Guest Column

People’s Outcries Must Be Heeded, Not Neglected

By Joe Kumbun 13 February 2018

The raging civil war between the Myanmar Army (Tatmadaw) and the ethnic armed group the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) continues and now appears unstoppable. Since fighting resumed in June 2011, tens of thousands of Kachin have become internationally displaced, countless people have died, and thousands of combatants have lost their lives on meaningless battlefields.

Numerous negotiations have taken place under former President Thein Sein’s government and current de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, but no solution has yet been found.

The fighting is fiercely escalating across Kachin State. Not only have people had to flee their homes, properties, and villages; roughly 2,000 domestic migrant workers and villagers have been trapped in the conflict area in amber-rich Tanai, in the western part of Kachin State. According to locals, some have been permitted to leave Tanai, but hundreds of people remain in the jungle. Likewise, hundreds of people who fled from villages now take refuge in the jungles in the eastern part of Sumprabum town in Kachin State.

The Peace-talk Creation Group (PCG) attempted to negotiate with the commander of the Northern Command Maj-Gen Nyi Nyi Swe to evacuate those who were trapped. On Jan. 30, several Kachin religious leaders from different denominations sent an appeal letter to the northern commander to seek permission to evacuate the trapped people.

The group also sent letters not only to the Kachin State chief minister but also to the National Reconciliation and Peace Center, according to the PCG.

Lin Lin Oo and Ja Tang – two members of the Lower House of Parliament from Tanai constituencies also sent a request letter to Win Myint, the chairman of the Lower House to arrange an evacuation.

It appears that no responses were received to these requests. The lack of a response led to a mass demonstration in Myitkyina on Feb. 5. Thousands of people, including members of civil society and religious organizations, gathered in Manau Park and marched toward government offices. The protestors chanted “stop airstrikes on civilians,” “immediately stop using civilians as human shields,” “stop blocking humanitarian aid,” and more.

A number of civil society organizations sent an appeal letter to the president, state counselor, commander-in-chief, two parliamentary speakers, and the chair of the Kachin Independence Organization, asking for a ceasefire and the evacuation of civilians trapped by conflict.

The Kachin diaspora from the EU, US, and other countries also showed sympathy and sent an appeal letter requesting UN member action. Kachin and other ethnic people in Japan also protested on Feb. 8, due to the lack of government response to the escalation of conflict.

All those who are trapped must be immediately evacuated and the government should facilitate temporary shelter and access to humanitarian aid.

Kachin people had high expectations for the National League for Democracy (NLD) and came out in large numbers to vote in support of the party in the 2015 general election, hoping that Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government could bring peace to the region.

The NLD government had promised that 2017 would be a year of peace, but it turned out to be a year of suffering for many Kachin. The tragedy will continue through 2018 unless immediate action is taken.

Now is the time for the government and the Tatmadaw to build mutual trust with all ethnic minorities including the Kachin and pave the way for coexistence between multiple ethnicities under a genuine federal union.

Hoping to attain mutual trust, State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Commander-in-Chief Snr-Gen. Min Aung Hlaing and other military officers, for example, the commander of the Bureau of Special Operations 1 and the northern commander occasionally meet Kachin religious leaders.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi met with religious figures from the Kachin Baptist Convention in July 2017, and Snr-Gen. Min Aung Hlaing recently hosted four Kachin bishops in Naypyitaw. These are the symbols of building mutual trust and cooperation between the government, the Tatmadaw and ethnic Kachin to end the fighting and create a federal union.

However, the continuity of severe fighting which, in turn, produces additional displaced people in the region could become a major obstacle to national reconciliation in Myanmar.

Thus, the government and the Tatmadaw should heed the outcries of displaced people and show the courage and magnanimity to accept their demands and respond suitably, for the sake of the future of this multi-ethnic country.

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