THE STRUGGLE FOR A FEDERAL BURMA
Interview with Moon Nay Li
by Andy Heintz, CounterVortex
Moon Nay Li is the general secretary of the Kachin Women's Association-Thailand, based in Chiang Mai near the Burmese border. KWAT was founded in in 1999 to help women organize themselves to solve social and economic problems in Burma's Kachin State. The organization has documented human rights abuses, sexual violence, and land-rights violations committed by the Burmese military. Moon has called for the international community to engage more with ethnic leaders, civilians and community-based organizations to help bring peace between the Burmese military and ethnic minorities in the country's restive north. Despite a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement that was signed in October 2015 between the Burmese army and some of the ethnic armies, many other ethnic groups have not signed the agreement; human right abuses by the military against the Kachin people and other groups remain ongoing. Moon has criticized the international community for not focusing enough on regional autonomy for ethnic groups such as her Kachin people, who were promised autonomy by Burma government in the Panglong Agreement of 1947. She also has called for a moratorium on foreign funding of development projects in areas where the military is clashing with ethnic armed groups. She also criticizes the governing National League of Democracy, and its leader Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, for pressuring ethnic groups to sign the NCA while not addressing the outstanding issues.
Can you talk about the violence being used by the military against ethnic groups in Burma?
There have been no charges against military officials guilty of human rights abuses. We have had two female volunteer teachers who were murdered, gang-raped, and tortured [in January 2015]. We at the Kachin Women's Association are fighting for justice for the women murdered and their families... Until now we have not been able to find justice for survivors of sexual violence, human rights violations and crimes against humanity. Our network—the Network for Human Rights Documentation in Burma—is working to promote human rights in Burma and to have a reparation policy for these kind of abuses by the Burmese military. The democratic reforms in Burma must be complemented by a transition in the way civilians are treated, especially for survivors of human rights violations.
There have been a lot of human rights violations in the past, particularly in ethnic areas. There has been ongoing fighting between the Burmese and ethnic armed groups in the Kachin State and the northern Shan State. The Burmese government is sending more troops into the Kachin areas. This is why our work is so risky. We had a mobile clinic in the northern Shan State, and the Burmese military came to that village and took all the medicine and equipment from our clinic. So even though the government is talking to the military and ethnic armed groups about a nationwide ceasefire agreement and more political dialogue, the situation in the Kachin areas is even worse than before. There is rape, arbitrary arrests, torture and killings.
Can you talk about the role mining companies are playing in the Kachin State?
There are a lot of problems in the mining areas of Kachin because the government has already sold off a lot of natural resources to foreign companies and their cronies in the jade mining area. There is a lot of illegal land confiscation, but there is no justice. Most of the land is being confiscated from local farmers. There is gold mining, jade mining, and logging in the Kachin State. This is forcing local people to relocate. Most of the perpetrators have money and pay off the local authorities. The people whose land has been confiscated have to find new ways earn money. Some women and girls enter China to look for jobs and become victims of sex trafficking.
We have asked for the international community to stop foreign investment and big development projects in conflict areas until peace has been established. This is one way to put pressure on the military and their crony business allies.
There have been reports the Burmese military has been specifically targeting women during their military offensives in ethnic areas. Are these reports accurate?
They use rape as a weapon of war. For example, when there is an offensive in the Kachin area, they rape Kachin women.
Aung San Suu Kyi has received a lot of criticism for not speaking out against the ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Burmese military against the Rohingya people [of Rakhine State]. What are your thoughts on this criticism and the war crimes that were committed against the Rohingya?
What is happening to the Rohingya people resembles what has happened to the Kachin people. There are the same patterns of crimes and ethnic cleansing that has happened in other ethnic areas.
Is there sympathy and solidarity among ethnic groups against military, including the Rohingya people? There have been media reports of widespread discrimination against the Rohingya because they are seen by many as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
There is history of people entering our country from Bangladesh—most of these people settled in the Rakhine State. Mismanagement by the Burmese government has helped create this longtime conflict. In Thailand, a lot of migrant workers enter the country to work, but the government has a process where these workers eventually become Thai citizens. In Burma, there is no process for the migrant people. It is not just the Rohingya, a lot of people from China migrate to the Kachin and Shan State. However, even though some migrants lack citizenship, we still must respect their human rights.*
Can you talk about the consequences of Burmese military’s shelling of the internally displaced persons (IDP) camps?
