A Burmese government delegation met with ethnic Kachin rebel leaders in China on Monday for peace talks aimed at ending an armed ethnic conflict that has escalated in northern Burma since December.
At the meeting in Ruili in southern China’s Yunnan province, across the border from Burma’s Kachin state, the two sides agreed to have another round of talks by the third week of February with the aim of reaching a "strong ceasefire."
They would de-escalate the fighting, open lines of communication and have groups observing and monitoring the situation on the ground, according to a five-point joint statement issued after the meeting.
The talks were the first in more than three months to help end the fighting. The Burmese military stepped up an offensive late December, capturing several strategic hilltop positions near the Kachin outpost of Laiza.
The seven-hour meeting, held at the Jincheng Hotel in Ruili, was led on the Burmese government side by President’s Office Minister Aung Min and on the Kachin side by Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) peace negotiator Sumlut Gam. Gen. Gun Maw, the vice chief of the KIO’s military wing, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), also participated.
Representatives of other Burmese armed ethnic groups also attended the talks, including senior leaders from the Karen National Union and Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army, alongside peace brokers appointed by both sides.
“We aimed at setting up a communications channel and monitoring system and creating the observation groups,” government-appointed mediator Hla Maung Shwe of the NGO Myanmar Egress told RFA’s Burmese Service.
Tens of thousands of Kachins have been displaced in the year and a half of fighting since a 17-year ceasefire was broken in June 2011. China, which fears an influx of refugees spilling across its border, has urged an end to the war.
The talks, also attended by a diplomat from the Chinese foreign affairs ministry, did not touch on China’s concerns, Hla Maung Shwe said.
“This meeting was just between the government and KIO, but it is true that China is our neighboring country and the border area has some conflicts,” he said.
The fighting has overshadowed Burma’s reforms over the past two years under President Thein Sein, who has promised work toward national reconciliation following decades of military rule.
Thein Sein had ordered a halt to military offensives against ethnic rebels last year, and since he came to office, Burmese authorities have signed peace agreements with 10 armed ethnic groups.
But the continued fighting has led to questions on how much control Thein Sein, a general during the previous military regime, exerts over the country’s army.
Burmese activists calling for an end to the conflict have started a 800-mile (1,300-kilometer) peace march from Rangoon to the Kachin headquarters in Laiza.
By Monday, the group had reached the town of Yamethein in northern Burma’s Mandalay division and raised U.S. $5,000 for Kachin refugees.
One of the marchers, Aung Min Naing, said the size of the group has nearly doubled to 60 since the march started two weeks ago.
He added that the strong support the marchers had received along the way showed that the Burmese people wanted peace in Kachin.
“Since the people want peace, we believe that the government and the KIO will try to stop the fighting one day,” he said.
He said the group welcomed the news of the resumed peace talks on Monday because taking steps to an end the conflict could allow Burma to focus on improving life for the country’s ethnic minorities.
“If both sides could ignore hate, and if both sides—especially the government military—could think as if they are brothers and sisters, the war could be stopped…and we could use financial costs of war toward creating development in the ethnic areas,” he said.
Reported by Tin Aung Khine and Win Naing for RFA’s Burmese Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.