Armed conflict has raged in northern Myanmar’s Kachin state for the past eight years following the breakdown of a bilateral cease-fire between the government military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the country’s second-largest ethnic armed group. The KIA, which controls large sections of the state, joined forces with three other ethnic armed groups in 2016 to form the Northern Alliance in their battle against Myanmar forces. An estimated 107,000 civilians have been displaced by fighting in Kachin and neighboring northern Shan state since 2011. Because of its ongoing hostilities with the Myanmar Army, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the KIA’s political wing, has not signed a nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA) with the government to end the fighting, though last week it participated in collective informal discussions with government peace negotiators and seven other ethnic groups.
Meanwhile, the KIO and leaders from other Kachin organizations have come under increased pressure from China to allow the resumption of the controversial China-backed Myitsone Dam project. The U.S. $3.6-billion, 6,000-megawatt hydropower project at the confluence of the Mali and N’Mai rivers in Kachin state was put on hold in 2011 because of widespread opposition over its environmental and social impacts. In early February, thousands of Kachin residents staged a protest in the state capital Myitkyina, calling on the government of Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi to permanently suspend the project.
In an exclusive interview with reporter Elizabeth Janmar of RFA’s Myanmar Service, General Gwan Maw, vice chairman of the KIO, talked about opposition to the Myitsone Dam project, negotiations concerning the NCA, and prospects for peace in Kachin state. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
RFA: How is KIO’s relationship with China, which has been increasing pressure on the Kachin public and the KIA for the resumption of the Myitsone Dam project?
Gwan Maw: Officials from the Chinese government and the company building the Myitsone project have always openly said that they want to implement the project whenever they have met with the KIO. They particularly highlighted their [financial] losses. The KIO has always responded that it mainly needs to find a solution with the government because the Myitsone project had initially started in consultation with the government. We told them that the Kachin public, including the KIO, wishes to see openness to the public. [We] want the companies involved in the project to negotiate with the Myanmar government and give a public briefing in a place like Myitkyina. Then the public can address their views directly to the companies. The companies also need to address the public’s concerns. That’s what we advised. What we can facilitate is that we can convey to the public if the companies wish to express their view. Likewise, we can convey messages from people across Myanmar to those who implement the Myitsone project. We would provide information to both sides in order to be more transparent.
RFA: What would you do if the Chinese companies continue building the Myitsone Dam project?
Gwan Maw: We would inform the public if they say they will build it, by all means. They have been saying so far that they would like to build it, so we explained this to the Kachin public when we met. We also explained the fact that the KIO cannot issue a decision on the Myitsone project. We don’t have a say if the public and the government accept it. But, right now, the public doesn’t accept it, so we recommended that a plan ... to explain it to the public be systematically arranged.
RFA: What would the KIO do if the current government forges ahead with the Myitsone project?
Gwan Maw: The KIO will rely on public opinion. We can’t object if they accept it. We can’t force the people if they don’t accept it.
RFA: There are two different views among the public that some are in favor of and some are opposed to the KIO/KIA signing the NCA.
Gwan Maw: We always conduct public surveys on this matter, but they are not comprehensive. A high percentage [of participants in the survey] mostly recommended that we do not sign the NCA under the current circumstances. It’s because this issue has not been explained to the public from the beginning. Even those who signed the NCA are having a hard time. So, most [survey participants recommended that we hold discussions to have a better and more comprehensive NCA before we sign it.
RFA: Have the government, religious leaders, and the KIO held talks about the thousands of civilians who have been displaced by armed conflict in Kachin state?
Gwan Maw: The KIO considers and wishes that return of the IDPs be implemented whether or not the NCA is signed. But the Tatmadaw [Myanmar military] and the government said the matter will be discussed once the NCA is signed. So, we have to hold negotiations on the issue. The KIO believes that there are many villages to which people can return whether or not we sign the NCA. So, [the KIO] wishes that [the IDPs] return to those villages and that proper assistance is provided to those who still cannot return. We have to continue our negotiations on the matter.
RFA: There are reports that some civilians who were forcibly recruited by the KIA in Shan state have returned, while others have not. What can you say about this?
Gwan Maw: That’s correct. Troops heading to the front lines for military operations take recruits along the way. They didn’t have enough time to screen the recruits in the first place, so they were freed once [the troops] returned back to their bases.
RFA: What is your view of current fighting in Rakhine state?
Gwan Maw: We want the fighting to end as soon as possible. The fighting cannot be stopped by looking for the culprit who started it. The Arakan Army [AA] attacked police posts on [Jan. 4], so the government and the Tatmadaw said they can’t sign a bilateral agreement with [the AA]. The matter should be discussed so that the attacks are not repeated in the future and that they can move forward for the better. I advised them that there would be an impasse if they reject a cease-fire agreement by just taking into account the fact [that the AA had attacked]. Of course, there was fighting, but I don’t want it to think there’s no way out because of the fighting. Instead, they should not repeat what has been done in the past and continue to move forward by holding talks.
RFA: Hostilities between the AA and Myanmar Army are now very intense in Rakhine state. Is there any plan for the KIA to help the AA, a fellow member of the Northern Alliance coalition of ethnic armies fighting the government military in the north?
Gwan Maw: We would not get involved in the fighting. It’s so far away from us, and we don’t have enough strength to offer help in Rakhine state. But we will help each other with moral support.
RFA: Any final thoughts?
Gwan Maw: Our position is mainly to continue the dialogue, but we will thoroughly discuss the definition of peace with the government or the military. Peace cannot be achieved by just stopping the fighting. The fighting must be stopped in order to hold peace talks. We would like to sign a bilateral cease-fire agreement as a first step. We would like to continue the dialogue on how to move towards the NCA. We have plans to achieve peace gradually.
Reported by Elizabeth Jangma for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Nandar Chann. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.