Authorities in Burma held peace talks with a coalition of 11 ethnic resistance movements on Wednesday, laying the foundation for political dialogue aimed at finding a permanent solution to six decades of ethnic conflict in the country.
Government peace negotiators led by Minister Aung Min met in Chiang Mai, Thailand with representatives from the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), an alliance of armed ethnic groups fighting for greater autonomy in Burma.
In a joint statement issued after the talks, the two sides said they had established trust for the dialogue and promised to have a second round of talks in two months.
“We made a framework and timeframe [for dialogue] with the 11 armed groups ... and will continue working on it in the future. We could say that we are now on the right track,” Aung Min told reporters at a press conference after the meeting.
He said that after more than 60 years of conflict, ethnic groups have been calling for dialogue that was impossible under the former ruling military junta, which stepped down two years ago to make way for a reformist administration under President Thein Sein.
“We couldn’t have had this political discussion under the previous government,” he said.
UNFC secretary Nai Hong Sar, of the New Mon State Party, headed the coalition’s delegation to the talks. The Burmese military did not attend the talks.
“Today’s meeting was very positive,” Nai Hong Sar said at the press conference.
The first meeting between the two groups took place in November, but proposals for talks in January were postponed after an escalation in fighting between government forces and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), a UNFC member group.
La Ja of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the KIA’s political wing, attended Wednesday’s meeting, along with UNFC representatives from the Karen National Union, Pa-Oh National Liberation Organization (PNLO), and the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP).
Burma has signed peace agreements with 10 armed ethnic groups since President Thein Sein took office.
Kachin rebels began exploratory peace talks this month with the government in China after recent intense fighting which saw the KIA lose key positions around its headquarters in Laiza in northern Burma.
At talks on Feb. 4, after more than a month of fierce fighting, government officials and the KIA met in Ruili, China and agreed to further talks with the aim of reaching a "strong cease-fire."
Nyo Ohn Myint, a mediator between the UNFC and the government, said that during Wednesday’s meeting the coalition had discussed how to build trust in the peace process.
“The UNFC mainly discussed rebuilding the trust between the two sides. Minister Aung Min said that all ethnic groups have the responsibility for state-building and that all ethnic groups could work together.”
“There was an agreement to work together not only with political organizations but also civil society organizations to build a democratic country,” he added.
The meeting followed talks on Tuesday in Chiang Mai between government negotiators and ethnic Shan rebels on maintaining peace and combating the drug trade in Shan state one year after the two sides signed a ceasefire agreement.
Laung Sai of the Shan State Army said the military and its political wing, the Restoration Council of Shan State, would be coordinating with other UNFC groups in negotiations with the government.
“We will be working with all armed groups and we will not decide anything on our own. I told Minister Aung Min that this is our attitude,” he said.
He added that the two sides had discussed difficulties between the Shan State Army and government forces in efforts to eradicate drug use and traffic in the region, where opium production thrived during years of conflict.
Reported by Aung Myat Soe and Win Naing for RFA’s Burmese Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.