Kachin State’s Chief Minister La John Ngan Hsai declared on Thursday that Naypyidaw had told him to instruct the various departments within his regional assembly in Myitkyina to dismiss or ignore the constitutional act that outlaws the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO).
Speaking to The Irrawaddy, San Aung, who has been a mediator at peace talks between the KIO and the Burmese government, said that the order was given to effectively repeal Article 17/1, which states that it is illegal for anyone to have contact with an outlawed organization. The constitutional law, which dates back to British colonial times, has been used for years to justify the arbitrary arrest of anyone suspected of supporting anti-government organizations or ethnic armed groups.
San Aung said, “The chief minister called the heads of several departments [in Kachin State] at around 10 am, and told them that Naypyidaw had instructed him to ‘drop Article 17/1.’
“This is a very positive development, because this is one of the main issues that the KIO demanded from [government delegation leader] U Aung Min yesterday at the meeting,” he said.
The rescission of the constitutional article, whether as a de jure act in Parliament or as a de facto policy will have an immediate bearing on 49 ethnic Kachins who are currently detained under 17/1, accused of being KIO supporters or sympathizers.
“The 20 people who have been detained this month will probably be released soon,” said San Aung. “However, the 29 who have already gone to trial will probably have to complete the legal proceedings.”
Burmese authorities arrested 20 people they accused of supporting the KIO at IDP camps in state capital Myitkyina earlier this month. Since then, Kachin sources say, many displaced Kachin villagers have been afraid to stay in the shelters.
“The rescission of Article 17/1 will be very good for the refugees,” said San Aung. “They will be able to leave the camps and look for their families or try to return to their villages.”
San Aung was alluding to the common perception among Burmese authorities that anyone from conflict zone villages or returning from rescue shelters must inevitably be a supporter of the KIO.
At Wednesday’s meeting in Maijayang, the government delegation reportedly told the KIO leaders to propose a list of political prisoners who they believe should be released.
Meanwhile, around 70,000 Kachin villagers remain as refugees or as displaced persons, having fled their homes over the past year to escape fighting between the KIO and the Burmese army.
Kachin sources said on Thursday that the leaders of the KIO appear content with the substance of their meeting the day before in Maijayang where a government delegation led by Railways Minister Aung Min, who was recently appointed vice-chairman of the newly formed Union Peacemaking Working Committee, met with the KIA’s chief of staff, Maj-Gen Sumlut Gun Maw, and other KIA/ KIO leaders.
The next meeting is reportedly due to take place at an unspecified date in Bhamo Township if the KIO agree in principal with the map proposed by the government suggesting sites for the relocation of military bases.
The KIO representatives told Aung Min that they will meet after they had discussed the military map proposal at Laiza, the headquarters of the KIO.