'We're Not Targeting Civilians'

By The Irrawaddy 17 January 2013

Deputy Information Minister Ye Htut serves as the acting spokesperson for the President’s Office. In this capacity, he has made numerous statements to the media about the ongoing conflict in Kachin State. Yeni and Tha Lun Zaung Htet of The Irrawaddy’s editorial team spoke to him in Naypyidaw earlier this week about the ongoing conflict between Burma’s Tatmadaw, or armed forces, and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). Below are some highlights from their conversation.

Question: What is your response to those who say that your comments on the Kachin conflict favor the Tatmadaw because you yourself are an ex-army commander?

Answer: I was constantly involved in the peace talks in Kachin State when I served there as a military commander. As a major, I was involved in the peace process for 13 months in 1993-94, when the peace talks were being held at the state level. My counterpart at the time was Col Gyi Naung of the KIA, who was a captain at that time. When the ceasefire broke down, we also wanted to rebuild it. But at the start of the fighting, the government didn’t put out any press releases because we wanted to avoid saying anything that could be an obstacle when it came time to return to the negotiating table. Later on, the other side started releasing statements, so we had to do the same to present our stance—the Tatmadaw’s stance—whether the Tatmadaw does this itself or not. My own comments [to the media] are in accordance with these statements.

Q: What are the prospects for peace in Kachin State at this time, as the government forces continue their offensive near Laiza?

A: As the president said in his New Year’s address to Parliament, we will reach a ceasefire first, and then begin a political dialogue [with all of the ethnic groups]. We have always said that the KIA should be a part of that process. Minister U Aung Min offered to meet with them again after their meeting on Oct. 30. We sincerely hoped that it would happen. If the KIA hadn’t surrounded government soldiers at Lajayang four or five months ago and attacked the Tatmadaw’s support convoys three times, we would not have had to step up our activities around Lajayang. We want to reduce our offensive and return to talks. We want their representatives to discuss matters related to the military. On Oct. 30, Lt-Gen Myint Soe joined the talks, but the KIA military commander Gun Maw did not show up, so we could not discuss military matters. We hope to meet again, but it depends entirely on the KIA.

Q: The KIA recently released information about civilian casualties, prompting some international governments talk about reinstating sanctions on Burma. Is this something that you are concerned about?

A: I think it is unfair to talk like this. We’re not targeting civilians. There have also been civilian casualties caused by explosions—many civilians, including engineers returning home from the hydropower plant on the Myitkyina-Sumprabum-Putao Road, and on the Hpakant Road, have died this way. Everybody knows that these attacks were carried out by the KIA. In another bomb blast, orphans were killed. But such news is not widely discussed. In the case of the casualties this week, we have said that we did not shell them. It’s not clear who did. There are also armed soldiers going around in Laiza. It needs to be confirmed whether this was caused by an accident, a bomb, or artillery. Without knowing this for sure, it’s not fair to rush to accuse us.

Q: On Tuesday, the UN special envoy to Burma Vijay Nambiar met with Vice-President Dr Sai Mauk Kham and talked about helping the war refugees. The US government has also urge the [Burmese] government to provide assistance to those refugees. What is your response to that?

A: When we talk about refugees, we have to distinguish them from the KIA/KIO members and their families. In whatever kind of conflict, those directly or indirectly taking part in the conflict are prevented from receiving outside support in accordance with international standards. For instance, the aid we provide to those in camps for the displaced in Myitkyina must not have an impact on the Tatmadaw. The same is true for aid that fuels opposition armed groups. We have to think more about this.

Q: The Tatmadaw has been carrying out airstrikes against KIA outposts. Why is that necessary?

A: It’s not the first time we used airstrikes. It was based on military necessity. It is something we do depending on the fighting situation.

Q: Some people in Laiza are believed to be suffering from trauma as a result of the artillery attacks and airstrikes. Doesn’t that create more ethnic hatred?

A: If you want to talk about trauma, we can tell you that the air attacks are not aimed at civilians. When we shoot, we are not shooting towards Laiza, but behind Laiza. The planes just fly over Laiza, so there is less impact on the people there. If you are talking about the trauma caused by the sound of the weapons, then what about the feelings of the passengers of the Myitkyina-Mandalay train that was mined, or villagers whose lives are insecure because of all the bombings in their areas? They could be Kachin, Shan or Burman. We should also think about the trauma suffered by those living in other areas such as Mandalay, too. Therefore, the best way is to stop fighting.