Myanmar Military Chief Meets Kachin Religious Leader

By Nan Lwin 13 September 2019

YANGON—Myanmar military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing met with Kachin religious leader Rev. Dr. Hkalam Samson in Mandalay on Thursday—three days after the military dropped a lawsuit against him—to discuss the return of internally displaced persons (IDPs), ways to accelerate the peace process in Kachin State and the issue of religious freedom.

Amid ongoing peace discussions with the Northern Alliance (NA), of which the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) is a member—Sen-Gen Min Aung Hlaing said it is crucial to achieve internal peace as the country pursues a transition to full democracy. To ensure peace and progress, the country must be stable politically and in terms of security, he said at the meeting with representatives of the Kachin community including Dr. Hkalam Samson, who is president of the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC), and members of the Kachin-based Peace-talk Creation Group (PCG).

The NA comprises the KIA, Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), Arakan Army (AA) and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA).

At the meeting, held at the military’s Central Command headquarters at the Mandalay Palace, the senior general said the law prohibits discrimination against any ethnicity, adding that all groups must work hard for their own regional development.

“When it comes to religion, there is religious freedom for all. So, there should not be unnecessary political instability or conflict under the pretext of religion,” Senior General Min Aung Hlaing said.

In July, during a meeting with US President Donald Trump, Dr. Hkalam Samson said there is no religious freedom in Myanmar and that oppression and torture are still common in the country, where fighting between ethnic armed organizations and the Myanmar military continue despite a return to civilian rule. He also asked the US to back Myanmar’s transition to “genuine” democracy, and to support federalism in Myanmar.

In August, Lieutenant-Colonel Than Htike from the Myanmar military’s Northern Command based in Kachin State submitted a complaint against Rev. Dr. Hkalam Samson at the Myitkyina Township Court. The complaint cited a live broadcast of the conversation between the religious leader and the US president on the Facebook page of the ABC program World News Now, according to court documents.

On Monday, the military withdrew the lawsuit against Dr. Hkalam Samson without offering details.

Dr. Hkalam Samson told The Irrawaddy he held an open discussion with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing during the meeting.

He told the commander-in-chief that he welcomed the military’s decision to withdraw the lawsuit against him, adding that not only Kachin groups, but also churches and organizations abroad had praised the move.

He said the move sent a clear signal internationally that the Myanmar military was making progress.

Dr. Hkalam Samson urged the military to try to gain civilian support by showing humility and patience.

He said the senior general also showed a desire to see IDPs in Kachin State return to their homes quickly.

Dr. Hkalam Samson said he put forward the view that both sides must guarantee the safe return of IDPs. To achieve this, it would first be necessary to sign a bilateral ceasefire agreement between the warring parties in the state, he said.

“He [the senior general] agreed with my point,” Dr. Hkalam Samson said.

Dr. Hkalam Samson also serves as the head of the Kachin Humanitarian Concern Committee (KHCC), which advocates for IDPs and helps them return to their homes.

“The senior general said he wants to see the peace process succeed under the military’s leadership,” he said.

‘When it comes to the peace process, he said he is not dogmatic and open to negotiation,” Dr. Hkalam Samson added.

Clashes erupted last month between the military and NA members in many townships, forcing thousands of villagers to flee their homes. The latest round of fighting began with coordinated attacks by the TNLA, AA and MNDAA on five locations in northern Shan State and in Mandalay Region’s Pyin Oo Lwin Township. The KIA was not involved in the groups’ offensive.

The government’s Peace Commission and representatives of the NA met on Aug. 31 in Kengtung, eastern Shan State. The government has invited the NA to meet with its negotiators in Kengtung again, on Sept. 16 and 17.

“Rather than accusing and criticizing based on fixed ideas, we need to have open discussions where [both sides] can talk about what they want,” Dr. Hkalam Samson said.

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