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Myanmar govt, Kachin must resume talks
Publication Date : 09-01-2013
An escalating conflict in Myanmar's northern Kachin state bordering China is sparking concern in the region.
It is also smudging the image of progress for Myanmar's reformist government, which wants to emphasise the achievements of its ceasefire pacts with several armed ethnic groups, particularly the Karen that historically was a bigger threat than the Kachin.
The conflict between the Tatmadaw - Myanmar's armed forces - and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has displaced some 100,000 people who are living in makeshift camps in mid-winter.
Despite international calls for restraint from the United Nations Secretary-General and the United States State Department, ethnic Kachin rebels say the government is keeping up air and ground attacks against them.
Successive Myanmar governments have fought multiple insurgencies by ethnic groups, such as the Kachins, demanding autonomy since the country gained independence in 1949.
But when President Thein Sein - a former general - came to power in 2011, he made ending the ethnic conflicts a priority.
He has made progress, with 13 ceasefire pacts signed.
But the escalating conflict in Kachin state is spoiling the picture - and could worsen it further if talks are not resumed soon.
The conflict shows little sign of abating, however.
Sources in Myanmar familiar with the situation say the air strikes against the Kachin were in response to army resupply helicopters being fired on, and the surrounding of a key Tatmadaw base by the KIA.
For the Kachins, there are many sticking points, including the issue of who gets to control the state's natural resources - jade, gold, timber and water.
They also do not believe that lasting peace would be possible or their rights protected under the current Constitution - drawn up by the military.
The fighting can be traced to a deterioration of trust between the government and the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), which led to a tenuous 17-year ceasefire falling apart in 2011.
Several rounds of talks - tacitly encouraged by China - failed to resolve the issue.
The last such attempt was made in October in the Chinese town of Ruili, across the border from Myanmar's Shan state.
The two sides were to discuss troop repositioning, a potential breakthrough to the impasse. The Myanmar side was led by Thein Sein's top negotiator U Aung Min. Importantly, he had with him Lieutenant-General Soe Myint, the Tatmadaw's regional commander.
But the KIA's deputy commander, General Gwan Maw, failed to appear. The government's team went to Ruili anyway to talk to the KIO, but Lt-Gen Soe Myint did not take part.
The senior KIA commander's no-show was seen by the Tatmadaw as a slight and did not go down well with its top brass.
The Kachins claimed that Gen Gwan Maw did not turn up because he had to deal with Tatmadaw attacks in KIA's Brigade 4 area.
But the Tatmadaw told Myanmar government negotiators that it had no operations there that day.
At the talks, the Kachin side asked for political dialogue, which the Myanmar government promised.
However, the fighting has continued.
The conflict is seen by many international observers as an indication of the limits of the reformist President's control over the army.
But this is rejected by those involved in the peace process with other ethnic rebels.
Dr Min Zaw Oo, a former guerilla fighter who now works with the newly established Myanmar Peace Centre in Yangon on ceasefire implementation, said the 13 other ceasefire agreements had the full support of the army and clashes were rare.
"In Karen state, the Tatmadaw and Karen fighters are playing soccer together... The question is, why is there fighting only in Kachin state?"
A letter inviting KIA leaders to a meeting this month had no response, he said.
Yet it was essential, he added, that military leaders from both sides come back to the table to discuss repositioning of troops.