A demonstration against the Kachin Independence Army’s alleged killing of Lisu civilians has shone a light on communal relations in Kachin State in the shadow of civil war.
By EMILY FISHBEIN | FRONTIER
DANIEL, A 22-year-old Bible college student, had little interest in politics before June 3. That morning, at the encouragement of his parents, he joined a demonstration in the Kachin State capital, Myitkyina, against alleged killings and abuses of Lisu civilians by the Kachin Independence Army, the armed wing of the Kachin Independence Organisation, one of the country’s biggest ethnic armed groups. Hours later, Daniel was holding a megaphone, leading chants of “KIA/KIO insurgent group. Fall! Fall!” and “Lisu national unity. Our cause! Our cause!”
The demonstration, which proceeded through Myitkyina’s mainly Kachin wards of Shatapru and Tatkone and past the KIO Technical Advisory Team office, attracted up to 3,000 participants, said the event organiser, the Lisu National Development Party, known in Burmese as the Du Lay (“crossbow”) Party. The Lisu, who speak a Tibeto-Burman language, live in large numbers in Kachin and elsewhere in mountainous areas of northern Myanmar, as well as across the border in China, where they are also an officially recognised ethnic group.
Some Lisu consider themselves part of a multi-ethnic Kachin society, within which Jinghpaw is the dominant linguistic group, but some identify separately. Data from the 2014 Myanmar census on the size of different ethnic groups has not yet been released.
Daniel heard about the demonstration when it was announced during a Sunday service at his church. He said many Lisu elders initially advised against participating because they regarded the demonstration as a threat to Kachin’s ethnic communities being “close to each other like brothers”.
“Before I went to the event, I felt that people were exaggerating, but after I listened to the speeches, I realised that Lisu people have been bullied so many times, so as a youth I should do something,” Daniel told Frontier.
Less than an hour later, he was leading chants on the megaphone. “When I got there, the older people asked me whether I could read. I said yes. Then they gave me the megaphone. After I shouted for a while, the blood spoke … I started to feel really emotional. The more I shouted, the more motivated I was.”
Death, mediation, compensation
A rallying point for the demonstration was the death of three Lisu civilians in Hpakant Township in March. Frontier contacted the KIO through its Technical Advisory Team office in Myitkyina but was informed that no one was available for comment on the deaths.
Frontier received a detailed account from Lamai Gum Ja, who mediated between the KIO and the victims’ families through his role with the Peace-talk Creation Group. This group, made up of Kachin businessmen, has mediated between the Tatmadaw and KIO since conflict between the two resumed in 2011 after a 17-year ceasefire. Lamai Gum Ja’s account largely tallied with statements issued by the LNDP on April 8 and 29 and a phone conversation with LNDP general secretary U Lay May Thar on June 17. These sources concur that on March 11, four Lisu men were arrested by KIA soldiers and brought to the KIA’s Maji Bum camp in Hpakant Township.
According to Lamai Gum Ja, the men were trespassing in a restricted area while carrying hunting and foraging gear; one had previously been warned not to trespass in that area. According to the LNDP’s statement, the men were on their way back to their village “after they had finished searching tubers and bulbs and herbs.”
The accounts converge again on the point that one of the captives escaped and fled to Bangkok village, Wa Ra Zup village tract, upon which he was transported to Myitkyina’s military hospital. Lay May Thar told Frontier that the LNDP facilitated the referral to the military hospital, where they regularly send those suffering from mine and conflict-related injuries. These sources also agree that the three remaining captives were no longer alive as of March 17.
LNDP chairman U Shwe Min told media at the June 3 demonstration that the incident brought the number of Lisu who have died at the hands of the KIA since 2016, including those killed by landmines, to more than 20.
The demonstration focused on four demands, all addressed to the KIO: That it issue a formal statement taking responsibility for the deaths of Lisu civilians, that its leaders issue a personal guarantee that the killing of Lisu civilians will stop, that the forcible recruitment of Lisu civilians will end, and that it will pay compensation to the family members of victims and meet the social and customary requirements of the deceased.
Images of the demonstration were widely shared on Facebook, including one of a banner calling for the Tatmadaw to “annihilate the KIA/KIO”. As well as concern over communal tension increasing as a result of the demonstration, there were fears that the demonstration could hinder efforts to end the fighting between the Tatmadaw and KIA.
Fighting between the two sides has prompted the Tatmadaw and KIA to declare many forested areas restricted. At the same time, many Lisu rely on these areas for hunting and foraging for food. Lamai Gum Ja said he heard from the KIO that some areas were restricted to prevent people from collecting information under the guise of other activities.
