Kachin Rebel Turned Politician Readies for Comeback

By Seamus Martov 14 September 2013

MYITKYINA, Kachin State — From his home on the outskirts of the Kachin State capital Myitkyina, Dr. Manam Tu Ja, former vice-president No. 2 of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), is laying the groundwork to re-enter the national spotlight.

Late last month Tu Ja, who is in his late 60s, announced that he and a group of allies had tentatively formed the Kachin State Democracy Party (KSDP), with the well-known KIO veteran as party head. The KSDP, which has to yet release a full party platform, marks the third time in four years that Tu Ja has tried to enter the political arena.

“This is a period of political change. … We Kachins should not be left behind,” he tells The Irrawaddy during an interview in his sitting room.

Tu Ja, who first joined the KIO in 1975, resigned from the leadership of Burma’s second-largest armed ethnic group in 2009 with the aim of running in the 2010 elections. Things did not quite work out the way the trained dentist had hoped.

In mid-2010, just months before the election was to take place, the national election commission rejected Tu Ja’s attempt to register the Kachin State Progressive Party (KSPP), of which he was then chairman. It was widely believed at the time that the reasons for his rejection were directly related to the deteriorating relationship between the KIO and the central government over the former’s refusal to transform into a Border Guard Force.

Tu Ja then tried to register as an independent candidate but was blocked again. The government’s handling of Tu Ja’s candidacy did not sit well with many Kachin, even those who disagreed with his attempt to participate in the controversial election. “It was a slap in the face to the entire Kachin people,” says one Myitkyina resident.

Tu Ja’s inability to register as a candidate was noteworthy because when he resigned from the KIO a year earlier, the New Light of Myanmar, a state owned mouthpiece, heralded his decision. “Dr Tuja will build a brighter future for Kachin State by forming the Kachin State Progressive Party representing the Kachin nationals,” a commentary in the paper predicted.
Some six months after the elections were held, fighting broke out between the KIO and the military, ending the group’s 17-year ceasefire with the central government. Tu Ja, who had been a member of the KIO delegation that negotiated the 1994 ceasefire agreement, could do little but watch from the sidelines as large amounts of Kachin State and northwestern Shan State went up in flames with the military resorting to the unprecedented use of air strikes against KIO targets.

“On the government side, they changed their mood. They broke their promise, the ceasefire agreement, and then the fighting started,” says Tu Ja.

Last year, Tu Ja successfully registered as an independent candidate in the lead-up to the national by-elections, but he was stymied again when the polling for the three seats up for grabs in Kachin State was called off due to fighting, just nine days before the election date. The canceling of the vote was also not without controversy, as the Mogaung constituency in southern Kachin State, where Tu Ja was set to contest, had seen little actual fighting, a stark contrast with much of the rest of the state. “The security was okay, I have been to all the villages,” says Tu Ja, who traveled widely in the Mogaung region during the lead-up to polling day.

The National League for Democracy (NLD), whose relatively obscure candidates running in Kachin State would very likely have lost to Tu Ja and Bawk Ja, another popular Kachin politician running in the jade-rich Hpakant region, did not seem to be particularly bothered by the suspension of voting in the Kachin constituencies. This point was not lost on many politically engaged Kachin, a large segment of whom are unimpressed with the NLD’s reluctance to speak out about the military’s poor human rights record during the Kachin conflict.

Tu Ja for his part says he would rather not dwell on his past difficulties running for office and is instead focusing on the future. “The past is the past,” he says. Tu Ja’s past is very interesting, however, as he served on the KIO central committee for more than 25 years. That period was marked by heavy fighting with the central government and then a lengthy ceasefire, during which time the KIO benefited financially from a huge boom in logging and mining in Kachin State.

Until he left the group, Tu Ja played an active role in KIO dealings with the central government, giving him insight on the generals who ran the country for so long. In addition to participating in KIO negotiations with the military regime known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) in the early 1990s—talks that produced Burma’s first written ceasefire agreement between a rebel group and the central government—Tu Ja also took part in the KIO’s peace talks with Gen Ne Win’s regime in 1980. That dialogue continued for a number of months but ultimately went nowhere. “At that time, the KIO’s main proposal was to get autonomous rights in Kachin State, full autonomy. But they [Ne Win’s regime] did not agree. They said if they gave Kachin State full autonomy, then they would need to give rights to other ethnic states, too, and then they would need to amend the 1974 Constitution,” Tu Ja recalls.

