Karen leaders plan to call for an end to government offensives against Kachin and other armed ethnic rebel groups during talks with Burmese President Thein Sein this week in a bid to forge a comprehensive peace settlement.
The talks come as rebel groups reported continued air strikes by Burma’s military in northern Kachin state that have been criticized by the United Nations and the United States.
Burmese authorities have acknowledged the air attacks on Kachin forces in late December, but have said they were used to open supply routes blocked by rebel fighters, not part of a stepped-up offensive.
“There shouldn’t be air strikes in this area and we are very concerned about this,” Padoh Mahn Mahn, one of the Karen National Union’s two joint secretaries and a member of a delegation going to the talks, told RFA’s Burmese Service Thursday.
“We plan … to ask President Thein Sein to stop the ongoing offensives in Kachin state and to start political discussions [on a peace agreement],” he said.
He said the KNU’s five-member delegation, which was invited to Naypyidaw by Thein Sein, will press for an end to attacks against all ethnic rebels.
“One of our main objectives is to urge President Thein Sein to work more effectively on a halt to military offensives against ethnic rebels,” he said.
He said that all of Burma's ethnic groups should gather to discuss a comprehensive peace plan in a political conference similar to the Panglong Conference of 1947, when ethnic leaders agreed to join the Union of Burma upon its independence from Britain.
The Karen National Union has fought with government forces in southeastern Burma’s Kayin state for decades. Along with the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the political wing of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), it is a member of an alliance of 11 ethnic groups seeking greater autonomy in Burma.
Thein Sein ordered a halt to military offensives against ethnic rebels last year and has promised to work toward national reconciliation following decades of military rule in Burma but fighting has been ongoing in Shan, Kayin, and Kachin states.
Since Thein Sein took office in March 2011, Burmese authorities have signed peace agreements with 10 armed ethnic groups, including ceasefires with Karen and Shan groups last year.
But several rounds of talks with Kachin leaders have yielded little outcome.
Padoh Manh Manh said that attacks by the military, such as the air strikes in Kachin state, undermined the government’s efforts to forge peace with ethnic groups.
“The trust building that we have tried to create could have many barriers and difficulties if they increase their attacks while the government is discussing peace with ethnic leaders,” he said.
The Burmese government on Thursday acknowledged staging air strikes on Kachin positions after denying the attacks earlier this week.
“The government army shouldn’t deny attacking the KIO, because the fighting happened in a KIO area,” he said.
State media said Thursday that the Burmese military had used jets to attack Kachin rebels in late December.
A report on the military's Burmese language Myawaddy news website said a key base had been seized from the rebels on December 30 “with the help of air strikes in the region,” according to the Agence France-Presse news agency.
But Kachin sources say the use of planes amounted to an attack, not just a defense of its positions.
Kachin rebel spokesman La Nan said two government fighter planes launched rocket attacks Thursday, following several days of strafing and bombing by fighter planes and helicopters, according to the Associated Press.
The attacks have drawn concern, including from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who urged Burmese authorities "to desist from any action that could endanger the lives of civilians living in the area or further intensify the conflict in the region," according to a U.N. spokesman.
U.S. State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland called the use of air power “extremely troubling.”
“Our view is that all sides need to cease and desist and get into dialogue with each other, and we’re making that point to both the government and to Kachin representatives,” she said at a press briefing Thursday.
Reported by Tin Aung Khine for RFA’s Burmese Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.