Dan Seng Lawn, director of the Myitkyina-based Kachinland Research Centre, told Frontier that both the KIA and the Tatmadaw “have their restricted areas where no civilians can go; they lay mines, they have the order to shoot on the spot.” Referring to fatal encounters, he said, “It will happen, because the Lisu are hunting, gathering herbs and things in the jungle.”
On April 29, the LNDP held a press conference in Myitkyina at which it announced its four demands and called for a demonstration if they were not met.
Lamai Gum Ja said that the victims’ and survivor’s families wrote to the Myanmar Lisu Culture and Literature Association, asking for them to mediate with the KIO. He said the association was chosen because, unlike the LNDP, is it considered non-political. The association, on receiving the request, contacted the PCG on May 19 to mediate further. On May 21, the KIO offered financial compensation to the families, calling it a humanitarian donation and not reparations. The families signed a letter, widely shared on Facebook, which acknowledged their willing receipt of the “donation”, which was K15 million for each victim’s family and K4 million for the survivor’s family.
In a statement to media at the June 3 demonstrations, Shwe Min said the payments met one of the LNDP’s demands.
“We gladly welcome such mediation and dispute resolution; the issue can be regarded to have been partly resolved,” he said, but added that unless all four demands were met by the KIO, “we will continue to take necessary measures.”
Shwe Min said that the demonstration was not only about the recent incident in Hpakant Township but was staged on behalf of all Lisu victims of the KIA. The LNDP held a demonstration in Myitkyina in May of 2017 over four deaths at Sadung in Waingmaw Township, in 2016, and another in Waingmaw town in April 2017, all allegedly at the hands of the KIA.
Members of the Shanni, or Red Shan, group also participated in the demonstration. According to Shwe Min, they were invited to join the June 3 event because they “are also suffering and sharing the same unpleasant situation” in Kachin.
‘A positive relationship’
The LNDP does not formally align with any other group, though there were informal connections, its general secretary, Lay May Thar, told Frontier. Before joining the LNDP, Shwe Min served with the New Democratic Army-Kachin led by the Tatmadaw ally Zahkung Ting Ying. The NDA-K was a non-state armed group that came under formal Tatmadaw command as a Border Guard Force in 2009.
Lay May Thar also confirmed that the LNDP has friendly relations with the Union Solidarity and Development Party, the military-backed party elected to government in 2010 and replaced by the National League for Democracy in 2016 after the NLD’s landslide election victory in 2015.
“No formal alliance has yet been made, but we have a positive relationship with the USDP,” Lay May Thar told Frontier. “The USDP is a party with which we can jointly perform some tasks.”
This relationship was also described to Frontier by Pyithu Hluttaw MP U La Mar Lay, who won the seat of Tsawlaw Township for the LNDP in the 2015 election and served as a founding member of the party in 2013. He told Frontier he was forced to resign from his position of general secretary in May because his “perspective became different” from leading party members. A state office secretary with the USDP before 2013, La Mar Lay was one of the last of the party’s 17 founding members when he quit the party.
He spoke of an increasingly close relationship between the LNDP and the USDP starting in 2016. La Mar Lay said that, since then, “almost every statement of the USDP contains the signature of Shwe Min or the vice chairman of the party”.
‘The truth can never be concealed’
Frontier could not find anyone willing to comment to media about broader social tensions underlying the Lisu demonstration, or any history of division that might have preceded it; several told Frontier that the matter is too sensitive to discuss openly. According to Dan Seng Lawn, “I don’t think that’s the right way to solve the issue, for the moment.”
Lay May Thar merely said, “I only know the fact that we, Lisu, are killed by the KIA.”
Daniel also claimed not to know much about the history of relations between the Lisu and Jinghpaw, but said, “I wish all ethnic people could live in unity and peace. I am really worried that we will be divided.”
Lay May Thar denied that the LNDP was behind the banner at the June 3 demonstration with the slogan calling for the Tatmadaw to annihilate the KIA/KIO, but would neither endorse nor condemn the message. “I cannot say who produced the banner; I perceive it is reflecting or indicating the attitudes of the public,” he said. The demonstration also included banners depicting the images of mutilated bodies of victims of land mines and alleged killings at the hands of the KIA.
In his comments to media at the demonstration, Shwe Min stated that it was the killings, and not the demonstration, that provoked tensions between communities.
“We have no plan to attack anyone ethnically. We mainly focus on the spirit of ethnic unity,” he said. “Our big concern is the potential disintegration of unity among ethnicities due to the impact of ethnic tensions caused by the wrongful actions of the KIO/KIA. Our target is the KIO/ KIA, not any Kachin ethnic groups.”
