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.
Railways Minister Aung Min, who is a vice chairman of the government’s newly formed Union Peacemaking Working Committee, will travel to Maijayang, Kachin State, for tomorrow’s talks with a delegation led by Maj-Gen Sumlut Gun Maw, the KIA’s vice chief of staff, according to sources from both sides of the negotiations.
Aung Min is expected to be accompanied by executive members of Myanmar Egress, an NGO close to the Burmese government, while on the Kachin side, Col Ji Nong and Col Zaw Tong of the KIA’s War Office will also be present at the talks.
The meeting will be the second between Aung Min and Gun Maw in less than two weeks, and is seen as a significant step toward ending almost a full year of fighting following the breakdown of a 17-year-old ceasefire agreement last June. The two last met in Thailand’s Chiang Rai Province on May 21.
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.
According to the Kachin Development Network Group, fresh skirmishes broke out on Monday and Tuesday around Hpakant, from which mining companies have been ordered by the Ministry of Mines to withdraw by Thursday. The latest clashes have also displaced more than 100 people, the group said.
Sources in Hpakant said that the government army has also started to mobilize troops from Light Infantry Division 11 in the area, which has been key source of revenue for the KIA since the collapse of the ceasefire last year.
Hpakant and the surrounding area is under the control of KIA Brigade 6. Last year, the KIA’s political wing, the Kachin Independence Organization, decided to resume collecting taxes from mining companies in the area as a way of financing its military operations.
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.
The new peacemaking committees were formed shortly after a visit to Norway and Switzerland by Aung Min in April. Norway is a key foreign player in Burma’s peace process, as Olso has reportedly provided millions of dollars to fund efforts to end the country’s internal conflicts.
Aung Min is tipped by political observers in Rangoon to become the minister of the president’s office in a coming government reshuffle, giving him more authority and responsibility to handle matters such as meetings with ethnic armed groups on behalf of the president.
However, ethnic sources say they have been put off by Aung Min’s attempts to reach “snap” peace agreements during meetings. Karen and Karenni leaders said they were surprised when the minister urged them to sign ceasefire agreements without giving them enough time for further discussions.
Another difficulty facing the ceasefire talks is the fundamental difference in thinking between government negotiators and ethnic leaders. The former have repeatedly insisted that economic development is the key to lasting peace, while latter continue to call for autonomy and a real federal union.