Military Chief Discusses IDPs, Peace, Myitsone Dam with Kachin Religious Leaders

By Nan Lwin 5 February 2019

YANGON—Military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing met Kachin religious leaders on Tuesday to discuss IDPs, the peace process and the controversial China-backed Myitsone Dam project, amid discussions with the Kachin armed group on how to move forward on peace negotiations.

In the meeting with representatives of the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC) and the Catholic community at the military’s Northern Command compound, Sen-Gen. Min Aung Hlaing said he wants to hasten the return of Kachin IDPs to their homes, expressed a desire to advance the peace process with the Kachin armed group, and said a final decision on the Myitsone Dam would depend on the public’s wishes and on Parliament.

The KBC discussed two main issues with the senior general—creating transparency in the peace process focusing on lasting peace, and securing the return of IDPs with the help of Kachin groups including religious and community-based organizations, particularly those working with displaced persons.

KBC Vice President Tu Mai said his group had already set up the Kachin Humanitarian Concern Committee to help IDPs on the ground. The team includes members of many religious organizations and peace advocacy groups.

Tu Mai said, “If they don’t discuss [these issues] with us, if something goes wrong, people will suffer the consequences.”

He said the military needed to open discussions with all organizations including the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO).

“They need to cooperate with us on the return of IDPs,” he added.

Recently, the Myanmar military facilitated the return of more than 100 IDPs to their homes in Waimaw Township.

Father Noel Naw Lat, who is in charge of the social-pastoral coordination office of the Catholic Diocese of Myitkyina, said Sen-Gen. Min Aung Hlaing promised that the Myanmar military (or Tatmadaw) would help to clear landmines and assist with other IDP-related issues in Kachin State.

During the meeting, Kachin religious leaders also conveyed to the Tatmadaw chief the public’s objections to the Myitsone Dam. Local people are planning to stage a demonstration against the project this week.

The Myitsone Dam project has received nationwide pushback due to concerns over the dam’s social and environmental impacts. It was suspended in 2011 under then-President U Thein Sein’s administration. However, it came under the spotlight again when Chinese Ambassador Hong Liang claimed after a visit to Kachin State at the end of December that the Kachin people were not opposed to its resumption.

Father Noel Naw Lat showed strong opposition to the Myitsone Dam during the meeting. “He [Sen-Gen. Min Aung Hlaing] said it is hard to go against the public’s will. He promised the Tatmadaw would do anything it can. But the final decision would be made by the Hluttaw [Parliament],” Father Noel Naw Lat said.

Last week Cardinal Charles Bo, the archbishop of Yangon, said in a statement that the controversial Myitsone Dam slated for construction at the source of the Irrawaddy River, known as Myanmar’s lifeline, “must be stopped” to ensure a peaceful future for the country, adding that the construction of the dam would be a “death sentence for the people of Myanmar”.

Father Noel Naw Lat said Sen-Gen. Min Aung Hlaing also mentioned that he would continue peace talks with the Kachin armed group, as he wants to see progress on peace negotiations in Kachin State.

In December, the Tatmadaw declared a unilateral four-month ceasefire effective in active conflict areas in north and northeast Myanmar. The first such truce ever initiated by the military, it covers the Northern Command in Kachin State.

China has been acting as a peace broker between the military and members of the Northern Alliance, a group comprising the KIA, the Arakan Army (AA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA).

In January, government peace representatives and the KIA held an informal meeting in Kunming, the capital of China’s Yunnan province. The KIA requested that government sit down with the other Northern Alliance members, the AA, TNLA and MNDAA.

On Monday, the Peace Talks Creation Group (PCG), a Kachin group that acts to broker peace talks between EAOs and the government, told The Irrawaddy that the government had agreed to hold a formal meeting with Northern Alliance members, but no date has yet been set.

As of Tuesday evening, the Office of the Commander in Chief had yet to make any official announcement regarding Sen-Gen. Min Aung Hlaing’s trip to Kachin. The Irrawaddy attempted to contact the spokesperson for the Northern Command, but his phone was switched off.