Guest Column

New KIO Chair Preaches Unity, Dialogue to Settle Civil War

By Dan Seng Lawn 9 February 2018

Studying the speech of the chairman of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) delivered every Feb. 5 to mark Kachin Revolution Day is a good way to gauge the group’s official policy. The format, theme and tone of the speech tends to mirror the particular political environment the KIO and its armed wing, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), are in at the time — as well as the personality of the incumbent chairman.

This year’s speech was delivered amid the backdrop of a stalled peace process and a change in KIO/KIA leadership. The new chairman, General N’Ban La, is known for his wit and unrefined character, a straight shooter and astute speaker. The tone of the speech duly reflected his uncanny personal traits. As a whole his style was lucid and definitive, as if he were poised for political action.

The speech started with a short introduction from the new chairman, the KIO’s sixth, who also serves as president of the Kachin Independence Council and commander-in-chief of the KIA. He then launched into his main messages.

The Meaning of Revolution, and its Goals

He defined revolution in pragmatic and impersonal terms. He said, “The success of the revolution is not based on the might of the weapons but on the support of the people.” He said that oppression, inequality and the broken promises of the 1947 Panglong agreement were the reasons for the Kachin rebellion and its demand for independence.

But he said the Kachin people were not yet ready for total independence for eight reasons: disunity among the six Kachin sub-tribes; disunity among Kachin culture and literature associations; disunity among religious denominations and the emergence of para-churches; disunity among Kachin political parties; disunity within the armed struggle; emigration to foreign countries; the large number of drug addicts; and narrow-mindedness and an all-talk-no-action mentality.

He said the goal of total independence was therefore unrealistic and that the Kachin needed to assess their actual options.

“The Bamar people are not the enemy of the Kachin people, and vice versa,” the chairman said. “We all live on the same land and drink the same water…. There is a historic legacy of fighting together against foreign invasions. Likewise, if it happens again in the future we will fight along with the country’s federal army.”

But the chairman defined the true enemy as the repressive ruling clique in the top echelons of power. Though few in number, they have the law, army and police to protect themselves and their interests. Therefore, it was extremely difficult to fight and eliminate them. The oppressed were not only the Kachin but all ethnic groups including the Bamar and the lower ranks of the Tatmadaw. It was therefore the duty of everyone to unite, rebel and uproot the oppressive system.

The chairman said the true Kachin revolutionary cause was not confined to Kachin interests and Kachin emancipation alone; it was meant for all ethnic groups, hence the focus on the system.

Real Solutions to Myanmar’s Prolonged Conflict

Throughout the speech the chairman highlighted potential solutions. He emphasized the importance of pragmatism; the primacy of political negotiation; the establishment of a federal system based on the Panglong agreement; the principles of equality, self-determination, self-autonomy and self-defense; and the importance of unity among ethnic groups.

Direct Messages

Message for the Tatmadaw

The chairman asked the Tatmadaw “not to fight the KIO/KIA as they fight foreign invaders but to solve the problem at the table since it is a political problem” and warned it not to use “divide and rule” tactics.

Message for Both the Government and Tatmadaw

The chairman said that “since all the ethnic groups are trying to solve the problem at the table, stop using a policy of discrimination against ethnic armed groups and parties, accepting some and rejecting others…. A durable peace is possible only when all the ethnic groups are included in the negotiations and achieve the right of self-determination, self-autonomy and self-defense for their respective states.”

Message for Militias and Border Guard Forces

He said it was acceptable to establish militias to defend villages and native land from theft and robbery. But it will not be acceptable for the Tatmadaw to use them as an instrument of war against the KIO/KIA.

Message for Kachin Political Parties

He asked the Kachin not to create many political parties and risk dividing their people. Kachin parties should be united, work toward a single goal and speak with one voice.

Message for Both Kachin Political Parties and Civil Society Organizations

He asks Kachin political parties and civil society organizations in Kachin State to assist in developing a constitution for a Kachin State that would include rights for non-Kachin.

Message for KIO Splinter Groups

He said past splits occurred because of the policy mistakes of some leaders. He said now was not the time for more splits, but for reconciliation and cooperation so that they could focus on uprooting the oppressive system.

Message for Internal Migrants

He said it was fair for people to migrate to Kachin State in search of work, but not to settle for good, grab the land of native residents and get involved in the political and administrative affairs of the state. “When you have earned enough, go back to your homeland and work for its development,” he said, addressing migrants. “In that way you show your love for the country.”

Concluding Remarks

The chairman ended his speech by emphasizing the primacy of negotiation in ending the conflict. But he warned that talks could not involve only one or two ethnic groups and stressed that all of them had to act in unison and speak with one voice. Only then could they succeed, he said.

The overarching message of the new KIO chairman was one of peace and for a negotiated settlement. The message was loud and clear. An olive branch has been extended. The speech also beckoned to the ethnic armed groups to unite. It was ingrained with the vision of a peaceful Myanmar and echoed the well-known aphorism of former German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck: “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best.” A solution to Myanmar’s civil strife has remained out of reach because conflicting parties have been chasing the desirable. Will 2018 be the year that mindset is broken and the threshold to a lasting peace for Myanmar?

Dan Seng Lawn is director of the Kachinland Research Center.