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Myanmar peace process gathers pace
Publication Date : 23-02-2013
Myanmar's peace process, backed by millions of dollars from the international community, is gaining momentum with another round of talks to be held between the government and the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) within weeks - probably again in Ruili, China.
This comes after a Myanmar government peace delegation met ethnic group representatives - including those from the Kachin - in Chiang Mai on Wednesday, a meeting that ended with hugs and back slapping.
While the ethnic groups by and large are eager to get on board the peace process, the key has been the change in attitude of Myanmar's new government, which sees the ethnic groups not as adversaries but as partners, said Mr Paul Keenan, a researcher at Chiang Mai University's Burma Centre for Ethnic Studies.
"That changed the playing field," he said. "It was unheard of before the 2010 election."
Another round of talks would be held within two months, the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), which includes about a dozen leaders of ethnic groups, said in a joint statement.
Separately from the formal day-long talks with the UNFC, the government team, led by reformist President Thein Sein's chief peace negotiator Aung Min, informally met the All Burma Students Democratic Front which has some 600 armed men, as well as KIO leaders based in Thailand.
The government's efforts to negotiate with a range of armed groups - at least 14 of which have hundreds or thousands of armed men, are unprecedented.
The government so far has signed ceasefire agreements with more than a dozen armed ethnic groups.
At recent talks in Ruili on February 4 where the government and the KIO agreed to a ceasefire, both the Kachin and government negotiators unexpectedly found themselves on the same page in keeping host China's influence at arm's length.
First, the Myanmar government turned down a Chinese offer of mediation, and then backed the Kachin in not using the term "ceasefire" which China wanted in the statement at the end of the talks.
Agreeing not to use "ceasefire" was a gesture towards Kachin Independence Army deputy commander Sumlut Gun Maw, seen as a progressive and moderate whom the Myanmar government would like to deal with. Calling the agreement a "ceasefire" may have caused the general to lose face.
The word "humanitarian" was also left in the statement, despite a Chinese request not to use it.
The negotiations on the text hint at the complexity of the peace talks.
But the government is also in a hurry.
"We have until 2015" when Myanmar's next election is due, said Mr Tin Maung Thann, president of the non-governmental organisation Myanmar Egress, which works with the Myanmar Peace Centre set up last year.
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is expected to make a bid for the presidency then.
Analysts say a stable environment is essential for a credible election.
The peace process is backed by an international donor group that includes Norway, the United Nations, Australia, the United Kingdom, the European Union and Japan's Nippon Foundation.