Because of the military shelling, civilians have had to flee to other areas. The Kachin people have no chance resettle in China because the Chinese government doesn't accept refugees. The Rakhine State has a little better situation than the Kachin people, because the Bangladeshi government accepts refugees. The Kachin people have no place to flee on the outside.
What is the Burmese military trying to achieve through these rights violations?
The Burmese military has impunity, so they can do anything they want when they go into ethnic areas. They want to control everything and promote the Burmanization of all people. We are forced to use Burmese language when we are educating our students instead of using our own language in the Kachin State. The Shan State and the Chin State and all of ethnic areas also are forced to use the Burmese language when they educate their students. Many people are scared to go against the military.
Are different ethnic groups in Burma treated differently, are do they all face the same level of discrimination and human rights abuses?
All ethnic groups are discriminated against by the Burmese government. The root cause of the wars and the ethnic groups taking up arms and fighting for their freedoms is the Panglong Agreement of 1947. After the Panglong Agreement signing we gained independence from the British colony, but the Burmese government didn't follow through on the agreement, which gave full autonomy to ethnic groups in Burma. This is why the ethnic groups took up arms and started fighting for their rights and equality. The Panglong Agreement guaranteed us equality and self-determination. Instead of following the agreement, ethnic groups have faced centralized rule and religious persecution.**
What is the most effective tactic that can be used to lessen the power of the Burmese military?
We hope that civilians will be able to change this situation. For example, we believe our civilian movement has the power to change the 2008 Constitution in a way that lessens the power and ends the impunity for the Burmese military. We also want the international community to pressure Burma to change our Constitution for a federalist-style democracy.
What is the biggest message you would like to send to the international community about the situation in Burma today?
The situation in Burma is very complicated. There is ongoing fighting in the Kachin State and the northern Shan State and the number of internally displaced people is increasing. The government and the military are engaged in a divide-and-rule policy. The government is just working with the armed ethnic groups that signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement while ignoring the ethnic groups that didn't sign the agreement because it didn't give full equality to the ethnic states. This has been a big problem in the negotiations between the ethnic groups and the government. The international community is trying to get involved in our peace process, but sometimes they are just fueling more conflict in our area because they are only working with the Burmese government. This is making it hard to reach a peaceful goal. They need to also work with armed groups, ethnic groups and civil society. The conflict will continue until we have a federal system in our country.
To what extent has the international community discussed the topic of the Burmese government granting autonomy to ethnic groups like the Kachin?
They are only talking to the military, Aung San Suu Kyi, and the National League for Democracy. Aung Suu Kyi is just pressuring the armed groups to sign the NCA... She is not talking enough about the ethnic issues. She doesn't recognize ethnic movements and ethnic problems. This has caused distrust between the Burman people and ethnic people and has led to more conflict in our society.
We feel it is hopeless to depend on the government because according to the 2008 Consitution, they [the civilian government] have no power. It's very clear the military still has the power.
What would self-determination look like in the Kachin State?
The Kachin State government should have authority over everything: education, health, judiciary, the army, et cetera.
* The Rohingya do not consider themselves to be migrants from Bangladesh, but indigenous to Burma's Rakhine State.
** While Buddhism is the majority faith in Burma, the Kachin have been mostly Christian for the past several generations.
Photo: Burma Link
Resources ans related:
Burma: Kachin Christians Feared 'Disappeared'
Human RIghts Watch, Jan. 26, 2017
Two Years On, Investigation Into Double Murder of Kachin Teachers Has Stalled
The Irrawady, Jan. 19, 2017
One year after Kachin teachers’ death, justice still elusive
Myanmar Times, Jan. 19, 2016
Kachin women expose ongoing Burma Army abuses under NLD government
KWAT via ND-Burma, Nov. 15, 2016
From our Daily Report:
UN concerned over new fighting in Burma's north
CounterVortex, May 6, 2018
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Reprinting permissible with attribution.