A Voice From Kachin State on Myanmar’s Stumbling Democracy

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 8 November 2019

Maran Ja Seng Hkawn is the daughter of Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) leader Maran Brang Seng, who fought for the liberation of Kachin State and for the Kachin people’s hopes of autonomy. The one-time revolutionary fighter is now a Kachin State lawmaker, as she contested in the 2015 general election under the Kachin State Democracy Party ticket. In her recent interview with The Irrawaddy’s English edition editor Kyaw Zwa Moe, the 53-year-old Kachin woman discusses how complicated politics are in Kachin State and Myanmar, including the challenges facing Myanmar’s democracy and its prospects for federalism, as well as the current situation for the Kachin people.

KZM: You are the daughter of Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) leader Maran Brang Seng. He fought for the liberation of Kachin State and for the Kachin people’s hopes of self-administration. You are his daughter and you also participated in the fight. If your father were sitting with us here today, how would he assess the current political landscape?

MJSH: A Baptist [religious] organization gave my father a scholarship for his schooling and he became a schoolteacher. He wanted Kachin people to become educated and for Kachin State to become as developed as other countries. But my father, despite being a schoolteacher, had to take part in the revolution. He then worked so hard to realize that dream that he later became a revolutionary leader.

Though he was a revolutionary leader, he always said that fighting will not solve problems and that armed struggle is just the first step towards realizing the aspirations of the Kachin people. He had visions of political dialogue and sought to represent the voices and wishes of [the Kachin] people. He was a revolutionary leader and he tried to realize that vision. He believed in political dialogue while he was still a revolutionary leader, as everyone knows, and he signed a bilateral ceasefire agreement [with the Myanmar government] in 1994 and took steps to engage in political negotiations. He stressed the need to consider various perspectives, and he did so. In diplomacy, he always called for talks to consider all sides as equals, without the stronger side taking advantage of the weaker side. As he was working on these goals, he suffered two strokes in 1993 and passed away before the final talks [for the ceasefire] were held in 1994.

The KIO continued its armed struggle, and though the democratic transition began in 2010—to a government that was at least elected—and another elected government took power in 2016, things have not yet improved as people had hoped. I don’t think my father would be satisfied with this if he were still alive.

KZM: You worked together with your father underground at KIO headquarters for a long time. Then you ran for office in the 2015 general elections and are now serving the Kachin people as a lawmaker in the Kachin State Parliament. What are the differences between life working underground and life as a parliamentarian, and how satisfied are you [with this life]?

MJSH: Living underground in the forest, we could dream freely about how we would shape our land and our future. The idea of underground revolution was to strengthen our forces to be as strong as [the military], and to fight arms-to-arms or talk face-to-face on equal terms. Our ambition was to achieve liberty or at least genuine federalism. Despite the troubles of living in the forest, we were free and happy. But the revolution was initiated by our predecessors and it took a long time.

Like my father, I also believe in political dialogue as an option to achieve political goals. Efforts began in 2010 but at that point we could not succeed. Though the [political] landscape was far from ideal, we ran candidates in the 2015 election and we became parliamentarians. The difficulty is that the government has not done enough to cooperate with ethnic parties that have been elected to the Parliament, and there are many restraints on ethnic parties.

What is good is that once I entered Parliament, I became an official representative of the people, and what I say in Parliament is legitimate. I represent the voices of the people and I have had the chance to fulfill the wishes of people in my constituency. I have had chances to hold discussions to secure budget allocations for them. But there are some restrictions regarding legislation.

Legislation, the main task of the Parliament, has to be carried out under the 2008 Constitution. We are not in a position to legislate as freely as we need to. We have to commit significant effort even just to change terminologies [in the law].

Another task of the Parliament is to monitor the government. We can ask questions about the government’s activities and we can scrutinize the government to a certain extent. So, though we don’t have much authority, holding the position of a lawmaker is still better than standing by and only making criticisms: as we can cooperate, we can serve the interests of the people to a certain extent.

KZM: So, you are involved in the ongoing democratic transition. You, your father and the Kachin people want federal democracy that incorporates self-administration and self-determination. How much do you trust the current government to let you achieve those things? As you said, democratic transition began in 2011 under former military leader U Thein Sein. How much can you pin your hopes on the government and what are the problems?

