. Namsan Yang is a conflict zone. Only 70 of about 1,000 villagers went home. Most of them still could not go back. 

Some IDPs went back because they worried that their land and houses might be taken by others. A few IDPs went back because of the difficulties at the camps. 

They had to apply for permission from the Northern Command first and went back under the arrangements of the Tatmadaw. 

The Kachin Humanitarian Concerns Committee (KHCC) is not involved in these cases. The KHCC negotiates with the NRPC for IDPs returns and works under the agreement of both sides. Their return to Namsan Yang was not successful because not all of them could return. To avoid further failures, the KHCC is planning to continue with the process with a focus on safe returns.

If so, returns of IDPs could only be possible after an agreement between the Tatmadaw and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) is reached. Is it likely that they will reach an agreement? 

There is hope. After Namsan Yang, we formed a working committee with the NRPC to arrange for IDPs from 17 villages to return as a pilot project. However, not all the IDPs could return to their homes. For example, only 10 or 15 households from each village could return. Moreover, IDPs are staying both in government-controlled areas and on the Chinese border. We want all of them to go back together. 

When we discussed the matter with the KIA, the issue of the bilateral ceasefire agreement negotiations arose. The KIA decided to work towards return not of only 10 or 15 households but of all IDPs from both of the areas together. To return IDPs from both areas together safely, the KIA and the Tatmadaw are required to sign a ceasefire agreement. The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) said it was ready to do so. We don’t know what the Tatmadaw will decide. KHCC and KIO decided that the first priority after signing the ceasefire is to return all IDPs. 

We visited Tanai a few days ago. The government is expected to resettle IDPs away from their villages. How is your organization cooperating with the government?

There is no discussion about IDPs in Tanai between the KHCC and the government. I think the government arranged it itself and we don’t know. The government wants to resettle them in Tanai but the IDPs do not want to live there. I believe that resettlement will only be successful by cooperating with religious groups and other organizations

The KBC is far ahead of other organizations in exposing and addressing human rights violations in Kachin State and other areas. What differences do you see on human rights abuses under the administration of [former president] U Thein Sein and the National League for Democracy (NLD)?

There were three most notorious rights abuse cases the KBC tried to address during the term of U Thein Sein. These were the 2012 case of Brang Shawn from Jamai Kawng IDP camp: the rape attempt of 73-years-old Moh Hpon Lu in Dawt Hpon Yang and the 2015 rape and murder of two female Kachin teachers. 

Under the NLD, we have not had such public campaigns but we raise various issues. For example, we wrote to the president and the international community regarding the case of a pastor and a church trustee in Mongkoe. There have been fewer cases under the current government. 

Are you satisfied with the NLD’s work on the peace process and with political, administrative and economic reforms?

We had higher expectations for the current government. As the NLD took office with the slogan “It is time to change”, we wanted to see changes. I think they have difficulties under the 2008 Constitution. 

Moreover, the Tatmadaw controls security matters in conflict areas. We haven’t seen any significant achievement. 

The Kachin State government built and expanded roads and such efforts can be seen as change. But these are not significant changes. I think there is no change in the administrative sector. Only slight progress can be cited in social and economic sectors. Only the government can organize gem emporiums and ethnic groups are not allowed to do so. The government has a monopoly on the trade. 

Ethnic groups said building a federal union is directly related to the peace process. How are peacebuilding and the federal union related to changes to the 2008 Constitution?

The role of the Tatmadaw in the 2008 Constitution needs to be taken into consideration. Almost everyone agrees. If a federal union is to emerge, it is necessary for the Constitution to allow ethnic states to manage a wide range of issues. The 2008 Constitution fails to allow for the self-determination of ethnic states. 

The NLD government is campaigning for charter amendments at the parliament in Naypyitaw. But the Tatmadaw and the Union Solidarity and Development Party only look to amend Article 261 [which allows the central government to name chief ministers in the states and regions]. Amending the article suggests an expansion of rights to self-determination of ethnic groups. What is your view?

