Govt offers peace talks with ethnic armies

Naypyidaw has appealed to ethnic armed groups to contact regional governments with a view to holding “peace talks” and ending months of heavy fighting in Burma’s border regions.

The gesture was aired on state television yesterday, with cabinet secretary Tin Myo Kyi saying that “Ethnic armed groups, which are willing to work for peace after resolving armed conflicts, are invited to contact respective state/division governments”. He continued that the government would then “form a delegation to have peace talks”.

But the apparently significant statement is likely to be viewed with scepticism given the continued operations that the military is undertaking in Karen, Shan and Kachin state.

Zipporah Sein, general secretary of the Karen National Union (KNU), told DVB that they would be prepared to open dialogue with the regime in Naypyidaw if all ethnic groups were represented. “The political problems should be solved by all the ethnic peoples, as well as the democracy movement. It is not only an ethnic issue; it is a lack of democracy.”

Referring to previous government ceasefire deals which were made with individual groups in the 1990’s, she said: “They already did it years ago, but it did not work. They still send their troops to the ethnic areas; there is still fighting every day and still human rights abuses every day. Their actions have not changed.”

She called previous ceasefire deals part of the regime’s “divide and rule” tactic.

The last few months have seen a huge escalation in conflict in both the Shan and Kachin states, where long-lasting truces signed in the 1990s came to and abrupt end as masses of Burmese troops equipped with artillery sought to rout the autonomous ethnic armed groups. This came after the majority of groups rejected demands to become a government-controlled Border Guard Force.

At the end of last month Aung San Suu Kyi sent a letter to President Thein Sein calling on the government to end hostilities and begin dialogue with the various ethnic armed groups, in which she offered to mediate. How much this has been a factor in the government’s recent overtures will be open to speculation – whilst a series of positive messages have emanated from Naypyidaw in the past week, this may be viewed by some as the latest in a public relations offensive that is yet to be tested.

As recently as April the KNU had called for a cessation in the fighting, with the key stipulation that the Burmese withdraw their forces. Given the history between the two sides, this possibility remains remote as the divide and rule nature of the conflict means that a large proportion of Naypyidaw’s fighting is done by ethnic proxies. One example of this is the former Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) turned Border Guard Force unit, whose own position would be compromised by an order from Naypyidaw to lay down arms.

Fighting with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in Burma’s north has been bitter since hostilities began on 9 June, with tens of thousands of civilians displaced as Burmese soldiers have pushed north towards the Kachin stronghold of Laiza, near the Chinese border.

As recently as 16 August the government made allegations against both the KIA and the Shan State Army (SSA) in the state run New Light of Myanmar, stating that the SSA had been “commit[ing] destructive acts such as firing into schools and houses … and killing innocent people.”

The KIA responded in a statement: “We have found that the new government…does not have a wish to solve issues regarding citizens’ right, citizens’ human rights and ethnic issues via political means.”

Zaw Seng, central committee chairman of the KIA’s political wing, the Kachin Independence Organisation, said however that the grouped “welcomes” the government offer for talks, which it considers a “very acceptable gesture”.

“But we urge the government to do it with all ethnic armed groups and to do it properly for the whole country. That’s why we want the government to announce a national ceasefire first. It should followed by stopping its military offensives in the whole country, then it can continue in a peaceful atmosphere.”

He added that no serious fighting was occurring at the moment, but only “minor skirmishes”. He also said that Suu Kyi’s offer to mediate “is a positive movement. [Suu Kyi’s] voice has been very helpful”.

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