By BA KAUNG Wednesday, January 18, 2012
A Burmese government delegation held peace talks in China on Wednesday with the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the political wing of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), an ethnic armed group that has been engaged in armed conflict with the Burmese military since June when a 1994 ceasefire agreement collapsed.
“We had frank exchanges with each other,” said Zau Raw, a KIO official who participated in the discussions. He said that the peace talks will continue on Thursday in Ruili, a China-Burma border town in Yunnan Province, and the two sides are expected to work towards a ceasefire deal.
This was the second round of talks to take place between the two sides in Ruili, with the first round taking place in November. The high-level Burmese government delegation was led by Aung Thaung, the head of a peacemaking committee created in December by President Thein Sein.
During the discussions on Wednesday, the KIO repeated its calls for further political discussions with Naypyidaw, which it believes will pave the way towards greater self-determination in Kachin State within the framework of a federal system, according to a KIO press statement released after the talks.
“We want to have further political talks with the government for self-determination in Kachin State and equal rights among the country's ethnics,” said the KIO press statement.
The KIO/KIA has been fighting for greater autonomy in Kachin State since 1961, and the KIO delegation said it agreed to engage in the talks because the government said that it would work towards a peace deal through political means.
“I think this will lead to further political discussions because the government representatives agreed that our desire for self-determination and equality for ethnic peoples are reasonable demands which have been ignored by successive Burmese governments,” said Zau Raw.
On Dec. 10, President Thein Sein ordered the army in a written statement to halt military operations against the predominantly Christian KIA except for self-defense purposes. However, the deadly fighting in the strategic and resource-rich region near China’s border has not lessened, with an estimated 60,000 war refugees having fled their homes to date.
When the KIO asked the Burmese government officials in the peace delegation why attacks by the Burmese military have continued despite the president’s order for them to stop, the government officials responded that such a ceasefire order is no easy thing to get immediately implemented, according to Zau Raw.
Since the military-backed civilian government took office in March, it has signed or renewed ceasefire agreements with a number of ethnic armed groups—the latest one reached last week with the Karen National Union, which has been engaged in a 63-year insurgency with the government.
But in reaching these agreements, the government and ethnic groups did not discuss major issues such as greater autonomy for ethnic minorities within a federal state, which the KIO has stated is crucial to reaching a new ceasefire deal with the government.
On Monday, US Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said during a visit to Burma that an end to ethnic conflicts will be a key consideration in whether the US lifts sanctions on the country.
“I thought the ceasefire with the Karen recently was a very important step in the right direction. We would like to see that kind of progress made with other ethnic groups," McConnell said.
Observers therefore believe the Burmese government is motivated to end the conflict in Kachin State in order to continue its momentum towards the reduction of sanctions by the US and other Western countries.