Lay May Thar said that if a problem arose because of the LNDP’s activism, the party would take necessary action to address it, “but we really hope that people will come to understand the suffering inflicted upon Lisu people.”
“We must tell the truth,” he said. “When a problem arises because of this truth, we must not fear it and we must respond in any way we can, because the truth can never be concealed.”
Dan Seng Lawn, however, was concerned that the demonstration and political forces behind it could pull communities apart. “We should not confuse the Du Lay Party and the Lisu people as a whole,” he said, adding, “It is not difficult to galvanise people’s support because the education level is quite low…If you keep talking about something, it becomes part of the socialisation.”
La Mar Lay was also worried that the public may confuse the LNDP’s messages to the KIO as a general expression of Lisu attitudes towards the Jinghpaw. “What I really want people to understand, particularly the youth, is that the Du Lay Party does not represent all Lisu people, just as the KIO does not represent all Jinghpaw people,” he said. “If people are uneducated, it is very easy to sway their minds.”
‘Such words can break the peace process’
The KIO is among the ethnic armed organisations that have not signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement. The Tatmadaw declared a four-month unilateral ceasefire in Kachin and Shan states that began in January and has been extended twice since then, the latest extension lasting till the end of August.
Shwe Min is involved in the peace process through his membership in a working committee for “social affairs” formed by the Union Peace Joint Dialogue Committee. The UPJDC, chaired by State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has representatives from the government, ethnic armed groups and political parties on each working committee. These committees oversee political dialogue according to five core themes, which the aim of reaching a Union peace accord.
Shwe Min told media at the June 3 event that he must balance his obligations towards the peace process with “a duty to promote the development of Lisu nationals [in my capacity] as chairperson of the LNDP,” and that he has been striving to do both.
La Mar Lay, however, was concerned that the banner at the demonstration calling for the Tatmadaw to annihilate the KIA/KIO could harm the chances for peace. Lamai Gum Ja referred to the same banner, saying, “Such words can break the peace process”.
La Mar Lay pointed to polarisation on Facebook between the two communities in the aftermath of the demonstration, especially among youth. “A lot is going up on social media; Jinghpaw and Lisu are arguing. The youth don’t know much about current politics, but if they are persuaded by one side, it will be difficult to find common ground,” he said.
Dan Seng Lawn said there were similarities with incidents elsewhere in Myanmar, in which social media had exacerbated tensions. “It is taking another form here in Kachin State,” he said. “It is part of the war game. Who will benefit eventually? It is an open secret.”
In his comments to the media on June 3, Shwe Min tried to distinguish his approach from the fights playing out on Facebook. “There are spoilers trying to divide us through social media such as Facebook,” he said. “What we are doing today is not attempting to divide the blood among us, but just to show our discontent with the wrongful acts, arrests and torture that the KIO/KIA has perpetrated against Lisu.”
A statement by the Lisu Association Australia on June 15 in support of the demonstration, shared on the LNDP Facebook page, stated, “The KIA does not serve any good purpose for the people of Kachin, Myanmar, but as destructive force.”
‘Behind the scenes’
Lay May Thar denied rumours that the Lisu had organised the demonstration because of Tatmadaw influence or pressure. “The event was voluntarily staged to call on KIO/KIA to stop killing Lisu people across Kachin,” he said.
La Mar Lay said an “external force” might be behind the demonstration and subsequent social media response as part of a deliberate attempt to create tensions. “Behind the scenes, someone is seeking to divide people, intentionally creating such problems within our community because they don’t want to see the Kachin people united,” he said. “If, within the community, there is conflict, there is no way to go forward, no way to develop.”
La Mar Lay said there were many possible motivations for fostering divisions: “to win the election, to benefit if the conflict resumes … to interfere in the peace process”. He declined to identify the “external force”, citing fears for his safety, but added, “We should consider whether a group of people is taking advantage as a political tool.”
Dan Seng Lawn expressed similar suspicions: “Someone is playing the sentiment of the people; making divisions a big problem.” He continued, “Is it a real Jinghpaw versus Lisu problem, or is it just one individual or a clique who is fostering divisions between the groups?”
Achieving national reconciliation through a just peace settlement would be the best way to end the violence linked to civil conflict, according to Lamai Gum Ja.
“The best and only solution is peace in Myanmar,” he said. “If peace comes, there will be no more restricted areas, battlegrounds. Everyone will be able to go freely everywhere.”