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Officials from four ethnic armies in Karen state held talks last week over the possibility of developing an alliance, following ceasefire talks between the government and one of Burma’s most prominent armed opposition groups, the Karen National Union (KNU).
The discussions brought together groups whose past relations exemplify the dynamic history of the war-torn eastern state, where six decades of conflict have caused changing allegiances: the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), the Karen Peace Force (KPF) and the KNU/KNLA Peace Council all formed after a split in the KNU in the mid-1990s, and allied themselves to the former junta.
Now however they are in talks to rekindle an alliance, prompted largely by a decision by the KNU to meet with government officials in early January to negotiate a truce. The KPF and the Peace Council had maintained ceasefires with the government, while the DKBA’s was broken in November 2010 after it refused to become a government-aligned Border Guard Force. In December last year however that was rekindled.
“We, all armed Karen associations, need to unite together in the future,” said Saw Lont Lon, foreign affairs coordinator of the DKBA. “We discussed how to unite ourselves, to solve political problems and to build an understanding among the armed groups, all of whom are looking to future … development and peace in the region.”
The issue of designating economic zones in Karen state featured in the talks, Saw Lont Lon added. While the finer details of the ceasefire offers have not been revealed, it is likely the KNU, and indeed the DKBA last year, were offered business concessions along the border with Thailand, where trade in timber can be lucrative.
Saw Lont Lon said however that it was only an informal meeting, but that more official negotiations would take place soon. The hope is to launch a state-wide Karen conference that would include religious, political and social organisations, as well as the armed groups.
Government efforts to negotiate with rebel groups have been largely successful, although fighting continues in Kachin state and several clashes have occurred in Karen state since the ministers met with the KNU on 12 January. The KNU’s General Secretary, Zipporah Sein, told the New York Times however that no official agreement had been signed.
In Karenni state, north of Karen state, rebels from the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) say they have also agreed among themselves to hold ceasefire talks with Naypyidaw, although details of future meetings with the government’s so-called ‘peace delegation’ are vague.
Additional reporting by Ko Htwe