Guest Column

When Silence Hurts More Than a Bullet

By Stella Naw 10 October 2016

In Burma’s general election in November 2015, many ethnic Kachin voted in support of the National League for Democracy (NLD) based on party leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s promises of change. They believed that she would stand with them and speak on their behalf against the social and political discrimination endured during decades of military dictatorship.

Following the 21st Century Panglong peace conference at the beginning of September, fighting intensified between the Burma Army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), with the Tatmadaw carrying out air strikes against the KIA. Despite failing to implement political dialogue after the last ceasefire was signed with the group in 1994, it now appears that the Burma Army is using these offensives to pressure the KIA into signing the country’s highly controversial nationwide ceasefire agreement.

The already dire humanitarian situation took a turn for the worse when a two-year-old Kachin girl, Zung Myaw, was killed and two other children seriously injured in the shelling of Puwang village in northern Shan State on Oct. 1. Yet despite widespread reporting of the tragedy by independent media—and the Kachin public’s subsequent call for Aung San Suu Kyi to condemn the Burmese military’s offensive—the public’s anger and frustration has been met with silence from the country’s leadership.

When Aung San Suu Kyi was asked in panel discussion in London in 2012 to explain why she was reluctant to condemn the Burma Army, she responded that she “condemns all violence,” and that resolution to the conflict was “not about condemnation, but about finding the root causes.”

The current State Counselor spoke of the need to pursue findings from independent commissions in order to better understand the country’s war. But she has yet to take any action or issue a public statement on the human rights violations that the conflict has caused—abuses that have been widely documented by both community-based groups and international organizations including Human Rights Watch and the United Nations.

These injustices include the disappearance of Sumlut Roi Ja, a young mother who went missing on October 28, 2011, after she was arbitrarily detained by the Burma Army near Mu Bum in Kachin State. There are the two Kachin farmers, Brang Yung and Lahpai Gam, who in June 2012 were severally tortured after their arrest by the military, including reportedly being forced to engage in sexual acts with one another. Although Brang Yung has since been released from prison, Lahpai Gam remains behind bars without any evidence or witness testimony indicating his guilt in being “unlawfully associated” with the KIA, of which he is accused.

Then, in January 2015, two ethnic Kachin volunteer teachers, Hkawn Nan Tsin and Maran Lu Ra, were brutally raped and murdered in Kaung Kha, northern Shan State; the crime is believed to have been carried out by Burma Army soldiers stationed in the area. These are only some of the many documented examples of impunity granted to government forces in cases of grave abuses against members of ethnic communities.

Yet it is this same military that Aung San Suu Kyi said in 2013 that she is “fond of,” affectionately calling the institution her “father’s army,” a reference to the late Aung San.

As an ethnic woman who has listened to survivors re-live their stories of horrific Burma Army abuse, these comments feel to me the equivalent of rubbing salt in our wounds.

Despite an election message of change, six months into the new government’s term, representatives appear to many constituents to be distant and unapproachable. Representatives from local NGOs in the Kachin State capital of Myitkyina say that NLD parliamentarians are often absent from meetings on community issues. While members of other smaller political parties are regularly in attendance, NLD lawmakers often reportedly say that they need to await permission from their headquarters to participate in such events.

It is worrying, then, to think that the public’s concerns and issues are not being represented in the parliament by those with the responsibility to represent them.

It was reported that during a monthly meeting held on Oct. 4 between NLD leadership and parliamentarians, executive members asked that during parliamentary sessions, party members not ask “difficult questions” that could be perceived as harming the image of the NLD leadership. If parliament members are discouraged from raising the concerns of the people they promised to represent, they have failed those who voted for them. The issues being discussed in the legislature should not be based on government convenience, but on the pursuit of solutions for the issues faced in the constituencies.

If the NLD is to live up to its promise of change and fair representation, channels of communication must become more open and accessible to the public, and their representatives must be allowed to speak freely. After more than two decades as an opposition leader, it is hoped that the State Counselor would understand the importance of such inquiry. Aung San Suu Kyi’s status as a democracy icon should not stop us from having this conversation—checks and balances on power are, after all, one of the most important signposts of a functioning democracy.

The feeling of disconnection is found not only in the public’s disillusionment with their parliamentary representatives in these cases, but also with those involved in the peace process. Khu Oo Reh, general secretary of the ethnic armed alliance the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) and leader of the Delegation for Political Negotiations (DPN), stated the importance of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi “consulting with all sides” in the peace process before she has her “final say.” What he fears is that her mind has been made up in advance, before negotiations for each step have completed.

If the conflict is to be resolved and reach a permanent end, Aung San Suu Kyi must, for the sake of fairness, put forth significant effort to communicate with ethnic armed organizations, including those within the UNFC, as she has done with the Burma Army.

Since last week, thousands of residents across Kachin State have taken to the streets and to the Manau cultural grounds in the state capital to condemn the Burma Army’s offensives and indiscriminate shelling in the region. This outpouring of frustration indicates the level of local discontentment with the government’s silence over both the death of a toddler and the larger military campaign in Kachin State. People have long had high expectations that Aung San Suu Kyi would address the struggle against this state of perpetual insecurity and ethnic discrimination.

Across Burma, they are calling on Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD government to condemn the ongoing military offensives in ethnic areas. The Kachin—as well as other ethnic communities also under threat—are still hoping that she will stand with them.

After all, as American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “in the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Stella Naw is an advocate for democratic federalism in Burma, with a special interest in reconciliation and the rights of ethnic and indigenous peoples.