The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]

Soldiers of Mixed Fortunes

Ko Oo, the vice-chairman and chief of staff for northern Burma of the All-Burma Students' Democratic Front (ABSDF) shared his views on the country's current political with The Irrawaddy on March 9. He gave the interview in the War Office of the ABSDF's Jang Htung Lahkum Bum Camp, four km south of Laiza in Kachin State. He is one of the founding members of the student army and returned to arms six months ago.

Question: Could you tell us about your situation here?

Answer: Right now, we have more than a hundred members here. We are doing basic military training. We also hold lectures on current politics in Burma, study war history and explain our aims to new and formerly retired soldiers to help them understand why we are here.

Ko Oo, the vice-chairman and chief of staff for northern Burma of the All-Burma Students' Democratic Front (ABSDF)
Q: What are the ethnicities of your soldiers here?

A: They are Rakhine, Kachin, Shan, Burmese, Myanmar Chinese and Indians. Personally, I'm from mixed ethnic background. My mother is Burmese-Shan, my father is Burmese-Karen.

Q: How do you recruit new soldiers?

A: We recruit from the cities and villages in Kachin State. Twenty soldiers have joined us from other states.

Q: How do you see the recent political changes in Burma?

A: We are still watching the Thein Sein government's actions. We don't know whether the actions are genuine. We are suspicious, because President Thein Sein has given the order to stop the fighting, but the army has been sending more troops to Kachin State. That's why we don't believe in the changes.

Some armed groups like the [Karen National Union, Democratic Karen Buddhist Army and Shan State Army] have signed ceasefire agreements, but the fighting has started again. They are fighting now.

Our policy is that we agree to meet and negotiate. We don't agree to signing a ceasefire without having a political dialogue first.

Q: What do you want?

A: Firstly, we want all ethnic groups to be free from oppression. We fight the system of military government. Secondly, we fight for democracy and human rights. Thirdly, we want real peace in Burma
including freedom of the media, no travel restrictions, etc. We don't want a fake peace.

They are showing their manpower and try to force us into a ceasefire in a position of weakness, but that is not real peace.

Lastly, we want to build a federal union.

Q: Are you optimistic about the future?

A: As long as this military government is showing off its abilities, manpower and weapons, as long as they abuse power, we are not seeing a positive development. The situation seems to be worsening.

Q: What are your views of the National League for Democracy?

A: The NLD is doing what they have to do. They have their way and we have our way. We go straight to democracy.

Q: What do you expect from democracy?

A: No military presence in the government.

Q: Has the government approached you for ceasefire negotiations?

A: Yes, they are trying to negotiate with us. We are not at the stage of negotiations yet, but we have established a contact.

Q: Could you tell us how you arrived here?

A: Before we decided on a starting date for the 1988 movement, journalist Christopher Garnett said on the BBC that it will start on Aug. 8. So we started that day.

One hundred and sixty students went to the Kachin Independence Army's headquarters in Pajau and, once there, decided to establish the ABDSF. We realized that we need to fight with weapons against those fighting us with weapons, not merely release statements.

Now only 15 to 16 are left of that original group of students. Some died in battle, some went back home and some moved abroad.

After the 1994 ceasefire agreement, we held onto our weapons until 1997, then returned them to the [Kachin Independence Army]. On Aug. 8, 2011, the KIA allowed us to hold weapons again. They provided us with the weapons.

At first, former soldiers joined again, then students and the youth heard about the news and wanted to join the fight against the current military government.

Q: What were you doing during the 17-year ceasefire? Why didn't you move to your headquarters in Shan State?

A: After the ceasefire, we promised the KIA that we will not cause problems to the ceasefire, so we left for the south. We went to Ruili in China at the end of 1997 and stayed there for almost two years, waiting to continue south. We couldn't cross, so we came back. We went into business. Now we have stopped our business, but family members continue to run them.

We really want an end to the ethnic conflicts. We want real peace in Burma. We want a second Panglong Conference to be held.

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