KIA Deputy in Landmark Rangoon Speech
By Simon Roughneen 20 November 2013
RANGOON — The Kachin Independence Army’s (KIA) deputy chief of staff on Tuesday evening addressed a packed hall in Rangoon, ahead of talks about a nationwide ceasefire involving all of the country’s armed groups.
Gen Sumlut Gun Maw, a senior figure in the main ethnic minority militia still at war with the Burma Army, spoke to around 700 Kachin at a Baptist church in Rangoon, after arriving in Burma’s commercial hub Monday to apply for a Burmese passport.
In a wide-ranging and lengthy address discussing the state of negotiations between the KIA and the Government, as well as social and economic conditions in Kachin State, Gen Gun Maw put the onus on the Burma government to push for peace.
“The government’s attitude counts for more than the KIA in moving to a nationwide ceasefire agreement,” he said.
The Burmese government’s granting permission to the General to travel to Rangoon is seen as trust-enhancing measure ahead of a next round of peace talks scheduled for December.
Htoi Bawk, a Kachin lawyer living in Rangoon, said that the KIA man’s presence in Rangoon is being taken as positive signal. “I think it is good that the government allows him come here and it can help them trust each other more,” she told The Irrawaddy.
However, the visit comes amid more grim news from the war-torn northern region where the KIA is based, as over the past weekend an estimated 2,000 Kachin villagers were driven from their homes in fighting near the frontier demarcating Kachin State from Shan State—the eponymous homeland of Burma’s biggest ethnic minority.
The KIA and the Burma Army went back to war in June 2011, just three months after a reform-leaning government led by President Thein Sein took office, and 17 years after the two sides signed a ceasefire. Around 100,000 Kachin remain displaced by the fighting, the majority in aid-deprived camps inside KIA-held territory close to the Burma-China border.
The 1994 ceasefire did not lead to talks about greater autonomy for Kachin State, a key militia demand and one shared by other ethnic minority fighters and political parties. A new ceasefire by itself will not be enough to prevent a future war, Gen Gun Maw warned, saying that discussions are needed about the division of power between Burma’s central Government and the country’s border regions, such as Kachin State, where ethnic minorities live.
Gen Gun Maw told the Kachin in Rangoon that Burma’s 2008 Constitution needs to be amended as it does not give enough local autonomy to minorities.
‘I urged the Government before the Constitution came about to give greater rights for ethnic people,” Gen Gun Maw said, raising wild cheers from the crowd in the hall.
“I am happy he raised this issue,” said Htoi Bawk, “as the Constitution is not good for the ethnic people.”
Burma’s government has historically resisted relaxing central control of minority regions, with the 1962 military coup—the start of five decades of army rule that only ended in 2011—rationalized by the junta as needed to prevent groups such as the Kachin from seceding from Burma. However, in recent months Burmese government ministers have openly mentioned that a form of federal government could come about in future.
The general’s wise-cracking address lasted around two hours, punctuated by frequent bouts of laughter from the audience. Many in the crowd wore traditional Kachin headgear or came with red and green Kachin flags painted on their faces, and appeared thrilled at the novelty of a KIA leader speaking openly in the former capital.
Kinraw Zau Nan, a former pastor in the Kachin regional capital Myitkyina who now works as a translator in Rangoon, said that Gen Gun Maw’s speech was “a wonderful event for Kachin people in Yangon.”
The Kachin are one of Burma’s larger ethnic minorities, thought to number over one million people out of a total Burmese population of between 50 and 60 million. While perhaps nine out of 10 Burmese are Buddhist, most Kachin are Christian, either Baptist or Roman Catholic.
Speaking over the hum of closing prayers and hymns ringing out through the church, Kinraw Zau Nan added that “in fact, having the speech here and getting permission seems like several steps ahead of other developments,” referring to the peace processes between the Burma government and ethnic minority militias.
An aide to Gen Gun Maw said that the general was hoping to collect his new Burmese passport on Wednesday before applying for a Thai visa, documentation that will enable him travel to Chiang Mai later this week for discussions involving some of Burma’s other ethnic armed groups, most of which have already signed ceasefires with the Government, unlike the KIA.
The Chiang Mai parlay will include representatives of Burma’s political parties as well as the militias, and is aimed at narrowing ground between the government and the militias ahead of the next round of nationwide ceasefire talks, scheduled to take place during December in Pa’an, the regional capital of Karen State, site of a long war between the Burma Army and Karen rebels.
During his speech Gen Gun Maw quoted a woman who is said to have shouted “to those making efforts for peace, I urge them not to exchange peace for car permits,” at Karen National Union (KNU) leaders visiting Myitkina for recent peace talks. The KNU signed a ceasefire with the Burma Government in early 2012 and has since been granted business concessions such as car import permits, prompting concerns that peace-making is being overshadowed by commercialism in some parts of Burma.
Gen Gun Maw met with several political and business figures in Rangoon over Monday and Tuesday, including members of the 88 Generation, the former student protest leaders at the forefront of Burma’s 1988 anti-military demonstrations, and who are acting as observers of Burma’s peace talks. The general also met with Tay Za, the sanctioned billionaire businessman and alleged arms trafficker who has investments in jade-rich Kachin State.
Fighting has flared near jade mining areas since the Burma Army-KIA ceasefire broke down in June 2011, and control over mining the lucrative commodity, estimated to be worth US$8billion per year in unofficial exports, which go mostly to China, is thought to be a key driver of the Kachin war.