MJSH: Today’s problems result from failing to realize the type of country that our country envisioned when we regained independence.

KZM: By the type of country you mean a real Union?

MJSH: Yes, they wanted to have a real Union, but it didn’t happen. Far from that, even the certain degree of democracy enjoyed during [Prime Minister] U Nu’s parliamentary democracy era completely vanished from 1962 until 1988. There were efforts to rebuild it and general elections were held in 1990 but no tangible results were achieved and we failed to initiate the transition and transformation in time. So, we had to wait until 2010.

KZM: It took too long.

MJSH: As it took too long, it created a large gap: there are new generations in both the Tatmadaw [Myanmar military] and the government. The country should have been built properly and collaboratively—it should have been this way since independence—but there were undesirable events instead and those who have taken over the responsibility in the periods since have lacked the vision they should have had. They were inculcated with the wrong ideas.

The situation can’t be fixed unless there is an inspirational and visionary leader who clearly understands the dreams our people have had since independence. We also can’t allow the current position of the Tatmadaw: those working in the government are not [civilians] who were elected, so the whole system is wrong. Fixing problems in certain places is not enough and there is a need to fix the entire system. We need to take a lot of things into consideration.

Speaking of our trust in leaders, I will not talk about the distant past, but begin with the 2010 general election. Those who won the elections were former military leaders and those with military backgrounds. I don’t know how hard they tried [to serve the people], but in 2015 we—the people across the country—voted overwhelmingly for the party led by the daughter of General Aung San, with the hope that they can make changes. People had high hopes for them. But more than four years into its administration, as I have said, the party doesn’t cooperate well with ethnic parties.

What we can conclude is that it is important that [the party leading the country] have a desire to introduce changes and understand ethnic issues. Considering the historical background of our country, democratization alone is not the answer; there is also a need to handle ethnic issues. This fact must be recognized. So [the ideal leaders] must understand the historical background, have influence and win the respect of others. Only leaders who are willing to cooperate with ethnic people can solve the problems of our country. It will be difficult to reach a solution without such attributes. No man is perfect. The military has retained power for many years. People who have never had power tend to abuse it once they get power, so it goes without saying what will happen when one has arms, power and money.

Even if we have a leader that we can trust and rely on, he will become a dictator in the long run if we can’t exercise control over him. This is the nature of humans. So rather than paving the way for someone to become a dictator, I think that for the majority of Bamar people who live in the center of the country, there should be at least two parties that can represent them.

KZM: So that they can choose between them?

MJSH: Yes, so that there will be greater opportunities for the people to be better served. This is the international practice that we have to use. I am not blaming the military alone. Now we have democracy icon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. I am just wondering if there is any other party that can compete with her in policy-making.

Non-Bamar ethnicities share similar feelings and aspirations. They all want to live freely in their historical homelands, practice traditional culture and customs and have self-determination. Self-determination is no more than managing our own affairs. It is not that special. It is about managing our own political, economic and social issues by adopting a suitable administration system. As our ancestral ethnic leaders and Gen. Aung San built trust and made decisions through discussions, only with such meetings will we be able to realize our dreams.

KZM: The politics of our country are quite complicated. There are problems between the elected civilian government and Tatmadaw. There haven’t been serious negotiations between them. There are barely efforts towards national reconciliation, and this has impacted upon the peace process. Truces can’t be signed as a result. Speaking of Kachin State as part of our ethnic issues, resource-sharing is an important topic. Central Myanmar doesn’t have resources but the states do. However, the central government based in the middle of the country is operating with revenues from those resources. This problem is quite big. How do you view it? Do you have any solution in mind?

MJSH: Primarily, we would like our dreams like autonomy, self-determination and equality to come true. For example, Gen. Aung San promised an equal share of benefits to every ethnic group. These are our rights. Let’s not take the natural resources underground into account. We would have to think this way if there was nothing left of the natural resources.  Let’s assume that there were no natural resources in our ethnic state. Even so, we will continue to reside in our own state. We will create our own job opportunities. In the Union, we will cooperate with others on affairs that involve all states and are too difficult for a single state to handle or the services that are too expensive for a single state to provide. We will cooperate for the Union. Some regions may be endowed with natural resources but others are not. I don’t want to take natural resources alone into account because there are many developed countries without any of them.

KZM: Yes, there are a lot of such countries.

