The Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) and government peace makers pledged to work together towards a nation-wide ceasefire on Thursday, marking the end of a three-day round of meetings in the state capital Myitkyina.
A spokesperson for the Myitkyina-based Peace-talk Creation Group insisted that the KIO had not ruled out signing a highly anticipated nationwide ceasefire later this year, even though it has yet to reach a formal peace deal with the government.
“According to the discussion in the meeting yesterday [Wednesday], the KIO did not rule out joining the nationwide ceasefire but they have to work out their exact policy,” said peace broker Lamai Gum Ja, who was observing the talks.
“Only when they do, can they give their decision on whether to sign the agreement or not. So yesterday, they called to meet with leaders of other ethnic armed groups.”
But the two sides have agreed to lay the foundations for political dialogue, re-open roads across the conflict-torn state, establish a joint-monitoring committee and develop a plan for the voluntary return of internally displaced persons.
The KIO has been fighting the government for greater autonomy and ethnic rights since a 17-year ceasefire broke down in June 2011, and has repeatedly called for political dialogue as a precondition to sustainable peace.
The rebels say the government has continued to attack their positions in northern Burma, especially in areas near crony-owned natural resource projects, despite inking a tentative truce with the quasi-civilian regime in May.
This week’s talks marks the two sides’ first formal peace negotiations since then and many analysts hoped it would pave the way for a historic nation-wide ceasefire deal, which President Thein Sein has repeatedly promised. It was attended by international observers, including the UN’s special envoy to Burma Vijay Nambiar.
“We’re working not just towards a just and sustainable peace but towards a new political culture, one built on compromise, mutual respect and understanding,” said Aung Min in a statement released on Thursday. “The challenges are complex and are rooted in more than half a century of violence, but I’m confident that we are turning the corner.”
A spokesperson for the Shan Affairs Organisation, who also attended the talks, told DVB that Shan civilians had often borne the brunt of the civil war.
“The Shan nationalities in [Kachin state] have been suffering for many years as collateral damage in this conflict,” said Sai Htain Linn. “We make up more than half of the population in Kachin state and have been tormented by both sides of the conflict.”
“We would like to thank the KIO for accepting the public’s will to negotiate with the government.”
Over 100,000 civilians have been displaced in the two-year conflict in northern Burma, during which both government and rebel troops have been accused of committing war crimes. The conflict reached its peak over the cold season last year, when the Burmese army besieged the rebel headquarters in Laiza using coordinated air and land strikes.
The KIO was unable to comment for this story. But as the chair of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), it is likely to consult colleagues within the ethnic umbrella group in the coming weeks. The UNFC has already indicated that it might boycott a nation-wide ceasefire deal unless certain conditions are met.
The umbrella group has already fallen out with several representatives within its own membership, as well as non-member ethnic groups who disagree on how to approach peace negotiations with the government.
President Thein Sein has received international acclaim for his efforts to resolve decades of civil conflicts in the former military dictatorship, securing an end to years of crippling economic sanctions against Burma and earning a nomination for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.
But rights activists say international praise is premature and have called on the government to halt its military advances, rights abuses and economic exploitation in ethnic minority regions.