The root cause of the armed struggles of ethnic armed organizations is the lack of self-determination in ethnic states. They are not satisfied with the 2008 Constitution. The KIO, for instance, is developing principles on how to create federalism. So are Chin, Karen and other ethnic groups. The fact that all groups are calling for change suggests [the existing Constitution] is not suitable.

We have seen a lot of Chinese investment, including the Myitsone dam, exploration of natural resources and tissue-culture banana plantations. How important is the role of Chinese investment in Kachin development?

We will have to cooperate and this cooperation should not be under China’s control but in partnership based on agreements that retain our rights and dignity. As far as I know, Chinese influence on investment from tissue banana plantations to the exploration of natural resources is dangerously high. 

Our church is taking preventive measures by launching awareness campaigns for establishing community forests and on the danger of using chemicals. Our state cannot economically stand-alone and will have to cooperate with others. The best thing is to follow our own policies without being influenced by others.

How do you view the altitudes of the Chinese government?

We share a border with Yunnan Province. Chinese administrative officials always say that they are working to help Myanmar without seeking profit. They always say they want Myanmar to enjoy economic development. However, they also say they have to build the Myitsone dam and boost the Belt and Road Initiative as these are grand projects for the central government in Beijing. They say they want Myanmar to progress and they are launching a poverty elimination projects in China. Their policies in border areas are quite good and they have a very strong desire to implement them.

Many young people in Kachin State are under the threat of drugs. What is your message? 

One household out of 10 is encountering drug problems in Kachin State. They have bitter feelings about drugs. Therefore, we launched a drug-elimination campaign about four years ago. 

However, the international community did not support our campaign and the public reacted violently since we did not know the correct techniques. The intentions of the public campaigns to eliminate drugs are right. 

We started with the destruction of poppy plantations and it was successful. We had to deal with armed organizations in border areas. Now we are launching an official drug elimination campaign together with government agencies and the border guards. But the campaign is weaker now and poppy cultivation and the smuggling of drugs has increased again. 

More young people are using drugs at the moment. I heard that the government has adopted a policy not to detain drug users. It is very dangerous. Not imprisoning drug users encourages more young people to use drugs. 

I want young people to have high ambitions for their lives and not to ruin their chances. Drugs are the highest threat in daily life. It is more worrisome as tablets like yaba [methamphetamines] are widely available. 

We have drug rehabilitation centers in all our churches and religious organizations. We are doing as much as we can and I urge young people to abstain from using drugs.

You have lived with civil war all your life. How would you define peace for the country?

I cannot understand what peace means in our country. They have been talking about peace for more than 50 or 60 years and we cannot enjoy it. People, especially those in ethnic areas, are afraid of peace because whenever they start talking about peace, the armies resume fighting and the numbers of IDPs increase. 

The problems could be solved if they talked about justice rather than peace. Western countries, especially those in the European Union, and the US invested a lot of money, effort and time for peace in Myanmar. Four or five years later, they concluded that there was no progress in the peace process. 

I have met three leaders who said that. Peace doesn’t work. Ethnic groups sometimes wonder if the government and the Tatmadaw really want peace or are they just pretending. 

Officials came to the peace talks and posed for photos before leaving. Participants with no decision-making power held discussions about peace without any conclusion. 

The KIO also said peace talks were going nowhere, just food and drink and posing for photos for eight years. 

I think both sides need to go on working bravely. Peace can only be restored when some sacrifices by stakeholders are made. No peace can be restored without sacrifices. 

Kachin State has been at war for 62 years and Karen State has been through an armed struggle for 72 years. The situation remains the same. 

The longer the war takes, the richer and the more powerful the leaders get. 

The question sometimes arises if they are doing so intentionally. If they really want peace, they must make sacrifices like resigning. 

If our country was not peaceful under my leadership, I would resign. 

This is also the case for ethnic armed forces. If peace cannot be restored under their leadership, they should resign. 

As they negotiate for peace for so many years without any progress, the people continue to suffer. If leaders perpetuate their power, peace cannot be achieved. There will only be the benefits for the leadership.

Translated by Myint Win Thein.

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