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Activist speaks about causes of Kachin conflict, prognosis for peace

Originally appeared in: The Best Friend International

Interview by Garrett Kostin, The Best Friend Library – Chiang Mai

 

Seng Zin is a Kachin activist and community organizer living in Chiang Mai. She is originally from Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State, and works with the Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand (KWAT). She shares her insights and opinions about the situation in northern Burma, near the border with China, in this exclusive interview with The Best Friend.

 

Question: What caused the end of the 17-year-long ceasefire and the resumption of conflict between the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and the Burmese Army in June 2011?

Seng Zin: Two main things: the Burmese government’s demand that the Kachin army put itself under the control of the Burmese military, and the government’s plans for destructive development projects in Kachin State.

From 1994 to 2011, the period of the ceasefire, the KIO/KIA never did any offensives against the Burmese government, and we stopped calling for independence. The KIO just stayed in its territories and took care of the people in our area. Our goal was political dialogue for the creation of a federal union with respect for ethnic rights.

However, as laid out in the 2008 constitution, the Burmese government wanted to create one federal army with all of the ethnic armies forced to transform into units under the rule of the national army. This would have meant that ethnic armies need to surrender their arms and give up their authority in their own areas. The KIO and most ethnic groups refused this plan. The Burmese Army was not satisfied about that. Also, they had already planned to build seven dams in Kachin State, including the biggest dam in Burma in the Myitsone area of Kachin State, so they wanted to clear the area to make the dam.

The Burmese government started entering the KIO’s area without explanation or notice. They didn’t want the KIO to have control of the area. So, not only did the KIO decline to give up their arms and autonomy, they also refused to allow the Burmese government to do the dam projects because most of the people opposed the dam — it would destroy the environment, displace local residents, and not benefit local people because the Burmese government planned to sell the electricity to China. The intensive war started because of the Burmese starting to build the dam in the Ta Ping River, near Sang Gang in the KIO-controlled region.

Question: Is the KIO launching offensives against the Burmese military?

Seng Zin: The KIO actually has only acted in self-defense. When the Burmese Army sent more troops and reinforcements into Kachin State, the KIO had to start launching offensives to defend its territory and the Kachin people. The KIO never attacked Burmese civilians in Burmese areas, but the Burmese Army has attacked Kachin civilians in Kachin areas.

Question: The KIO and the Burmese military recently agreed to resume peace talks in Ruili, China. Did pressure from China or the international community play a role? And since the talks have resumed, has fighting lessened?

Seng Zin: Yes, China’s pressure played a role, but the Burmese Army has already captured most of the important posts of the KIO, and after that, then they invited the KIO for talks again. I don’t think the fighting has lessened. The Burmese have not withdrawn their troops. As long as the two armies are close to each other, the fighting can start again at any time.

They will have another meeting at the end of February. If the Burmese would like to do a sincere peace talk, they should withdraw first from the KIO’s important posts close to KIO’s headquarters in Laiza.

Question: How would you evaluate China’s response to the conflict? Have they been helpful to the Kachin?

Seng Zin: The Chinese have not done enough to pressure the Burmese to stop fighting the Kachin. They don’t want fighting between the Burmese government and the KIO. They don’t want a lot of Kachin refugees in southern China. If there is peace, they can do more projects in Kachin State. They always think about their investments in the Kachin areas, but China has not been allowing humanitarian aid into Kachin State from China, or allowing Kachin people living in Yunnan Province to meet with Kachin refugees. It would be very helpful for peace if China would pressure the Burmese government to accept a federal system with respect for ethnic rights and national equality.

Question: Aung San Suu Kyi has been criticized for refusing to condemn the Burmese military for its continuing attacks in Kachin State after President Thein Sein’s repeated futile calls for a ceasefire. A Kachin community leader, Khon Ja, recently said, ‘Her [ASSK’s] focus is only on collecting awards and becoming president, rather than the suffering of our people.’

What role do you think Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy could play to be more helpful in ending the conflict?

Seng Zin: First, the NLD’s role should be to stand by itself as an opposition party, not always agree with and support the military-dominated government. We understand that now she is in the parliament, she needs to negotiate with all the Burmese leaders, but until now she has only done efforts and worked on humanitarian aid for lower Burma. She hasn’t done anything for the ethnic people in ethnic regions. While she was campaigning in Kachin State, she dressed in our traditional clothing and said she supported a federal union, which was the idea of her father. But now that she is in the parliament, she doesn’t talk about that anymore.

It would be helpful if she raised her voice more. Now she just receives peace prizes from many countries. As she has received many prizes, she has the responsibility to work harder for peace and equality for ethnic people. At least she should talk more strongly to tell the Burmese government to stop its offensives and stop attacking not only the KIO, but also Kachin civilians.

Question: What would you say were the results of the 25 January Kachin Peace Rallies in Chiang Mai?

Seng Zin: I think now more people are aware of what we Kachin want. More people are showing their solidarity because they understand our refugees are suffering and dying in camps on the Burma-China border. The Chinese government and Burmese government are neglecting all of the situations that our people face. With the rally, we explained clearly that they need to respect our rights if they would like to come and invest in our state. The rally helped more people become aware of our situation, and has also created more unity and solidarity.

Question: Do you have hope that the situation in Kachin State will improve in this year? How can lasting peace in Kachin State be achieved?

Seng Zin: I think after we have the second meeting of peace talks [in late February 2013], I can give my opinion about whether our situation is getting better or worse. We need to wait for the results of the upcoming meetings between KIO and Burmese government.

I can say that I don’t have too much hope, actually, because the Burmese government is always cheating the ethnic groups. If they had sincerity to work for peace, they could call now for a nationwide political dialogue with all ethnic groups, not only individual “peace talks” with separate groups.