Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi met with ethnic Karenni youth in eastern Kayah state Wednesday to discuss local grievances there, the latest step to shore up her ruling National League for Democracy’s relations with ethnic groups as the party faces year-end elections.
The visit, and a trip on Jan. 10 to Kachin state, follows the formation last September of a new committee dedicated to engaging with and promoting relations with ethnic political parties in the multiethnic country that has seen decades of internal warfare.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s travel comes as her government grapples with a sputtering peace process marked by ongoing hostilities between national forces and rebel ethnic armies in its far-flung regions, producing hundreds of thousands of displaced villagers. She had made forging peace and creating a democratic federal union the primary goals of her administration after winning elections in 2015.
It also comes as the government faces genocide-related lawsuits in three international courts, including the U.N.’s top court, the International Court of Justice. The ICJ will issue a decision on Jan. 23 on a request filed by Gambia to order provisional measures to prevent further violence against Rohingya Muslims, more than 740,000 of whom were driven into exile in Bangladesh in 2017.
During a 20-minute meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi in Loikaw, the Kayah state capital, seven Karenni representatives asked the state counselor to intervene in an issue involving confiscated farmland and arrested farmers and to remove a controversial statue of her father, General Aung San, from a public park in Loikaw.
“We discussed our concerns only briefly,” said Khun Thomas, joint secretary of the Union of Karenni State Youth. “She said all of our concerns would be recorded, but she didn’t make any decisions.”
The youth leaders agreed to hold negotiations with representatives from the state government, Union government, Karenni youth groups, and ethnic civil society organizations to try to resolve by peaceful means the disagreement over the General Aung San equestrian statue erected in February 2019, said Karenni youth leader Khu Reeral.
“The state counselor also assigned the ethnic affairs minister to implement the negotiation mechanisms,” he said. “The ethnic affairs minister said his ministry is working to implement them as soon as possible.”
Many ethnic minorities oppose the erection of the statues in their states because Aung San, a hero in the country’s fight for independence from British rule, came from the ethnic Bamar (Burman) majority that dominates the country, and because they believe that the current government should focus on achieving equal rights for them.
Six young Karennis who demanded the removal of the statue and openly criticized Kayah state government authorities over the handling of the issue were sentenced in November 2019 to six months in prison with hard labor.
The Karenni youth representatives also asked Aung San Suu Kyi to look into lawsuits filed by Myanmar’s army against 40 farmers from two state townships, charged with trespassing, damaging public property, and destroying military fences. Eleven of them are currently in prison.
Ban Yar, director of a Karenni human rights group who participated in the meeting with the state counselor, said that although the meeting was brief, it presented a good opportunity to discuss pressing local issues with her.
“We think it was a good opportunity that seven of us from youth groups and farmers were allowed to meet with her and talk about our concerns,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“For the farmers, the [government] could create a mechanism to handle their problems with land grabs,” he said. “But there are still many issues to talk over. It will take time.”
Committee to promote ethnic engagement
The NLD’s new Ethnic Affairs Committee consists of chairman Nhtung Hka Naw Sam, a lower house lawmaker from Kachin state, and 15 members from other states and regions. Tin Myo Win, chair of Myanmar’s Peace Commission, serves as one of two committee vice chairmen along with Karen state Chief Minister Nan Khin Htwe Myint.
Nhtung Hka Naw Sam said the committee will mediate issues such as those concerning the erection of General Aung San statues in ethnic states rather than getting involved in armed conflicts in ethnic areas.
“We have been criticized that we are weak in dealing with ethnic political parties after winning the 2015 election and forming the government,” NLD spokesman Myo Nyunt told RFA in late December. “That’s why we’ve formed a separate committee to promote engagement.”
“This is a required process in the path we are taking,” he said. “This new committee will help facilitate understanding and cooperation with ethnic political parties.”
Tun Aung Kyaw, former secretary of the Arakan National Party (ANP) and current member of the party’s Policy Committee, said the NLD has not forged good relations with the dominant ethnic parties in Rakhine and Shan states.
“The NLD doesn’t have good relations with either the SNLD [Shan Nationalities League for Democracy] or the ANP, two ethnic parties that won the most seats in their respective states [in the 2015 elections],” he said.
“That’s why we’ve concluded that the N“LD has mishandled [ethnic] issues,” he said. “It has especially treated ethnic political parties as if it has the upper hand.”
Senior SNLD leader Sai Leik said better relations will be necessary before the NLD government can forge a federal union.
“If it wants to build a genuine federated union in 2020, it has to have good relations with ethnic political parties,” he said.
“This is a multiethnic country,” he added. “If a single major party is winning every election, then we are returning to a one-party authoritarian system. So, the NLD needs engagement with ethnic parties.”
No plans to negotiate
Salai Kyae Oo Bi Htaung of the Chin National Democratic Party (CNDP), which represents the interests of ethnic Chin people, questioned the sincerity of the NLD government’s new ethnic affairs committee.
“We have been listening to their statements, [and] they have said that they don’t have any plans to negotiate with ethnic political parties and allies to form a coalition government,” he said. “Now, they are trying to engage as the next election approaches.”
Tu Jar, chairman of the Kachin People’s Party (KPP), welcomed the creation of the new committee.
“Major parties should take ethnic people’s issues into consideration,” he said.
“The ethnic minorities have fragile emotions due to repression, so I think the NLD is reaching out to them for engagement, and it is a positive change,” he said. “It is best if it continues to engage with mutual understanding and respect.”
