UPDATED at 10:49 A.M. EST on 2018-01-04
The predominant ethnic armed organization in Myanmar’s northernmost state reshuffled its top leadership on Tuesday to replace departing officers with a younger generation of leaders, as hostilities between the group's armed wing and government forces continued to flare up.
General N’Ban La was appointed chairman of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), a political group composed of ethnic Kachins with an armed wing called the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), replacing Lanyaw Zawng Hra who is retiring after more than a decade in charge, KIO spokesman Colonel Naw Bu said.
Lanyaw Zawng Hra, now 79, replaced General Lamung Tu Jai as KIO chairman when he died in 2006.
“Changes are taking place in leadership roles as planned, not with voting,” Naw Bu said.
New leaders were appointed to four other senior positions, including two KIO vice chairmanships and two deputy chairmanships of the Kachin Independence Council (KIC) during a ceremony in the town of Laiza.
General Htang Gam Shawng is vice-chairman-1 and commander-in-chief. Suam Lut Gam is vice-chairman-2. Major General Gunmaw is vice-chairman-1 of the KIC. And Major General Zhaung Boat Htan is vice-chairman-2 of the KIC.
The KIO/KIA was one of four ethnic armed groups belonging to an umbrella organization for militias which have not signed a nationwide cease-fire agreement with the government that pulled out of the body in June 2017 over a disagreement about the pact.
KIO leaders pledged to stand with the “northern allies,” or Pangkham Allies — a group of seven ethnic armed militias that has formed a coalition led by the United Wa State Army (UWSA), Myanmar’s largest non-state army, which has emerged as a key player in Myanmar’s peace process.
They then formed the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC), which has called for a political dialogue with the government for peace talks as a coalition rather than as individual members.
The KIA, which controls large swathes of northeastern Kachin state, has regularly engaged in hostilities with the Myanmar army since a bilateral 17-year cease-fire agreement collapsed in 2011, most recently in Kachin state’s Tanaing township gold and amber mining region and in northern Shan state. The fighting over the years has forced about 100,000 residents to flee to safety.
The KIA's territory includes Tanaing township’s gold and amber mining region, on whose natural resources it depends as a source of income through the levying of a five-percent tax on mine operators.
“The KIO’s situation seems mixed up because its army has been participating in the peace process and is engaging in fights with other groups at the same time,” said former KIO vice-chairman Tu Jar.
“The KIO has reshuffled leaders because this could weaken leadership roles,” he said. “It means that the KIO has tried to form a solid leadership group for the new near because it has its own policies to advance. The KIO wants to engage in talks to forge peace, [but] it has engaged in fighting in the form of counterattacks because the government army attacked it first.”
Many residents who fled clashes between the KIA and Myanmar army are living in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in Kachin state.
“I hope we get good results from these KIO leadership changes,” said Naw Din, an ethnic Kachin who left his home during the hostilities and is living at the Mangweingyi IDP camp.
“I also hope we can have equal rights as General Aung San said, and that the KIO can try to secure these rights for us,” he said, referring to efforts by Myanmar’s independence hero who more than six decades ago established autonomy for the Kachin, Chin, and Shan ethnic minorities in Myanmar’s frontier regions.
“We don’t want to see any mess-ups in the political process because of these leadership changes,” Naw Din said.
The ethnic armed groups have said they want to ensure they have equal rights within a federal union and not forfeit their autonomy to a centralized state in the government’s ongoing peace process.
The KIA is one of several militias with which the Myanmar government is trying to end decades of ethnic separatist civil wars and forge peace in the country through a series of peace negotiations launched in August 2016 by de facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
The KIA was invited as an observer rather than a participant to the second and most recent peace conference in May 2017, because the group, along with six other militias, has not signed the government’s nationwide cease-fire pact.
Shan villagers flee fighting
Meanwhile, nearly 400 ethnic Shan villagers fled their homes in Mangsi township in Kachin territory on Wednesday amid ongoing clashes between the KIA and government troops along the border between Kachin and northern Shan states that began in mid-December, local residents said.
Roughly 300 people are staying at a monastery in Mangwang village, and around 100 others have sought shelter at a Christian IDP camp, they said.
“The IDPs are staying at Mangwang monastery and villagers are helping them with food,” said Shwe Tun, a community leader from Mangwang village. “We all want the fighting to be stopped. We often have fighting and don’t have peace in our region. We can’t live freely.”
In recent days, soldiers from the KIA and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), another ethnic armed group, have attacked government military headquarters in Kachin state, prompting Myanmar forces to launch counterattacks via aircraft.
Both militias have attacked government army base camps and the Lashio-Muse Highway, a main thoroughfare in northern Shan state, according to an announcement by the office of Myanmar’s Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
The KIA said government forces conducted assaults on its troops across Kachin state in late December, including near its headquarters in the town of Laiza on the border with China, while renewed fighting between the two sides flared up in Tanaing and Hpakant townships, the online news service Democratic Voice of Burma reported on Tuesday.
Reported by Tin Aung Khine and Kyaw Myo Min for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.