During his first-ever visit to the Kachin State capital of Myitkyina on Sunday, President Thein Sein told residents he wanted a “lasting peace” in Burma’s northernmost state, and insisted that the Burma Army is in full support of the country’s peace process.
State-run newspapers on Monday reported that the president offered symbolic support to a handful of the thousands of people in the state displaced by fighting between the government army, known as the Tatmadaw, and ethnic rebels.
Thein Sein, who was joined by Tatmadaw Commander in Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, as well as members of his Cabinet, also met with Christian and Buddhist religious leaders, politicians and other Kachin figures.
Hkalam Samson, the secretary of Kachin Baptist Church, told The Irrawaddy that he thanked the president for his “remarkable decision to suspend Myitsone hydropower project, and his efforts to have political solution by ending the war in Kachin.” The president froze the massive Chinese-backed dam development on the Irrawaddy River in 2011 amid widespread public fears about its environmental and social impacts.
Kachin religious leaders met with the president for 30 minutes on Sunday afternoon, he said. However, Hkalam Samson said, the president did not fully address the issue of those displaced since a ceasefire between the government and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) broke down in 2012. More than 100,000 people are still living in temporary camps after they fled their homes during fighting.
Hkalam Samson said he personally had less than 2 minutes to raise issues with the president, in which time he was able to “demand the immediate implementation of the federal union which the ethnic groups are demanding.”
Kachin politicians also welcomed the president’s visit, which was originally scheduled for last year, but was canceled due to bad weather.
Dwebu, a Kachin parliamentarian in Naypyidaw, said Thein Sein’s visit was welcome, but overdue.
“It should have happened long ago,” she said, adding that it was important for the head of state to show his support for those affected by Burma’s conflicts. She said leaders from the KIA’s political wing, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), often visited those affected by the violence in Kachin.
Dwebu also contrasted Thein Sein’s visit to Kachin with a similar visit last year by his political rival, parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann, who, she said, spent more time listening to residents’ concerns.
Dr. Manam Tu Ja, the chairman of Kachin State Democracy Party, said Thein Sein explained what his administration—a quasi-civilian government that took over from Burma’s military regime in 2011—had done for peace and development in the country.
“We, the audience, listened to the president’s speech at the town hall,” he said. “It was a very limited time that he had, but it was a good meeting.”
The KIO is one of only a handful of ethnic armed groups that is still engaged in fighting with the Burma Army. The government is pushing to have a nationwide ceasefire agreement signed by almost all the armed groups, but the process has suffered delays.
David Takapaw, an ethnic Karen leader and vice-chairman of the United Nationalities Federation Council, an alliance of rebel groups, was skeptical about the government delegation’s visit to Kachin.
He praised the presence of Min Aung Hlaing alongside the president, showing unity between the executive branch of government and the military. Clashes in recent years in the north of Burma have led many to speculate that the president is not fully in control of the army.
However, said David Takapaw, “peace cannot be done for show only, the Parliament and the military must give full authority to the executive body on this.”