Updated at 8.50 p.m. EST on 2012-09-20
Authorities in Burma are just “one step” away from striking a peace deal with ethnic Kachin rebels, removing one of the last key obstacles to the process of national reconciliation in the country, the government’s top peace negotiator said Thursday.
“For now, only the Kachin are left in the [peace] process. But I think even the Kachin issue—this problem will be solved in only one step further,” Aung Min, a minister in President Thein Sein's office, told RFA’s Burmese service in Washington.
Burma recently signed peace agreements with 10 other armed ethnic groups, but the three rounds of peace talks since November held with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in northern Burma’s Kachin state have yielded little outcome.
As recently as the end of last month, Burmese government troops were pounding KIA positions in clashes that have raged since a 17-year peace agreement between the two sides was shattered in June last year. The war started when Burma won independence from Britain in 1948.
Kachin organizations say that 90,000 people have been displaced—many across the border to China—in the fighting since the ceasefire ended.
Minister Aung Min was a surprise attendee at a grand ceremony at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday when opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest U.S. civilian award, from American lawmakers for her decades-long "struggle promoting human rights and democracy" in Burma.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who attended and spoke at the ceremony, acknowledged Aung Min as well as Than Swe, the new Burmese ambassador in Washington, for putting aside their differences with the opposition and honoring Aung San Suu Kyi’s achievement.
Aung Min said he was pleased to have been praised during the event by both Clinton and Aung San Suu Kyi for his role in helping with Burma’s national transition.
“I am very glad both Hillary Clinton and Aung San Suu Kyi recognized us,” he said.
“I am glad I had the chance to attend this kind of ceremony and to perform my duties as a politician. I am very proud and satisfied.”
Clinton acknowledged the difficulties in reconciling between factions that have been at odds for so long, but said that Washington would lend its support throughout the process whenever necessary.
Aung Min said his decision to attend the ceremony was a sign of how far the nation had come in mending ties between factions.
"We are mainly focusing now on ethnic issues and reconciliation, which we all need. In national reconciliation we aim to be all-inclusive,” he said.
“As you can see, we work together both inside and outside the Parliament,” where Aung San Suu Kyi is leading the opposition.
On Wednesday, the United States removed sanctions that blocked any U.S. assets of the Burmese president and the speaker of its lower house of parliament and that generally barred American companies from dealing with them.
Thein Sein and lower house speaker Shwe Mann, once members of the former military junta who have received kudos for driving reforms in the 18 months since the military ceded power, were both removed from the U.S. Treasury's list of "specially designated nationals."
The move came ahead of Thein Sein's visit to New York for the annual U.N. General Assembly next week, when he is expected to meet senior U.S. officials.
Since Aung San Suu Kyi won a parliamentary seat in April, Washington has normalized diplomatic relations with Burma and allowed U.S. companies to start investing there again.
Aung Min said Burma is appreciative of the model the U.S. provides and welcomed the assistance in transitioning the government towards a democracy.
“The U.S. has been on this track for 200 years, and we have done so for only a little over a year. I would say the process is going smoothly.... We are on the right track,” he said.
“The U.S. is a major democratic country. We will have to learn a lot from them and will also need their support. That's why I thank the U.S. for understanding and supporting us.”
Aung Min also said he wanted the Burmese people to know that the new government has their interests in mind and said they should be assured that it was working towards a compromise among all ethnic groups in the country.
“To the Burmese people, I would like to say that national reconciliation is, indeed, happening,” he said.
“My trip to the U.S. is also for the good of national reconciliation. And on this, we have the support and recognition of the U.S. and the rest of the international community.”
Reported by Khin Maung Soe. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.