The Burmese government met with ethnic Kachin rebels Thursday in an effort to initiate a ceasefire agreement which could end months of dogged fighting along the country’s northern border, as President Thein Sein’s government attempts to forge pacts with various armed ethnic groups.
Although the sit-down yielded few gains, according to a Kachin official, the two-day talks signal a serious move by the nominally civilian government to end long-running ethnic conflicts which have blighted the country for decades under harsh military rule.
Earlier this month the government signed a ceasefire with Karen rebels in the east of the country amid talks also with the militaries of the Shan and Chin states.
The meeting with the Kachin rebels, one of the country's most powerful rebel groups, was held on neutral ground in Ruili, in China’s southern Yunnan province.
The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO)—the political wing of the ethnic group—and a Burmese delegation led by industry minister and head peace negotiator Aung Thaung said after their talks that they will continue to discuss political matters and will make those discussions public going forward.
Both the Burmese army and the KIO also plan to “reduce and control” military activities and to hold discussions between troops in the conflict zone in an effort to build trust on both sides, the two sides said in a jointly issued statement.
A 17-year treaty between the rebels and the army broke down in 2010 when Burma’s then-ruling military junta tried to force Kachin troops to form a border guard under government leadership. Clashes between the two have been ongoing since June, causing tens of thousands to flee their homes.
‘No tangible results’
Col. Zaw Taung of the KIO’s strategic section told RFA that the latest discussions included a rewording of the 1947 Panglong Agreement negotiated between the Burmese government under independence leader Gen. Aung San and the Kachin, Shan, and Chin peoples.
That agreement, which granted the ethnic groups full autonomy in principle and laid the groundwork for the creation of a Kachin state, was rendered defunct when Aung San was assassinated by a group of paramilitaries later in the year.
"There were no tangible results from the discussion. I can say only that during this meeting we discussed issues more openly than during the previous one,” Zaw Taung said.
The two sides agreed to continue talks at some point, he said, though “we haven't set date for the next meeting yet.”
An unnamed official who attended the talks said the next round of discussions would be held in Burma, the Associated Press reported.
The official said the two sides had also agreed to inform one another before deploying troops.
Even as peace negotiations were underway, clashes between the military and KIO’s military wing the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) continued Thursday.
“These kinds of things happen on the front,” Zaw Taung said on conclusion of the meeting.
Western governments have made ceasefire agreements a precondition to the lifting of economic sanctions that targeted Burma’s former military junta.
Thein Sein last month ordered the military to end its operations in Kachin state, but troops remain stationed there and clashes are ongoing.
The government claims that communication problems are behind the failure of troops to withdraw, but the continued engagement has led some to question the president’s ability to rein in the military, as well as his desire to do so.
A report issued by the Thailand-based Kachin News Group said fighting occurred in an area slated to be the route of a major oil and gas pipeline to China. KIA troops there endured three hours of heavy shelling, but managed to maintain control of the area.
“KIA officials and others with knowledge of the Burmese army say that the heavy artillery fired today … are only used with permission from the army's central command,” the report said, calling Thein Sein's orders “effectively worthless statements issued to please the international community.”
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has previously highlighted concerns over conflicts between the Burmese military and the country’s armed ethnic groups, particularly in Kachin state.
In November she said she was willing to play a part in any peace process, having urged Thein Sein and the rebel groups to agree on a ceasefire.
"What everybody is worried about at present is the lack of peace in the country, especially the fighting going on in Kachin state, which is a cause of concern and sorrow for us," she said at the time.
Aung San Suu Kyi has said that national reconciliation in Burma is impossible as long as fighting continues.
The KIA says it will not lay down arms until Burma’s government agrees to provide the group with full political power and other rights.
Rights groups have accused the Burmese military of carrying out a brutal counterinsurgency campaign in ethnic minority areas involving the rape, torture, and murder of villagers.
Reported by Ye Htet for RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.