The government’s newly formed peace committee pledged on Saturday night to prevent further fighting with the Shan State Army-South and work with the group to eradicate narcotics in the country’s western state that has been plagued by war and drugs for decades.
“Today, we discussed how we can work out a plan [where] the government, ethnic organisations and community organisations work together,” said Railway Minister U Aung Min, who led the government’s delegation. “If we work on it together, I’m convinced that we will be able to achieve our goal in a very speedy manner.”
The deal was signed on Saturday at the Triangle Regional Military Command Centre in Kengtung, Shan state. The talks were the first to feature leading members of the Burmese army, including Deputy Commander-in-Chief Soe Win and three regional commanders.
The Restoration Council of Shan State, along with its armed wing the SSA-S, signed an initial ceasefire agreement in January with the government; however, 17 reported firefights erupted between Burmese troops and the rebels in the deal’s wake. The pact had been the first substantial truce between the two sides after almost six decades of fighting in the state.
“I think this is a very significant meeting because the key issue right now – the key obstacle – for the peace talks is the military aspect of it,” said U Harn Yawnghwe, who served as an advisor to the RCSS during the talks.
“Now with the commanders coming they will be able to get the message down to the rank and file [troops].”
After ceremonial handshakes and brief speeches, the RCSS and government delegates held talks behind closed doors for more than nine hours. A large bulk of the time was devoted to negotiating clear demarcation lines between the Burmese commanders and the leaders of the SSA-S to prevent further violence from breaking out in the future.
“In the past, although we had an agreement, but it wasn’t very clear and did not include the participation of senior officials from Burma,” said Chairman of the RCSS Colonel Yawd Serk through a translator at the press conference following the talks.
“Today there was a lot of discussion about that and having the deputy commander-in-chief and the three regional commanders involved in the talks, the SSA-S and RCSS are confident that there will be no more clashes.”
President Thein Sein’s unveiling of two new peace committees earlier this month put greater emphasis on bringing the country’s military into the peace process with the country’s armed ethnic groups; a move that some experts say was fueled by the leader’s inability to rein in Burma’s armed forces.
In December, Thein Sein instructed the military to end their offensive with the Kachin Independence Army in the country’s far north; however, heavy fighting continues between the two sides.
While the Thein Sein may publicly call on the army to follow his decisions, according to the constitution the president is not the country’s commander-in-chief and is unable to give direct orders to the military.
But by bringing the country’s armed forces to the negotiating table, the Tatmadaw will have more of a say in ironing out the details during peace talks, thus allowing them to shoulder the credit when negotiations succeed or fail.
“They’ve been enemies for decades and never actually met face to face in that kind of setting,” said David Mathieson from Human Rights Watch, who sat in on the meetings as an independent observer.
“But to actually meet one-on-one, given the level that it was – it was Yawd Serk the chairman of RCSS and the head of the SSA and the brigade commanders of the SSA and sitting across from them was the deputy commander of the Burmese army and the three regional commanders. That’s never been done before.”
For the SSA-S, the talks also provided the group, whose members have a long, complicated history of being implicated with the state’s drug trade, with a platform to pledge their commitment to eradicating narcotics from the restive region.
“We’re trying to cooperate on drug issues,” said Seng Wan, a major in the SSA-S. “If we have work and jobs for the people to do then you won’t have poppy growers or drug dealers”
While the event was lauded because of the attendants who participated, the talks were also tarnished by the absence of key officials and voices. None of the government’s leading ethnic Shan officials, including Vice President Sai Mauk Khan who many journalists and observers expected to be in Kengtung for the meeting, were in attendance. Neither delegation had female representatives or advisors participating in the mediation.
The talks primary agenda centred around preventing the sides from engaging in further violence, while sketching out a nascent plan to begin developing the area economically. However, the political discussion concerning the amount of autonomy the RCSS will be given in the future remained off the agenda.
“It’s all going to be hard and it’s all going to be incredibly complex,” said Mathieson. “And so, why not tackle some of the least complex and hard stuff now as a way of building up momentum to tackle the hardest ones of all which are political solutions to all of this.”
While the meeting ended with a signed deal, the country’s leading peace negotiator said he was surprised in the level of success that was achieved during the mediation.
“The meeting was more successful than I expected. We managed to discuss issues like the resettlement of the ethnic armies and political and economic issues,” said Minister Aung Min during the press conference. “We plan to have meetings continuously. The more we meet, the more we understand, the faster we’ll achieve peace.”
The presence of foreign journalists and former adversaries walking the halls of the regional command centre, which was run by President Thein Sein in the late 90s, illustrated how much has changed in Burma in the past year.
After the symbolic handshakes finished and the final signatures were scrawled on the accords, the participants and observers finished the night off with a banquet on the command centre’s grounds. Journalists, Tatmadaw officers and SSA-S soldiers patiently stood shoulder-to-shoulder in a buffet line scooping fried tofu and rice on their plates – a scenario that many in attendance said was unimaginable a year ago.
The evident tension that had pervaded both sides earlier in the day seemed to temporarily wane as glasses of scotch were toasted between the former adversaries and dance troupes performed traditional numbers on the banquet hall’s stage.
“We have this problem because of the distrust that has been going between different ethnic groups,” said Minister Aung Min. “It’s more like solving a family problem. Once we have mutual understanding [then] all the problems will be resolved quite quickly.”
However, the day’s agreement represented small steps in the longer peace process – many more meetings will be needed to end almost six decades of war in Burma’s largest state.
“This is really just a very preliminary step. They’re basically signing agreements to keep talking about things and there’s lots of issues they’re not raising yet,” said Mathieson. “Most importantly, the situation on the ground hasn’t improved at all during this process. The human rights situation is exactly the same.”