MJSH: How have they turned their countries into developed ones?  We should be able to follow suit. We have our own beautiful natural environment, heritage and cultures to attract others and can make money from such things. Another reason is that natural resources will be depleted after they have been fully exploited.

KZM: There will be no resources left.

MJSH: In regard to the sharing of natural resources, we don’t want a situation in which the Union government takes all our natural resources as it wishes and we have to humbly ask them for our share of them. We will have to form a team to manage natural resources properly in the Union. There will be members representing the Union as well as various states. The management team, like a think tank, will oversee the natural resources including their locations and volumes.

KZM: To make decisions and adopt polices?

MJSH: In addition, if local people [in a state] do not agree, no one can do anything in that state. It is in accordance with international standards. As local people realize that they are not a separate country, they will think about how to contribute to the Union. We will decide how much of the natural resources to exploit. If we don’t have skills to tap them, we may have to consult with others. However, we will have to tap natural resources within certain limits because there will be nothing left for future generations if one or two generations use all of them up. So we must tap natural resources within certain limits.

Also, an ethnic state from which natural resources are produced should enjoy a share of its own contribution. It should not be mixed up with others. People here will enjoy a share of their ethnic state’s natural resources. Another share may be contributed to the funds for the Union. Another share may go to reserve funds, for example. A share will go to poorer states. We need to manage natural resources at the Union level.  Without such a management team, successive governments have taken everything because they don’t want to share it with others. This leads to more conflicts. I would prefer there were no natural resources in our state if it were possible.

KZM: We need to find other ways and means to make our country developed, like other countries such as Singapore.

MJSH: Yes.

KZM: As you just said there are many problems. As far as Kachin State is concerned, it is located at the northern tip of the country, sharing borders with China. As a result, there are drug problems. There are hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people and refugees fleeing from armed conflicts. There are peace and development issues. There are many problems. How do you think of them as a whole? It is a difficult question. How would you solve them if there were autonomy in Kachin State?

MJSH: Of course, there are a lot of issues. We cannot say some issues are more important than others because all of them matter. All the issues have to be solved as soon as possible.

On the other hand, there is the major issue of armed groups and conflicts. Internationally, defense forces are responsible for the stability and security of their country, especially for the lives and property of the people and for territory. It is the territory of the people. The security forces of Myanmar should not be forces that expel all the citizens from the country. At present, they are not defending our country, because no country is launching an attack on ours. They come to ethnic areas to launch offensives. This should not take place anywhere. It is vital to stop this as soon as possible.

They said it is necessary to hold peace talks including armies from both sides and the government as well as the elected Parliament and those outside who should participate in the process. There should be no reason that would lead to armed engagements on the ground. I wish national leaders were leading the country towards such a situation. After that, all stakeholders must be invited to discuss what should be done, with benevolence and farsightedness, and all ethnic groups should be able to understand what they should do.

On the other hand, as far as drug issues are concerned, as our country is not stable, there is no rule of law. Many opportunists will take advantages of the situation as there is no rule of law. People who are eager to make money off the chaos may be from outside or inside the country. As long as they are making money off the chaos, we will have to face more serious drug issues and the people and future generations will suffer. As this will lead future generations to lose their way—actually, they have already lost their way and are ruined.

These are the issues we need to solve urgently. To address these issues, if we cannot solve them by ourselves, the international community, for example, is interested in the drug issue because it is connected to everyone. There are many countries and INGOs helping to solve the problem. We should address the problem by inviting them to provide technical and funding support.

As for the other point you made about IDPs, their societies have been almost destroyed by the armed conflict over many years. They do not understand politics and they have not been able to do anything to leave a legacy of education for their children. Economically, they do not know how to start a business. Their lives have been ruined. If you take a glimpse at the lives in the IDP camps, their eyes reflect nothing of the future and even the color of their eyes has faded. This is not their fault but because of the irresponsibility of leaders of the country.

The feeling of the public is that there is more racial hatred than before. What they know is that people outside their ethnic states come and shoot at them. As they just know that armed Bamar soldiers come after them, they hate the Bamar. This will not lead to peace and national reconciliation or positive outcomes. It will make people grow farther apart.

