Peace Negotiations, An Oxymoron While Conflict Continues

Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is greeted by supporters during a visit to an immigration center in the migrant workers community outside of Bangkok on May 31, in Mahachai, Thailand.

Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is greeted by supporters during a visit to an immigration center in the migrant workers community outside of Bangkok on May 31, in Mahachai, Thailand.

A new peace negotiating team, led by Burmese Railways Minister Aung Min, arrived at Mai Ja Yang, the second largest town under Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in Kachin state, at 3 pm today, according to Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) officials.

The meeting, the first between the KIO and government peace negotiating team in two-months, is intended to be a discussion rather than political negotiations, said a high ranking KIO officer in Mai Ja Yang.The previous meeting with government peace negotiating team led by U Aung Thaung, in Ruili (or Shweli), in China’s southwest Yunnan province, failed to achieve any lasting results. The government wants to sign a ceasefire with the KIO before they will discuss political solutions to the conflict, which started on June 9, after they ended a 17-year ceasefire. There are an estimated 75,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), most living in KIO-controlled territories.

Moreover, Naypyidaw’s leading peace negotiator is scheduled to hold informal talks with a senior member of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) on Friday amid ongoing fighting between Kachin and government troops in northern Burma.

Although government and KIA officials say they are hopeful they can reach an agreement, there have been reports in recent days that the conflict has spread to the well-known jade mining center of Hpakant. The escalation of the conflict comes less than a month after the formation on May 3 of a new government peace-negotiating team led by President Thein Sein. The new lineup consists of a working committee and a central committee that includes Thein Sein and Burma’s military chief, Vice Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing.

Meanwhile, Aung San Suu Kyi has embarked on her first international trip since 1988.  She feared that if she ever left Burma’s military government would never let her return home. She put up with 15 years of house arrest rather than risk becoming an exiled irrelevance. Suu Kyi is currently in Thailand to attend a World Economic Forum summit on Friday. Around 2.5 million impoverished Burmese have fled their country to Thailand in search of jobs. Next month she will travel to Europe, collecting while there the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to her in 1991.

Kachin Refugees are Facing Food Shortages in Burma

A Kachin child at a temporary shelter for refugees in Laiza, Kachin State. (Photo: The Irrawaddy)

A Kachin child at a temporary shelter for refugees in Laiza, Kachin State. (Photo: The Irrawaddy)

Despite the positive changes that have emerged under the new government led by President Thein Sein, critics say much more needs to be done before refugees can return to Burma and peace and security become a reality for Burma’s citizens.

Case in point, thousands of Kachin refugees are facing food shortages as fighting between Burmese troops and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has escalated, preventing UN aid agencies from transporting supplies to camps along the Sino-Burmese border. The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) sent aid in March and April, but has been unable to do so this month because the government army has stepped up its offensive near Laiza, the headquarters of the KIA, according to the Kachin relief group.

With no end to the conflict in sight, there are also growing concerns about how the refugees will cope in the coming rainy season. So it is not surprising that a dozen ethnic armed groups, including those who have signed preliminary ceasefire agreements, like the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) that urge the US and Europe to keep their sanctions on Burma. These ethnic leaders realize that Burma’s military shouldn’t be rewarded for ongoing aggression and human rights abuses.

“It is necessary for the international community to oppose and pressure the [Burma Army] for its wrong actions. They are calling on the international community “not to suspend or lift the remaining political, military, financial and economic sanctions.”

The UNFC have now set a deadline of June 10, 2012: If the Burma military doesn’t’ stop its aggression by then, the other existing ceasefire agreements will possibly be suspended.  This could lead to a complete breakdown of ceasefire talks and a widespread escalation of violence in Burma.

“The US government should not reward the Burmese government’s nascent and untested changes by allowing an unregulated business bonanza,” John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.


The issue over Burma’s sanctions has been a hot topic of debate since Aung San Suu Kyi’s arrival in parliament.

Many human rights groups are urging the West to move slowly as it re-engages with Burma, saying the country’s partial return to democracy is not cause for celebration. Burma’s elected rulers today are the same men who just two years ago led a military government condemned as tyrannical by much of the world for jailing more than 2,000 political prisoners, conducting brutal counterinsurgency wars against ethnic minorities and failing to hand over power to a democratically elected government.

On Monday, the biggest rollback yet will take place, when the European Union is expected to temporarily lift most sanctions against Burma. The United States is under pressure to follow suit. Norway last Sunday decided to remove all limits on foreign aid, financing and visas.

“We’re doing this to send a positive signal to those behind the reforms of the last year,” Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere told reporters. “The changes we’ve seen in the country during this period are more than anyone could expect.”
However, uneasiness over a continuing offensive by Burma’s military against ethnic Kachin rebels in the north is a major concern of those urging a lifting of sanctions. This past week, the U.S.-based activist organization United to End Genocide released a report as part of a corporate responsibility project warning that rushing to invest with Burma might only make the country’s problems worse.

President, Tom Andrews, said “There is no evidence of reform for many desperate people in Burma. In Kachin state, the ethnic minorities saw bullets, not ballots, on election day. Tens of thousands of people have already been displaced, and now the Burmese army is actively increasing its troop presence.”

I think it’s important to create incentives for further reform and democratic progress.