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Myanmar set to overhaul peace teams

Publication Date : 03-05-2012


Key negotiator who has taken hardline stance in Kachin may be dropped


An overhaul of the Myanmar government's teams charged with negotiating peace deals with ethnic armies is imminent, and may see key negotiator Aung Thaung removed, sources said.

Aung Thaung - former industry minister and leading figure in the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) - leads a team negotiating with the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), amid skirmishes between the KIO and government troops in Kachin state.

But his hardline stance has been seen as an obstacle to reaching a settlement. In contrast, Rail Transportation Minister Aung Min, head of a second negotiating team, has reached peace agreements with a string of armed ethnic groups, including the Karen National Union (KNU).

Sources said Aung Thaung has been privately critical of Aung Min for making too many concessions to the ethnic groups. But the minister pointed to his results - agreements with Shan, Mon, Karenni, Chin and Karen organisations.

Reaching a deal with the KIO is important. Western powers maintain that ending the ethnic conflicts is one of the keys to stability and economic development. They have lifted some sanctions but only suspended others, pending progress on certain issues, including the conflicts with ethnic groups.

But while an agreement and an on-track peace process with the KNU is of major symbolic importance, the Kachin problem poses a bigger challenge. There remains deep distrust on both sides. Fighting is ongoing, and up to 70,000 people have been displaced with very little humanitarian aid.

Meanwhile, the KIO, with its troops under pressure on the ground and facing a humanitarian crisis which could worsen as the annual monsoon approaches, has proposed a fresh round of talks with the government - but not in the state capital Myitkyina as proposed.

The KIO suggested another place under its influence.

So far, six rounds of peace talks between the KIO and the government delegation have produced no results. Among the issues of contention are international observers for a ceasefire and withdrawal of government troops.

But behind these issues is the most important one of all - control over Kachin state's natural resources, which include gold, jade and timber. Analysts said there are people on both sides who make money from control over the resources and oppose any change in the status quo.

China-backed hydroelectric projects have also been sources of tension with the Kachins. Last year, President Thein Sein addressed one major grievance when he cancelled the Myitsone dam project in response to civil society campaigns against it in Yangon and Kachin state.

The restructuring of the two negotiation teams has not been officially announced yet, but senior-level officials are likely to be inducted into a single consolidated team. Last month, Reuters quoted an unnamed source as saying that the new team 'will comprise many members including senior army officers, parliamentary lawmakers and state chief ministers, and will be led by a vice-president'.

Aung Thaung's role in the new team, if any, is a subject of speculation. The former combat officer also faces the challenge of reforming the ruling USDP, which failed to mount any significant challenge to the opposition National League for Democracy that won 43 of 45 seats in the April 1 by-elections.


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