In Person

Laiza Mayor: ‘The Government and the Army are on the Same Side’

By Nan Lwin Hnin Pwint 2 February 2017

Fierce clashes between the Burma Army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in Kachin State’s Waingmaw Township between August 2016 and January 2017 led to the KIA losing four major outposts and several smaller outposts.

Displaced persons at Zai Awng, Hkau Shau, and Mugga Yang camps in Waingmaw Township were forced to flee from their camps as artillery shells fell around them. Currently, around 3,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) are taking shelter in Laiza—the headquarters of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and its armed wing, the KIA—as well as in adjacent areas under the KIA’s control.

The Burma Army, in a Jan. 8 statement, accused the KIA of perpetrating violence in order to prevent regional stability and development. It also accused the armed group of using civilians as human shields in the form of hosting IDP camps.

Ethnic Kachin activists have said that the Burma Army’s offensives in the region have caused bottlenecks in peace negotiation, speculating that state security forces had chosen to threaten the KIA headquarters in order to gain an upper hand at the negotiation table.

The KIO has its own administrative mechanisms, including a police force and firefighters. Laiza Mayor Naw San recently sat down with The Irrawaddy’s Nan Lwin Hnin Pwint and talked about the latest developments in the area.

Clashes went on for more than five months around Laiza. What is the situation like there now?

The military tensions are still a little bit high around our town. Anyway, as we are responsible for the safety of civilians in our town, we have emergency plans. We have told them what to do in cases of emergency. We have chosen safe places to evacuate elderly persons and children if something happens.

Were there any residents who moved away from Laiza during the clashes?

No, they stayed in the town, as we had plans to evacuate elderly persons and children.

How many people are there in Laiza? Are all of them families of KIA members? What is the civilian population?

There are around 20,000 people, including IDPs. Civilians include those holding Foreign Registration Certificates (FRC). Families of KIA members only account for 30 or 35 percent of the population. There are more civilians.

The military tensions were high during the attacks on Gideon and Lai Hpawng outposts. How was the situation in Laiza at that time?

At that time, we allowed civilians and vehicles to enter and leave Laiza, but the government didn’t. There were restrictions. If we needed to go through their gates for the sake of town residents and IDPs, we had to ask for the help of the Kachin Baptist Convention senior members who would go and make a request that they let us through.

If somebody from Laiza goes into the areas controlled by the government, does the government or the military question or investigate them?

There are regular checks by the Burma Army, and these days, they have tightened the checks.

Did artillery shells fall on Laiza at the time of the clashes?

During the clash at Gideon outpost, artillery shells fell just around 80 feet from the IDP camps in Laiza, as well as around 30 feet from the lake where IDPs bathe. And artillery shells also fell in a village and a ward. Fortunately, it was early in the morning and no one got injured.

There were severe clashes in the areas surrounding Laiza under the previous government. And there have also been fierce clashes under the new government. So, what is your comparison of the military situation then and now? 

As far as I’m concerned, there is not much difference. But it appears to me that the security conditions and the pressure from the other side [Burma Army] are worse than in previous times.

Many Kachin people voted for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) with the expectation that she would bring about peace for them. But there have been more clashes under the new government, and the new government has kept silent. What is your view on this?

In my view, the government and the army are on the same side. The new government is no different from the previous one. The government talked about peace at the 21st Century Panglong Conference. But, we have not seen any signs of it yet.

In their statements these days, the Burma Army has said that victims in IDP camps are in fact family members of the KIA, and that the KIA have been building human shields. In addition, some people speculate that there are only KIA family members in Laiza, and no civilians. What do you want to say about it?

It is just a one-sided statement. They know how many IDPs are there in our IDP camps. Those camps shelter IDPs who dare not pin hopes on tomorrow. Their statement is biased.

Civilians have to bear the brunt of clashes between the Burma Army and the KIA. They have to flee for their lives, and most of them have fled into areas controlled by the KIA. Why don’t they flee into government-controlled areas?

It is mainly the problem of the government. If it were benevolent, IDPs would have no reason to take shelter with us. Normally, they would question displaced persons who came to take shelter in the areas under their control, and there are a lot of restrictions. So, IDPs do not feel ease to go to them. If they open the door and accept them warmly, IDPs would have no reason not to go to them.

The government should take responsibility for their safety, and provide them with sources of livelihoods because IDPs are our citizens. They are not foreigners.

How has the number of IDPs changed in Laiza following the clashes?

There is an increase of over 200 in two IDP camps. They are coming in gradually. Some have not yet registered, and we have not yet received the final list. But as far as I know, there are over 200 people.

What is your message, as the mayor of Laiza, to the government?

The independence has been nominal since we were gained it in 1948. And the military ruled the country under different names. If this remains unchanged, when will the country be peaceful? If they were willing to compromise some of the demands of ethnicities, we could achieve peace, I think.

The current government has a big burden to bear and their main responsibility should be peace. If the government makes an effort with loving-kindness, there is no reason peace can’t be achieved. All are [equal] citizens, and this is what ethnic armed groups have been demanding. We will never, ever achieve peace if [the government] would rule us by putting us under military pressure. They have to be aware of this and exercise restraint.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko