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Burma’s military commander-in-chief, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, travelled on Sunday to Shan State where he conducted meetings with representatives of the Shan State Army North (SSA-N), the United Wa State Army and more than two dozen representatives of local militia groups.
Lt-Col Sai La, spokesperson for the SSA-N, met with the government defence chief at the Burmese army’s Northern Regional Military Command headquarters in the northern Shan town of Lashio on the morning of Sunday 6 April.
The meeting was the first time the SSA-N had come face to face with the government’s most senior military official.
According to Sai La, Min Aung Hlaing used the meeting to stress the inviolability of his six-point policy for the peace process, which insists that ethnic armed groups: have a “genuine wish” for peace; adhere to promises made during the negotiations; follow the rule of law; and do not “burden or terrorise” the public.
Widespread allegations have surfaced from ShanState as to the forced recruitment of villagers to ethnic militias. The most recent groups implicated are the Ta’ang (Palaung) National Liberation Army, who remain embroiled in sporadic fighting with government troops, and the Kachin Independence Army, whom the Taileng (Red Shan), accuse of violently co-opting their villagers into the Kachin armed resistance.
Further to his first five points, Min Aung Hlaing stressed at the meeting that peace negotiations should reinforce elements of the 2008 Constitution.
The senior-general is a vocal supporter of the Constitution, and the special place it provides for the army within the make-up of the state. Min Aung Hlaing has taken several opportunities, including last week’s Armed Forces Day parade, to counter parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann’s openness to possible constitutional change.
Covering Sunday’s meeting, the state-run New Light of Myanmar cited the commander-in-chief as expressing his desire to cooperate with the ethnic armed groups for the “sake of the country” and to reinforce mutual trust.
Yet that trust has faltered after sporadic clashes between government troops and fighters from the SSA-N in recent weeks. In mid-March, Burmese troops allegedly shelled and routed 11 villages in northern Shan State, torturing civilians thought to be aware of SSA-N movements. On that occasion, according to the Shan Human Rights Foundation, the Burmese army used the cleared villages to launch a devastating assault on the SSA-N.
That assault was not raised by the SSA-N at their meeting with the Burmese commander-in-chief. Sai La explained the omission by saying that the incident was not a political one, shaped only by the actions of “troops on the ground”.
Despite not raising the March clashes, Sai La told DVB that genuine peace and ethnic equality is still “some way off” and that in the meantime the armed groups have no choice but to continue their armed resistance.