KZM: Here, ethnic people hate the Bamar government and authorities. From the perspective of ethnic groups like the Kachin, the NLD government does not treat them warmly. However, it was also elected by ethnic people. Ethnic people assumed that they would be treated as national brethren. At present, the policy of the NLD is being criticized. Ethnic groups do not like the policies of the NLD that do not regard ethnic groups as brethren. And there is the issue of building statues of Gen. Aung San. This has been opposed in almost all states but the NLD regional offices set up the statues anyway. How would you respond to the policies of the NLD?

MJSH: I was also taken aback to some extent by that policy. When the NLD government took office, as far as I remember, they revealed four points. The first priority is peace, the second is national reconciliation, the third is the rule of law and the fourth is amending the Constitution. They won the election with these four slogans. As far as amending the Constitution is concerned, we support their efforts because the 2008 Constitution was drafted by the regime to monopolize power. Some provisions in the current Constitution open up some space but other provisions block that space. As a result, state governments have almost no rights. Therefore, the Constitution is just a law that doesn’t offer any vent for ethnic groups. It can be said that the Constitution is about centralization but ethnic groups prefer self-determination which guarantees autonomy. In the opinion of ethnic groups, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of Gen. Aung San and they expected that she would be able to lead and negotiate with the army. But she has not.

KZM: But she has not.

MJSH: Another point is that the peace process is getting nowhere. People are questioning what the peace process is and some even mock it, saying that the process is just photo opportunities without any good outcomes. To say nothing of national reconciliation, ethnic groups are not warmly treated. There are weaknesses in the cooperation.

Whether it is possible to negotiate with the army is another matter because it has its own goals. It is not necessary to seek permission from anyone to treat ethnic groups warmly or to join hands with them. It can be done out of one’s own discretion.

It is surprising that they haven’t done anything to solve the matters that they don’t need permission to tackle. Instead of doing what they can, they are forcefully exporting Gen. Aung San statues to ethnic areas, and it’s inappropriate. Ethnic groups are protesting the statues not because they hate Gen. Aung San but because [the government] is doing these things instead of doing things that should be done first. Ethnic groups might realize later that their ancestors had agreed to this and that with Gen. Aung San. But for now, ethnic groups may criticize the move because it is too early to do so.

KZM: Based on these, the popularity of the NLD for the 2020 election is falling. That is why ethnic parties in states like Kachin have formed an alliance. Do you think your ethnic parties will be stronger and able to work more effectively for the public in 2020?

MJSH: I hope so. It is necessary for ethnic parties to be stronger to move towards federalism. If I just wanted to hold office, I would join a powerful party, but we have to take our ancestors’ goals into account. As I want to realize their dreams, I have always stood as a member of an ethnic party representing our state.

In 2010, we tried to establish a political party firmly representing Kachin State but we were not allowed to form it. In 2015, the situation changed and groups of us formed parties as we did not want to face the same situation as in 2010. As the election commission permitted every group to form a party, it was not difficult for anyone to form a political party. When someone who wants to form a political party applies to do so, he or she is allowed not only in our state but also in other states and regions. The outcome was not good for us. We expected such a situation because we, as human beings, might not be politically proficient or might not know how to handle the situation effectively. When we were allowed to form political parties, all of us formed parties. As a result, we wasted time, money and effort and no favorable outcome was achieved in the 2015 election. Now all of us have begun to realize that we must be united. Kachin people were unhappy with the 2015 election. Now they are telling us that they will not vote for us if there are so many Kachin parties. If we emerge as a strong political party with unity and skills, political parties that represent their region or state will be able to control the Parliament. We will be able to participate in the Parliament meaningfully. There are Kachin, Shan, etc., who have been living in Kachin State through thick and thin for a long time. We will be able to represent our voters and discuss federalism in the Parliament. Only then will we be able to make meaningful participation to produce meaningful outcomes. Now we are trying to organize and unite our parties. The situation will improve a little but if we are not able to work effectively, the outcome will be the result of our [failed] efforts.

KZM: The last question is, as I asked at the beginning of the interview, if you had a chance to seek advice from your father, the leader of the KIO, about what you, as a politician and member of Parliament, should do in such a complex political situation, what advice do you think he would give to you?

MJSH: As I said before, my father became a political leader. He was prepared for everything that was needed. He used to say, “One must hope for the best while working, but be prepared for the worst.” Now I think he would give the same advice to me.

KZM: Thanks for your frank comments.

MJSH: Thank you too.