Members of the US-based Kachin community were disappointed by the removal of their representative from a set of speakers at a New York meet-and-greet on Saturday with State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
Gum San Nsang, president of the Kachin Alliance advocacy group in Washington, was invited by Burma’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations to the event as an ethnic Kachin representative. The invitation indicated that representatives from different designated groups would be allotted a time slot for a speech to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who will be in attendance.
“We were told that we would have two minutes to talk,” Gum San Nsang told The Irrawaddy on Friday. But on Wednesday, staff from Burma’s Permanent Mission to the UN called him to let him know that he would not be given time to speak at the event, due to limited space.
At the time of publication, The Irrawaddy was unable to confirm which speakers retained speaking privileges.
Ja Mai, also of the Kachin Alliance, told The Irrawaddy that the move was symbolic, leading her to “question the level that ethnic minorities like us are allowed to truly participate in the process of rebuilding the country.”
Gum San Nsang explained that, had he been given the opportunity to speak to the State Counselor, he would have highlighted the crisis created by ongoing conflict with the Burma Army in Kachin and northern Shan states.
“I wanted to request that she visit Kachin IDP camps and demand an opening of aid relief to border camps,” he told The Irrawaddy, referring to 120,000 civilians uprooted by war and spread across more than 100 displaced people’s camps in northern Burma. The Irrawaddy reported in June that Kachin IDPs must survive on assistance of just US$0.25 per day.
Gum San Nsang was told by UN mission staff that it was Burma’s permanent representative to the UN in New York—and not the State Counselor—who had made the decisions regarding event speakers.
The Irrawaddy made contact with staff from Burma’s UN mission in New York, but they would not comment on the situation or provide additional information regarding Saturday’s event.
Tu Aung Myitung, general secretary of the Kachin Alliance, regretted that the group had lost “a great opportunity” to speak on behalf of their community, and he remains puzzled by the permanent representative’s decision. “It does not make any sense that they don’t want to give us any chance to speak with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi during the meeting,” he added.
The change to Gum San Nsang’s invitation came only one day after the White House pledged to lift remaining economic sanctions on Burma after meeting with the State Counselor in Washington.
On Monday—only two days before the announcement to eliminate most sanctions—the Kachin Alliance had penned an open letter to US President Obama calling any move to abandon economic restrictions “extremely premature” given ongoing military abuses in Burma, including the systematic use of rape and torture against civilians.
The letter was highly critical of the Tatmadaw—the Burma Army—and their “lack of progress” toward adherence to international human rights standards and democratic norms.
While Gum San Nsang was told the reason given for the cancellation of his speaking time was “limited space,” others speculated whether the decision was connected to the publicity that the Kachin Alliance’s letter received.
“One could question [whether] this is because of our statement,” said Ja Mai. “We feel our voice is being silenced and that the concerns and input of the Kachin community in America are being disregarded.”
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been criticized for her failure to condemn Burma Army abuses in Kachin State since a ceasefire between the Kachin Independence Army and the Burmese military broke down in 2011.
“The army which she repeatedly claims is [her] ‘father’s army’ is the army which her country’s villagers flee from,” Gum San Nsang said, referring to the late Aung San—Burmese independence icon and the founder of the country’s military—who was also the State Counselor’s father.
On a weekend in September 2012—almost four years ago to the day—Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, then a member of Parliament, first spoke to members of the US-based Burmese community at Queens College in New York. When asked about fighting in Kachin State, she had said that she “did not want to add fire to the conflict” by criticizing any of the players involved.
To protest what they described as her “silence on the humanitarian crisis in Kachin State,” members of the Kachin Alliance did not attend Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony in Washington in 2012.
“Taking a stand of impartiality in aggression by an elephant against a mouse is not taking the side of justice,” Gum San Nsang said of her position on the conflict.
The Kachin activists—who have opted out of attending the event on Saturday—said it is unlikely that the war and displacement in northern Burma will be a topic of discussion.