MYITKYINA — As chief minister of Kachin State, La John Ngan Hsai is the highest state government official in Burma’s far north, a region rich in natural resources and long plagued by fighting between the central government’s military and ethnic armed groups. Given his high rank on the state level, he is also a member of the central government’s peacemaking team, led by Minister Aung Min, which met for three days earlier this month with rebels from the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO). In this interview, he talks about the peace process, deforestation and the rampant problem of drug use in his state.
Question: Fighting has been ongoing for two years between government troops and Kachin rebels from the Kachin Independence Organization. What is your role, and can you comment on the conflict?
Answer: We ethnic nationalities are like brothers and sisters. We are like families. We need peace in order to build a good and developing nation in the future. We can develop our states only when we get peace. We must attempt to achieve peace. Since fighting broke out on June 9, 2011, we, the Kachin State government, have also kept in mind that we have a responsibility for the safety and development of the people who live in our state. That’s why, when clashes first broke out, we thought we should not allow it to continue. On July 27, we formed a five-member committee to serve the state’s peace and stability. In August, a delegation led by Gen Gun Maw from the KIA [the Kachin Independence Army, an armed wing of the KIO] met with a government delegation led by Col Than Aung in Lajayang [a strategic area near Laiza, where the KIA has its headquarters]. It was a good meeting. But it didn’t work [to end the conflict], for some reasons, even though we made an effort.
Q: Kachin State is rich in natural resources, including jade and forests. I have heard that precious trees, such as teak, are almost gone now. Is deforestation happening on a major scale, given the big interests in logging and jade mining here?
A: We call Hpakant [in northern Kachin State] a jewelry territory. The Ministry of Mines directly controls and manages the area. And income from jade mining is also managed by the Union [central] government, and it is used systematically in respective government sectors to develop the country, including through construction. In areas under our control, it [deforestation] is rare. The main problem concerns logging between Mansi [in Kachin State] and Mawingyi region [in northern Shan State]. It’s because we don’t have stability there. We, due to our administration’s role, cannot reach such areas. So some businessmen take chances and do that [logging]. There is not much logging in other places in Kachin State.
Q: How much of the timber trade benefits the local people?
A: If fact, it only benefits businessmen. It does not offer many benefits to ordinary people. Logging takes place more in Sagaing Division and Mandalay [Division] now. We have few [logging companies] in Kachin State, as we only have teak here. Other ironwood species mostly come from Sagaing Division.
Q: I also heard that drug use is a big problem in Kachin State. What are your concerns?
A: The drug problem is a hot issue all over the world. In our country, we also try very hard to prevent this problem. We, the Kachin State government, also work hard on this issue. It is a very big matter. We need to effectively eliminate this drug problem so we can move forward toward peace and development in our state.
Q: Why haven’t you been able to stop the drug problem so far?
A: The drug problem is also related to peace. For example, the government cannot prevent drug use in areas where we have not reached a peace deal. We haven’t been able to eliminate it in those areas, and we cannot arrest those who get involved.
Q: What steps have you taken to eliminate drug use?
A: There are two parts to our strategy. The first is to educate people about drugs [and their harmful effects]. Another is to take action against those who are involved. For prevention, we have a drug elimination program—traveling to places where people plant poppy and eliminating the plantation. We also have rehabilitation programs for drug addicts, in cooperation with the UNODC [the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime] and respective government departments.
Q: As drug use spreads among youths, how are communities affected?
A: It’s a domestic household problem, within families. If there is a drug addict in one house, family members start to suffer. They can’t live in peace. There are frequent arguments and fighting. And when there are more youths using drugs, this is not a good sign for families, for the state and even for the future of the country. So we are trying hard to prevent these problems. But we still have a lot of work to do.