05 August 2011

Why the hurry to reach a ceasefire?

Saw Yan Naing

TWO months after fighting broke out between Burmese government troops and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), ending a 16-year ceasefire, Naypyidaw is redoubling its efforts to end hostilities in Kachin State, even suggesting that it might be open to nationwide talks aimed at easing ethnic tensions elsewhere in the country.

La Nan, the joint-secretary of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the political wing of the KIA, said that an agreement has not yet been reached, but noted that in the latest round of negotiations, held earlier this week in Lajayang, Kachin State, the government delegation, led by Col Than Aung, seemed uncharacteristically ready to compromise.

Naypyidaw still hasn't agreed to announce a nationwide political dialogue within 15 days of the ceasefire coming into effect, as demanded by the leaders of the KIO, but there has been a notable change in the government's willingness to at least discuss the idea.

In one recent letter, the Burmese government said that it agreed to attempt to reach a temporary ceasefire, to be followed by further dialogue aimed at achieving long-term peace in the country.

“We've never heard this tone from the government before. They've always avoided this sort of thing in the past. But this time, they're not just talking about a ceasefire, but also long-term peace and political dialogue,” said La Nan.

However, it remained unclear why Naypyidaw is suddenly pushing for an early ceasefire with the KIO.

“They seem to be trying to come closer to our position. The way they are speaking now makes us more inclined to accept their call for a ceasefire. But we want to proceed slowly, and they seem to be in a hurry to sign a deal and continue further talks in the future,” said La Nan.

To further encourage the KIO to agree to a ceasefire, Naypyidaw said it would bring 58 witnesses, including Kachin elders from social and religious organizations, to attend the signing of an agreement between the government and the KIO leaders.

However, the sticking point remains the KIO's insistence on a nationwide dialogue that includes other ethnic armies. Under the current agreement proposed by the government, both sides would stop fighting within 48 hours of signing a deal.

Clashes between government and KIA troops first broke out on June 9, after months of tensions over the KIA's refusal to join a proposed Border Guard Force (BGF) established by the Burmese Army.

Almost every other ceasefire ethnic army similarly balked at the BGF proposal, setting the stage for a showdown with the newly installed government formed in March by the winners of last year's heavily rigged election.

Some observers said that Naypyidaw's efforts to avert any worsening of the situation in Kachin State could be related to its bid to assume the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in 2014—a move that would go far toward legitimizing the outcome of the Nov 7 election.

The biggest obstacle to winning the chairmanship is opposition by the regional grouping's Western trade and strategic partners, particularly the US.

In June, the US raised concerns over the renewed violence in Kachin State and other regions of the country and called on Naypyidaw to halt hostilities with ethnic armed groups. It also said the conflicts underscore the need for an inclusive dialogue between the Burmese government and opposition and ethnic minority groups to begin a process of genuine national reconciliation.

Other observers have suggested that the government's sudden eagerness to end the conflict could be a result of its desire to preempt any attempt by the democratic opposition, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, to get involved.

On July 28, three days after a rare meeting with a senior government minister, Suu Kyi sent an open letter to President Thein Sein and leaders of ethnic armed groups calling for a ceasefire and offering to play a role in efforts to achieve a lasting political solution to the country's ethnic divisions.

It was not clear if Suu Kyi and minister Aung Kyi, discussed the situation in Kachin State, but some have suggested that they may have agreed to cooperate on the issue during their talks, adding that Naypyidaw may be prepared to allow Suu Kyi to participate in ceasefire efforts in order to improve its international image.

It seems far more likely, however, that the government is hoping to head off any talk of Suu Kyi's involvement in this highly sensitive matter by resolving it before her offer wins any further support from ethnic armed groups, many of whom say they would welcome her participation.

Zipporah Sein, the general-secretary of the Karen National Union, said that if the government really wanted to achieve ethnic reconciliation with Suu Kyi's help, it would probably succeed.

However, she said she doubted that Naypyidaw is interested in achieving genuine peace.

“If they want a ceasefire, all they have to do is stop attacking ethnic people. Ethnic armed groups don't go into the cities to attack them; they come into the ethnic areas to attack us. If they stopped, there would be peace across the country,” she said.

Some, however, believe that Thein Sein's government is sincere about wanting to bring peace to Burma. Nay Zin Latt, a member of the Burmese president’s political advisory board, told The Irrawaddy that Thein Sein has a plan to end conflict with ethnic armed groups, but it would take a long time to achieve lasting results.

Meanwhile, in Kachin State, the government appears to be keen not to waste any more time.

“I don’t know what they will do if we sign the agreement. But they seem to really want it soon,” said La Nan. -- The Irrawaddy

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