Tu Ja was also a key player in the KIO’s relations with the government during the final years of former dictator Snr-Gen Than Shwe’s rule, serving as a prominent member of the national convention, the series of meeting conducted by the military regime to draw up the current Constitution. None of the KIO’s federalism-inspired submissions to the convention were accepted, but the KIO and Tu Ja continued to attend anyway.

At the convention’s conclusion, it was Tu Ja who was chosen to hand deliver the final draft of the Constitution during an elaborate 2007 ceremony to the body’s chairman, President Thein Sein, who was then serving as Burma’s prime minister. That move was quite unpopular among many Kachin, who were critical of the way in which the KIO bent over backward to please the military.

Six year later, Tu Ja acknowledges that the current Constitution, which he previously publicly endorsed, is seriously flawed, but he says he and the KIO had little choice but to go along with the show. He says the KIO central committee’s thinking at the time was that they should take part because “something was better than nothing.” The claim does not sit well with all of the Kachin electorate, some of whom still see Tu Ja as “too willing to please the generals,” as one recent Kachin university graduate told The Irrawaddy.

Despite the KIOs decision to follow through with the convention, the group received very little for its efforts. Just a few years after the Constitution was formally adopted, following a highly controversial referendum, the military attacked the KIO, resulting in a conflict in which more than 100,000 civilians were forced from their homes.

The conduct of the military, now ostensibly under some form of civilian control, as laid out in the Constitution, appears to have changed little since the days of Ne Win, according to human rights groups monitoring the situation in Kachin State. Military units operating in Kachin State have deliberately targeted civilians for summary execution, rape and torture, according to Human Rights Watch’s most recent report on the Kachin conflict.

While the large-scale fighting has largely subsided since January this year, tensions remain high across Kachin State and parts of neighboring northwestern Shan State, where the KIO also has territory. The KIO’s armed wing and the government’s military have continued to engage in small clashes on a regular basis, despite an agreement reached by both sides at the end of May to reduce tensions.

Tu Ja says that in order to move beyond the impasse, Burma needs to implement more far-reaching reforms that would incorporate the rights of ethnic people. “We need to change the political system of our country. We need to exercise a federal system,” he says.

Although the reforms implemented by Thein Sein’s government have been significant, Tu Ja believes they have to yet to bring about the change that is needed in rural areas, where most ethnic people live, including in Kachin State.

“Still at the present time, the central government holds almost of the power and all of the natural resources of the state. This must be shared equally. This must be shared fairly,” Tu Ja says, echoing long-standing grievances that Burma’s ethnic people have with the central government.
“Democratization is ongoing, yes, I agree with that, but democratization cannot reach the rural areas yet. The people in the rural areas cannot feel the democracy. Therefore, especially in the rural areas like Kachin State, change has not been effective,” say Tu Ja, echoing a view shared by many Kachin.

Tu Ja believes that in order for change to reach the entire country, a real and lasting peace must first come about. “The main thing is, we need to get peace throughout the country. I feel that unless we can build peace, we cannot do anything successfully,” he says.

Tu Ja warns, however, that peace will only come if ethnic groups are given political rights. “Until and unless we get political rights, we cannot end the civil war. Once we can get political rights, we can get economic and regional development,” says Tu Ja.

Tu Ja maintains that attempting to bring about peace and development without first implementing a decentralization that incorporates ethnic rights will not be successful, a view shaped by the 17-year ceasefire in Kachin State which saw development take place at a time of peace but no improvement in rights for the state’s majority ethnic people. “Some people may think that regional development is the main thing. If we get regional economic development, then every problem can be automatically solved—some people may think that. Regional development is not the key. And economic development is not the key. The key is political rights,” says Tu Ja.

As for what to do once a lasting peace is achieved in Burma, Tu Ja is clear. “After we end the civil war, the role of the military can be reduced,” he says. That significant shift in power would almost certainly be opposed by the government military and their allies, who dominate so much of the country, including Parliament, where Tu Ja hopes to get elected in 2015.