Expanding political imagination beyond constitutional limits in Kachin

By STELLA NAW | FRONTIER

Kachin civil society has been frustrated by the chief minister’s inability to intervene to help the thousands of IDPs trapped by renewed fighting in the country’s north, for which the 2008 constitution is not an excuse.

Following heavy shelling by the Myanmar military on April 11, approximately 1,500 people from Awng Lawt village tract in Kachin State’s Tanai Township fled on foot into an area of dense jungle, where they have been trapped ever since.

The displaced want to take refuge in Tanai town, where they can receive humanitarian assistance, but the Tatmadaw is blocking their movement and ordering them to return to their village.

Once the site of the Kachin Independence Army Brigade 2 headquarters – only two and a half miles from Awng Lawt village – the Myanmar army now occupies the area. The 1,500 internally displaced persons from Aung Lawt are effectively being used as human shields by the Myanmar army to repel counter attacks by the KIA, rights groups have said.

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The situation of these trapped IDPs isn’t an isolated event. The occupation of Awng Lawt is part of a wider offensive that began in June 2017, when the Myanmar army air-dropped leaflets across Tanai Township telling residents to evacuate, prior to attacks on KIA positions, under the guise of protecting the natural environment.

At the time, tens of thousands of migrants who worked in the amber and gold mines in Tanai were able to flee to their hometowns in other parts of the country, but those whose hometowns are in Tanai Township had nowhere else to go.

This offensive represents another example of the Tatmadaw’s infamous “Four Cuts” strategy, which aims to cut off food, funds, intelligence and support of the groups it is fighting. Recent fighting in Kachin State has been some of the heaviest since a 17-year ceasefire broke down in 2011; in the past year the Myanmar army has attacked and seized three Battalion Headquarters and one Bridge Headquarter from the KIA.

Kachin civil society groups are outraged by the National League for Democracy government’s inaction over the rescue of the trapped IDPs. Tired of waiting, young Kachin activists have organised themselves into a “Kachin Youth Movement” with the support of more experienced community and civil society leaders.

Following a large public protest march on April 30, dozens of Kachin youth staged a “sleep-in” on the streets of Myitkyina, the Kachin State capital. Each night since then more youths have joined the protest, with groups arriving from surrounding townships in solidarity. Other youth networks in cities like Yangon and Mandalay have organised peaceful demonstrations in solidarity with the Kachin youths.

On the evening of May 3, Kachin Youth Movement organisers met with the NLD-appointed Kachin State Chief Minister Dr Hkyet Awng, but nothing concrete resulted from the more than six hours of negotiation. Meanwhile, two activists have been told to appear at Myitkyina police station on May 10 to face charges related to their involvement in the demonstration.

Many online conversations – particularly on Facebook – have included discussions about the responsibilities of Hkyet Awng. Some have suggested that the chief minister should resign, for his failure to help bring the IDPs to safety or arrange for the delivery of humanitarian assistance, while others argued that the 2008 Constitution limits his ability to function as he wishes, with the Tatmadaw holding the ultimate decision-making power.

As elected politicians, or appointed chief ministers, enjoy the status and privilege afforded to high-ranking public servants, they cannot hide behind the hypocrisy that 2008 Constitution limits their ability to perform their duty to represent their constituents.

This could be as simple as joining the youths on the street to support their message, a call for “Free the Trapped IDPs”.

To those calling for the chief minister’s resignation, he deserves a chance to prove that he truly represents the interests of the people of the Kachin state.

We must demand that our political representatives – elected officials and appointed ministers – expand their political imagination beyond the limits of the 2008 constitution, and ensure that they act on behalf of their constituents. Here are three concrete actions Hkyet Awng could take to prove his sincerity:

1) Spend the night at the Kachin Youth Movement “sleep-in” protest site to show solidarity with their peaceful demonstration.

2) Personally intervene in the case of the two activists who have been told they will be charged for their role in the demonstration.

3) Issue a public statement letter confirming that the chief minister’s office approves the access of international humanitarian assistance to IDPs in Tanai Town and elsewhere in Kachin State.

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