By Pangmu Shayi
Saturday, April 26, 2014
Major General Gun Maw’s visit to the US in early April generated a good deal of media attention, as it came at a time when armed clashes between government forces and the KIA, the armed wing of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), were occurring almost daily despite ongoing peace talks. The visit provided opportune moments for the media to capture the KIO chief negotiator’s views on what impact the escalation of hostilities might have on the peace process.
Major General Gun Maw affirmed that the KIO would continue to participate in the peace process, while conceding the serious dent the clashes have made on the trust issue between the two negotiating sides. The KIO and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) are the last holdouts among ethnic armed groups, to ink ceasefires with the government.
The most notable outcome of the visit is arguably the US commitment made to “seriously consider” greater involvement in the peace process, made public through a statement issued by its Embassy in Rangoon. This is in response to the call made by Gen Gun Maw during his US visit.
The KIO, from the very beginning, had asked for the presence of neutral third parties such as the US and UK in the negotiation process. It had made overtures to these two countries as well as the UN and China through their embassies and offices in Burma, to act as observers and bear witness to any understanding reached between the two sides. The KIO had insisted on the need for international monitors to ensure that both sides keep to the terms of the agreements and prevent further rights violations.
In the KIO’s opinion, it is the absence of such deterrents that has given rise to renewed clashes between the two sides. It has allowed for government troops to encroach upon KIO held territory at will, in clear violation of agreements reached during talks to deescalate hostilities. The ensuing fighting has resulted in the suffering and displacement of thousands of innocent villagers.
The Burmese side had not been averse to the idea initially, but China’s adamant opposition to any international presence along its borders failed to bring the proposal to fruition. Consequently Chinese presence dominated the talks, and the first few meetings had to be held on Chinese territory.
Government reaction to the Embassy statement is not too encouraging however. Spokesperson Ye Htut has said the talks are an “internal” issue, and ridiculed the US track record of brokering peace in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the prospect of a military-to-military engagement with the US, which is tantamount to according the highest level of recognition to the Thein Sein government, might be incentive enough for the government to positively consider US involvement in the peace proceedings.
From the Kachin perspective, the visit has been groundbreaking in many other respects also.
It is the first time a high-ranking KIO official has visited the US – at the invitation of the US State department, no less. This is a drastic turn around from the 1980’s when the State Department viewed the KIO as a “terrorist” organization. General Gun Maw’s official visit is validation of the KIO’s standing as the true representative of the Kachin people.
Furthermore, the visit provided a rare opportunity for a Kachin leader to have a candid face to face meeting with high level US government officials and policy makers and acquaint them with Kachin aspirations for self determination, and Kachin views and concerns on issues such as the peace process, the renewal of conflicts, IDP and human rights situations, among others.
This opportunity was further replicated in meetings with officials from the United Nations including Special Adviser Vijay Nambiar.
The statement issued by US Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Tom Malinowsky, reaffirming historic WWII Kachin-US ties and support for meaningful dialogue to resolve political grievances, is a big win for the Kachin cause. The KIO stand has been that ceasefires are of no consequence without meaningful political dialogue.
In the town hall meeting with representatives from Kachin communities around the US and Canada, Major General Gun Maw, through his speech, and answers to audience questions, was able to provide insights into the KIO’s vision for the Kachin people, and frank assessments of the peace process. Given the very positive reception he received, it would be fair to say that his visit has greatly enhanced worldwide Kachin solidarity with the KIO in its struggle for self-determination and equal rights for the Kachins of northern Burma.
In Burmese language interviews with the VOA and RFA, the General proved to be quite adroit at fielding questions, articulating his answers in reasoned, measured tones. The contrast between his disarming, self-effacing style and the loutish arrogance of Burmese ex-general politicians like “bullet” Hla Shwe, & “slap around” Ohn Myint was not lost on viewers, judging from the many comments posted on social media.
In Kachin circles, Major Gen Gun Maw is regarded as a visionary leader, in the mold of the late KIO Chairman Maran Brang Seng. His reputation as a leader of note is on the rise outside his ethnic base as well. During his US visit, representatives from various Chin communities welcomed him at a specially organized public meeting to avail themselves of his views on the many questions pertinent to the peace process and ethnic issues. Not to be forgotten is the fact that Gen Gun Maw was voted “Burmese Person of the Year for 2013” by DVB readers.
At a time when the KIO is switching gears from one-on-one negotiations with the government to dialoguing as a member of the National Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT) representing 16 ethnic armed groups, the extent to which Gen Gun Maw can utilize his political capital at the negotiation table remains to be seen.
 The central committee member of the ruling party (USDP) received this moniker for suggesting in parliamentary that the KIO be summoned with a bullet if it would not respond to the “golden hand” extended to participate in the nationwide ceasefire accord.
 The Minister for Livestock, Fisheries and Rural Development, was caught on tape telling villagers in Magwe Division that he has no qualms about going around the country slapping anyone who insults or opposes the government.