DVB sat down with outspoken activist Khon Ja of the Kachin Peace Network to reflect on a turbulent year gone by in Kachin State and a look ahead to 2018.
Question: In terms of peace talks and ceasefire agreements, in your opinion were there any advances made?
Answer: What we are seeing is still a lot of new recruits and little involvement from some of the biggest armed groups. When we look at the Northern Alliance group and the Wa armed group, we can estimate at least 66,500 active soldiers. You can count 10,000 more fighters when you take in the T’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), who are continually recruiting. The Arakan Army adds another 8,000, according to our estimates, so this bloc is truly a force to be reckoned with. So, although we may be organising conferences at a union level and rolling out the ’21st Century Panglong Conference’, it might not really be bringing peace.
Areas such as northern and northeastern Shan State are also affected and are completely in a state of conflict. This past year has seen many problems. We also saw a change in tactics. For example, the Tatmadaw [Burma’s armed forces] is directly confronting the KIA [Kachin Independence Army], but rather they are going from village to village, taking local people as hostages or using them as human shields. Things really took a turn for the worse on 5 June last year when the Tatmadaw began distributing, or throwing from aircraft, leaflets that threatened local villagers. They said that those who remain in these villages would be considered if the on or throwing out of the air leaflets, accusing civilians who remain in villages will be accused as KIA supporters or informants. After this, nine villages were totally wiped out in a Kachin amber mining area. This military operation affected more than 100,000 people.
The Kachin civil war is now entering its eighth year. What is at the root of the fighting, and how has the conflict changed or intensified?
From my point of view, it is only getting worse. Compared to 2013, there are many more areas fallen into Tatmadaw control. The Burmese military has been able to expand its control around these areas. Crucially, they have also been able to consolidate an economic trade zone with China. On the opposite side of the border from Muse, we see heavy construction. They [Chinese authorities] are destroying mountains and flattening the area. This is clearly to accommodate the expansion in trade. When we talk about “One road, one belt,” this is one of those areas. Around Hpakant, it [the conflict] is still totally about jade.
Can you identify any positive changes on land rights, particularly around the gem sector?
The gems industry now has a support committee and is linked with the lifting of sanctions. One of the promises the government made was to reform the jade and gem sector. There is still no overall policy, but the support committee is collecting opinions from policy workshops. Our role is to collect as many opinions as possible and hand over the results to the committee. There is a lot of pressure on Myanmar [Burma] to show reform in this area.
What did you think of the Pope’s visit? What did it mean for Kachin people?
We were longing for the IDPs or just even one IDP to meet the Pope, but that part was missing from the Pope’s visit. The arrangements were jointly made by the church and state government, and there were many things missing.You might have seen a lot of people in Kachin costume greeting the Pope but that does not really represent the suffering of the Kachin people. I started to get very upset one month before the Pope’s visit, because it was all controlled by the NLD [ruling National League for Democracy].
I also become very annoyed when I was interviewed by so many journalists about whether the Pope should say the word ‘Rohingya’ or not. I was saddened that the media focused on this so much. Why can’t we focus on pressuring the Myanmar government. That was what was missing. During all of the speeches, they were always addressing Aung San Suu Kyi and calling her ‘Mother Suu’. I don’t mind that, but when they put her in the position of mother then they become a son and follow her instructions. This I don’t like.
What was in those messages you wanted to bring to light during the Pope’s visit?
Some Kachin women gave a summary of the political situation, and emphasised the need to include women in the peace process. A group representing the IDPs [internally displaced persons] also presented a two-page summary [outlining their conditions]. In Bangladesh, the Pope finally had a chance to meet with the Rohingya–the poor, the sick, orphans, hospital patients–so it was very well organised. I feel the Burmese government tried to use the event for their own benefit. However, the Pope didn’t come here to praise them. Overall, I feel the church’s organising team wasted a historical opportunity; they could have done a lot better.
Has there been any improvements around the involvement of women in the peace talks?
One of the main issues is that there is no space for women to participate in the peace process. They are only allowed to participate in civil society organisations. They are still only allowed to be involved in the peace process as observers. This means that when we are talking about security forums, we are not focusing on the security of women and girls, which is critical. So, I ask you, what type of security is that? If women make up half of Myanmar’s population, why is it that only the other 50%, ie, men, are making the decisions? What kind of country is that? We strongly call for women to be accepted in all discussions, about all issues, all sectors, and we want it to happen at everything from grassroots to national and union levels.