Guest Column

Myanmar Army Unnerves Ethnic Kachin

By Joe Kumbun 28 July 2017

The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) recently hosted a public meeting at its headquarters in Laiza from July 15-17, attended by an estimated 500 members of the Kachin public and 200 KIO representatives.

At the meeting, the KIO’s Vice Chairman Gen N’Ban La revealed the organization’s reasons for pulling away from the United Nationalities Federal Council and allying with the Wa-led Northern Alliance. He emphasized the future plans of the Federal Political Negotiation Coordination Committee (FPNCC) of the Northern Alliance in dealing with the Myanmar government and its military. Lt-Gen Gam Shawng, the Kachin Independence Army’s chief of staff, and Col Zau Raw, the secretary of the Kachin Independence Council, followed by stressing the KIO’s political goals.

According to these generals, the KIO’s political goal is to form a federal Union based on the 1947 Panglong Agreement, which promised equal political rights to Myanmar’s ethnic nationality groups. Much of the Kachin public share the KIO’s vision that a genuine federal political system could end the civil war and pave the way toward Myanmar being a more peaceful country.

Many Kachin people—who have bore the brunt of military violence—firmly believe that the Myanmar Army’s perpetual offensives against the KIO are not a solution to achieving peace.

After the war between the KIA and the Myanmar Army resumed in 2011, following the breakdown of a longstanding ceasefire, there were an unprecedented number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) uprooted from Kachin communities, forced to abandon villages and properties. Many lost their lives.

In this crisis grew a more vocal desire for sustainable peace in the region, as opposed to a temporary ceasefire. The Kachin public and the KIO have been seeking a way to cease escalation of the conflict and pursue fruitful negotiations with the government and its military.

Members of the Kachin public voluntarily formed the Peace-talk Creation Group (PCG) and a Technical Advisory Team (TAT) to assist in discussions between the government and the KIO. Both the PCG and the TAT have put concerted efforts into mediating between the Burmese Army and the KIO, and assisted in several meetings for both sides. Unfortunately, their perseverance has not yet paid off.

Instead, armed conflict is intensifying in several areas, particularly in Kachin State’s Hpakant and Tanai, creating further displacement.

As a result of the conflict, a number of Kachin civilians have also been targeted by outdated laws, such as charges under Article 17(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act. After the war resumed in 2011, a number of such cases drew the attention of the media. One man, Lahtaw Brang Shawng was arrested in June 2012 from an IDP camp and, the following year, sentenced to two years in prison. Another, Lahpai Gam, was arrested the same month and was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment. In November 2016, 49 young men and women from Putao were arrested after returning from a 25-day training program in Laiza on the cultivation of crops to substitute for opium; the course included sessions on fighting drug abuse, on furthering Kachin language and culture, and understanding democracy and federalism. After several months in detention, 48 people were released, but one remains imprisoned with a sentence of several years.

Due to battles in Mong Ko, northern Shan State, in late 2016, civilian property including warehouses, a school, a Catholic Church and more than 100 homes were bombed or destroyed. In the aftermath of the operation, two pastors from the Kachin Baptist Convention —Dumdaw Nawng Latt and Lajaw Gam Seng—were arrested on December 24, 2016, allegedly for helping journalists report on the destruction of the church in the conflict.

During bouts of conflict, IDP camps in the border areas have reportedly been hit by artillery —some, multiple times—forcing displaced people to flee yet again. For example, in April 2014, the IDP camp at Lagat Yang—on the border between Shan and Kachin states—was allegedly struck, and emptied of its 800 residents.

Many observers believe that these military strategies are intended to push the KIO/A toward signing the nationwide ceasefire agreement, or to disarm.

The arrest of civilians, the targeting of IDPs the pressure on the KIO by the Burmese Army does not help build a relationship between the government, its army, and the ethnic Kachin public. Instead, it caters to anti-Bamar resentment. In turn, the KIO boasts more widespread support from the Kachin public.

This is a prime moment in which trust could be built between the government, its military, and all of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities. The government should abolish Article 17(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act, which charges civilians under the suspicion of affiliating with ethnic armed groups. Inevitably, many ethnic nationality civilians must communicate with their area’s respective armed groups, because the public drives these groups forward in the peace process and in shifting their political goals.

They also assist them in taking part in peace talks with the government and have, in the past, served as intermediaries. For example, Vice Snr-Gen Soe Win, the Tatmadaw’s deputy commander-in-chief, and other Generals—the Commanders of the Bureau of Special Operations (1) and of the Northern Command—used to meet Kachin religious leaders and political parties and relay messages to the KIO. Even the State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi invited and met religious leaders from the Kachin Baptist Convention to Naypyitaw on July 24, 2017. If the government and its military charge such individuals under Article 17(1), it can hinder the country’s peace process and negate potential peace talks.

The government and the Myanmar Army should, therefore, shun strategies that undermine the people’s trust in them and their peace initiatives. Instead, they should accelerate the momentum of the peace process so as to build the federal Union which groups like the Kachin have long hoped for. Absent such changes, the Kachin public is likely to lose confidence in the government and its military, making it all the more difficult for any peace process to succeed under these flawed circumstances.

Joe Kumbun is the pseudonym of a Kachin State-based contributor.