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Secretive talks at the weekend between Burmese officials and the Shan State Army–South at a location on the Thai-Burma border have ended with both sides agreeing to an ostensible ceasefire. The agreement coincides with positive murmurings from the Karen National Union over an end to fighting.
The Shan army’s spokesperson, Major Sai Lo Hseng, told DVB that talks on 19 November lasted around an hour and a half. The Burmese delegation was led by Railway Minister Aung Min, whom the government has appointed to spearhead dialogue with ethnic armies in a bid to end decades of conflict in the country’s frontier regions.
Both sides agreed “in principal” to an end to fighting, Sai Lo Hseng said, adding that senior officials in the Shan State Army–South (SSA–S) were “planning to sign the official agreements” concluded in the talks. These include a bilateral ceasefire and an agreement that troops from both the Shan and Burmese army can move around unarmed in one another’s territory.
The SSA-S would also open liaison offices in Shan state, and prepare for talks with Burma’s central government.
The latest developments mark perhaps the strongest signal yet that a truce is on the horizon, following 15 years of fighting between both sides during which the SSA-S has weathered factional fighting with its once junta-aligned northern counterpart, and a gradual loss of territory.
The government under President Thein Sein has made several pushes over the past month for dialogue withBurma’s multiple ethnic armies, following years of stalled talks and a recent upsurge in violence. Officials from four other rebel groups were also present at the talks on Saturday, including the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and Karen National Union (KNU), whose armed wing is engaged in the world’s longest civil war against Naypyidaw.
David Thakabaw, the KNU’s vice chairman, told DVB that the meeting was “off the record” and not official. “We were just scoping each other out,” he said. Similar offers of a truce were made to the KNU, although Thakabaw said the government had also invited the group to “take part in amending the constitution”, a surprising offer given the historic animosity it has held towards the country’s ethnic opposition.
For much of this year Burma’s northern and eastern border regions have been beset by a series of often brutal conflicts. Ceasefires between the government and two ethnic armies, the Shan State Army–North (SSA–N) and KIA, broke down in March and June respectively after both refused to become Naypyidaw-controlled border armies.
The fighting in Kachin state has taken a particularly heavy toll on civilians, displacing more than 30,000. A UN General Assembly resolution passed yesterday on Burma condemned ongoing reports of human rights violations in the border regions, including “arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, rape and other forms of sexual violence, torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”.
Among the proposals made by the SSA-S was permission to allow it to open offices in areas close to the main trading routes in Shan state and beyond, suggesting that the group’s post-ceasefire incarnation could take on more of a business character. The newly-formed Border Guard Forces, particularly those born out of government-aligned Karen armies, have been able to reap healthy profits from trading concessions in the frontier regions.
Sai Lao Seng said the government had suggested the next meeting to be held in Naypyidaw, which would happen once ceasefire regions had been demarcated. A third meeting in the capital would involve all armed groups.