Updated at 12:00 p.m. ET on 2013-10-10
Myanmar’s government and the political wing of the country’s armed ethnic Kachin rebels resumed peace talks Tuesday, with Naypyidaw expressing optimism they would lead to a permanent cessation of hostilities resulting in an overall nationwide cease-fire and political dialogue with ethnic groups.
The three days of talks kicked off as the government announced an amnesty by President Thein Sein for dozens of political prisoners, most of whom are members of ethnic armies, including the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the military wing of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO).
Tuesday’s negotiations in Myitkyina, the capital of northern Kachin state which borders China, were led by Minister in Thein Sein’s office Aung Min from the government side and KIO representatives Sumlut Guam and General Gwan Maw.
Ten ethnic armed groups that have signed cease-fire agreements with the Myanmar government, a delegation of five Chinese foreign ministry officials, and U.N. special envoy to Myanmar Vijay Nambiar attended the talks as observers.
Hla Maung Shwe, special adviser to the government-affiliated Myanmar Peace Center (MPC), told RFA’s Myanmar Service that the government was “trying to move toward a [nationwide] cease-fire,” which he said would then serve as a springboard for political dialogue with all ethnic groups.
“All the ethnic groups have spoken about political dialogue as well. We have the same intention and we just need to coordinate on it. All these talks are in preparation for that stage,” he said.
“If we both work on trust building, we could sign [a cease-fire with the KIO] soon, maybe even during this round of talks, as we must move toward a nationwide cease-fire.”
Hla Maung Shwe said last month that a long-proposed nationwide cease-fire could take place in the first week of October, pending talks with the KIO, but the announcement has been met with skepticism by ethnic leaders.
The KIO, a member of the key United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) rebel alliance, is the only major armed ethnic group that has not yet signed a cease-fire pact with the government.
The government has said since earlier this year that it wants to have a comprehensive nationwide truce after it reaches accords with each of the country’s 16 ethnic rebel groups individually. It claims to have signed peace agreements with 14 groups.
But the UNFC, an umbrella organization of 11 of Myanmar’s armed rebel groups, has indicated that the peace process cannot move forward until the Kachin reach an accord with the government.
Aung Min, who is also MPC Vice-Chairman, said that the goal of this week’s meetings was to sign a cease-fire agreement with the KIO that could lead to a nationwide agreement “because we would like to work on holding political talks.”
“The government has repeatedly promised to hold political talks,” he said.
“If we can hold political talks, we could discuss issues such as equal rights and autonomy for ethnic groups, building a federal union, amending the constitution, and power and resource sharing—rights that all ethnic groups want and that every citizen must have.”
Aung Min said that while the two sides had stopped short of a full cease-fire agreement at the end of negotiations in Myitkyina in May, fighting between the KIA and the military had since seen a substantial drop.
“Only 29 small clashes have occurred within the past four months,” he said, adding that “fighting has decreased by 90 percent.”
He said that after the first day of talks, the two sides had discussed the possibility of forming a joint team to monitor military movements “in order to avoid fighting in the future,” but said they “were unable to conclude the discussion and will resume tomorrow.”
KIO negotiator General Gwan Maw, deputy commander of the Kachin rebel military, confirmed that the two sides had discussed the possibility of the joint committee, which could be the first step in forming a truce.
“We discussed today whether we should form a monitoring team for military movements or not,” he said.
“Both of us have submitted our proposals, though we haven’t come to an agreement yet as we are still in discussions. I hope we can get results if we hold talks with an aim to understand one another.”
His co-negotiator Sumlut Gam said that political dialogue is necessary to address some of the most pressing issues for Myanmar’s ethnic groups.
“I would like to urge [the ethnic groups and government] to work together on building a democratic federal union and federal union army, creating a federal constitution and ensuring equal rights for ethnic groups,” he said.
In addition to discussions on the joint monitoring committee, this week’s meetings are expected to cover matters related to the repositioning of troops, developments since the last peace talks in May and the resettlement of people displaced by fighting.
Also on Tuesday, the office of President Thein Sein ordered the release of 56 political prisoners, nearly half of whom had been jailed for their involvement in ethnic army insurgencies, Ye Aung, a member of the government's political prisoner scrutiny committee, told RFA.
Among those released were seven political prisoners from Bhamo prison, 11 from Thipaw prison, 15 from Lashio prison and others from Khantee, Insein, Kalay and Kengtung prisons, he said, adding that 22 had ties to either the KIA or the Shan State Army.
Khin Maung Oo from Myanmar’s Former Political Prisoners Group said that “most political prisoners released today are ethnic people, especially Shan and Kachin ethnics.”
Shan Nationalities Democratic Party official Sai Nyunt Lwin, who is also a member of the government's political prisoner scrutiny committee, said Thein Sein had strategically timed the release to coincide with Tuesday’s talks in Kachin state.
“It is no coincidence. They were released on purpose to decrease tensions with the armed groups,” he said.
“This move can provide support for the nationwide cease-fire.”
Tuesday’s amnesty marks the 12th time Thein Sein, who is attending a regional summit this week in Brunei, has ordered the release of prisoners from Myanmar’s jails since May 2011, months after taking power from the country’s former military regime. Hundreds of political prisoners were among those released.
“The prisoners who were released today are from our committee’s list that we submitted,” Ye Aung said, adding that more than 130 political prisoners remain in Myanmar’s jails.
“President Thein Sein has said that all political prisoners will be released by December. But we will have to wait and see whether he releases them all or not.”
Thein Sein last ordered the release of political prisoners in July, when 73 were set free.
Reported by Kyaw Myo Min, Myo Zaw Ko, Win Naing, Zin Mar Win, and Sai Tun Aung Lwin for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.