But political and ethnic affairs analyst Maung Maung Soe said the NLD might be too late with its latest attempt to win over ethnic political parties.
“If they cannot negotiate with the ethnic parties, they will not be successful in the 2020 elections,” he said.
Expanding on earlier comments, NLD spokesman Myo Nyunt indicated that the committee would focus on soft issues and not on improving relations in the run-up to the elections.
“The committee is intended to work on issues related to ethnic culture, literature, language, and affairs,” he said. “The committee should also work on exchanging views on what the federated union should look like.”
“We don’t intend it to improve relations with ethnic groups ahead of the upcoming elections,” he said. “We still have a long way to go in conceptualizing a model of a federal union suitable for Myanmar. We understand that there should be close negotiations between ethnic parties and the NLD.”
Aye Kyaw, executive director of the Open Myanmar Initiative, a nonpartisan NGO that monitors parliamentary activities, said matters concerning culture should be carried out at the local level.
“If the NLD really wants to promote ethnic culture and literature, it should do it at the grassroots level,” he said. “It can conduct the research on recording, collecting, and promoting ethnic culture and literature. Then, the ethnic people will be persuaded to vote for the party.”
Khun Bedhu, a campaign manager for the Kayan National Party (KNP), said the NLD intends to use the committee to improve relations with ethnic people as a part of its campaign endeavors for the upcoming elections.
“Indeed, if it really wants to nurture the literature of ethnic people, it should reform education policy to promote the teaching of ethnic languages in the schools,” he said. “It should change the schools to allow multilingual teaching.”
“But the NLD government didn’t change the fact that ethnic language and literature lessons are still extracurricular activities at schools,” he added. “It gives only meager support for these lessons. I conclude that the committee it formed is just for campaigning ahead of the elections.”
Civilian casualties climb
Chief among the NLD’s ethnic concerns is the ongoing armed conflict in northern Rakhine state between Myanmar forces and the Arakan Army (AA), which is fighting for greater autonomy in the region.
An escalation in hostilities which began over a year ago has resulted in the displacement of more than 100,000 people as estimated by a domestic relief group, and a growing number of civilian casualties.
The armed conflict has claimed about 20 causalities so far this year, with RFA’s figures showing at least nine dead and 11 injured in Mrauk-U, Kyauktaw, Minbya, Buthidaung townships in northern Rakhine and in Paletwa township in of Chin state since Jan. 5, joining dozens who were killed in 2019 in shootings, mine and artillery shell explosions, and murders by unidentified attackers.
A recent report by the Rakhine Ethnics Congress (REC), a Sittwe-based organization that promotes ethnic rights and has been tallying numbers of dead and wounded, said 102 civilians had died and 252 had been injured during the past year as of Jan. 4.
“Fighting became intense since earlier this year,” said REC secretary Zaw Zaw Tun. “The number of causalities has increased due to the fighting. Children who had nothing to do with the war were among the causalities.”
A mine explosion near Htikehtoopauk village in Buthidaung township on Jan. 7 killed four Rohingya children aged eight to 10. Their 25-year-old teacher and five other children were severely injured and had to be hospitalized.
A toddler was shot to death on Jan. 15 when a displaced family from Nyaung Kan village in Minbya township was returning home by boat. Family members and local residents blamed Myanmar soldiers for the shooting, but the army dismissed the charge.
“We can’t say for sure who we can hold accountable and responsible or who we can file complaints with,” said Myat Tun, director of the Rakhine State Human Rights Defender’s Association.
“Human rights groups like ours have reported these issues to the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission in the past, but we were told that it has to acknowledge the conclusions of the Tatmataw [Myanmar military] because it’s difficult to access those areas,” he said. “So, there’s no responsibility and accountability.”
Some deaths have also occurred from a spillover of fighting into neighboring Chin state.
On Jan. 10, a schoolteacher and two other residents of Siphalaung village in Paletwa township were killed.
The same day, the Khumi Affairs Consultative Council reported on January that an AA soldier attempted to sexually assault a young woman from Paletwa’s Kyee Lay village, and that those who intervened in the incident were beaten.
AA conducts probe
The AA released video footage on Jan. 14 claiming to have conducted an investigation and finding the sexual assault accusations to be untrue, though villagers have said otherwise.
“We have never covered up issues of human rights violations,” said AA spokesman Khine Thukha.
“We sent senior commanders to investigate the incident in Kyee Lay village,” he said. “We then addressed the issue as best we could together with the people. We will take decisive action against anyone who commits crimes.”
Myanmar military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun has insisted that soldiers always follow the rules of engagement when it comes to war but did not answer a question about whether any action has been taken against troops who violated military rules in Rakhine state.
There have been reports of Myanmar soldiers shooting civilians in villages and beating up or torturing others thought to be aiding the enemy during interrogations amid the conflict.
The REC said that 337 people were arrested in 2019 on suspicion of having links to the AA, while 21 others were reported missing.
“The war in Rakhine state is taking place among the local population,” said political analyst Maung Maung Soe. “It appears to be guerrilla warfare, so fighting has occurred near villages and towns.”
“Some shooting has been indiscriminate,” he said. “It’s hard to avoid civilian causalities as long as the war is going on. The best way to avoid civilian causalities is to sign a cease-fire agreement.”
Reported by Nay Myo Htun, Phyu Phyu Khine, Wai Mar Tun, and Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung and Nandar Chann. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.