Fighting in North Burma Could Derail Peace Process: Ethnic Leader

By Lawi Weng 4 March 2014

RANGOON — A senior ethnic leader involved in nationwide ceasefire talks with the government warned on Tuesday that a recent increase in fighting between the military and ethnic armed groups in northern Burma could derail the ongoing peace process.

Khun Okkar, the joint-secretary of United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), an alliance of 12 ethnic armed groups, said on Tuesday that the fighting could cause internal conflict to flare up again and ceasefire gains made in the past two years could be undone.

“I am worried that Burma is going to have civil war again, like in 1980, which will spread through the whole country,” he said during a press conference in Rangoon held at the end of the two-day Civil Society Forum for Peace.

“Even though we are trying to negotiate for a nationwide peace agreement… there is ongoing fighting with the Palaung [armed group], there is also fighting sometimes with the SSA-North and the Kachin [group],” Khun Okkar said.

President Thein Sein’s reformist government has signed ceasefire agreements with 14 armed groups in the past two years and has been keen to sign a nationwide ceasefire with these ethnic rebel groups.

The rebels met with the government peace negotiation of Minister Aung Min in Myitkyina, Kachin State, in November and planned to hold another conference in Hpa-an, Karen State, in January, but progress on the next round of nationwide ceasefire talks has stalled.

Khun Okkar said government officials and ethnic rebel leaders would now hold preliminary talks on March 9-10 in order to smooth some differences and set up the next nationwide ceasefire conference in Hpa-an.

The signing of a nationwide ceasefire would have to be followed by political dialogue over the demands of the ethnic groups who are seeking political autonomy for their regions.

Khun Okkar voiced concern, however, over the fighting in northern Burma and questioned whether all government officials and leaders of the Burma Army are willing to sign a nationwide ceasefire.

“I found there is problem within the government, where some people did not want to recognize a nationwide peace agreement ….they could not fight anymore with ethnic armed groups and they have to stop all military operations,” he said.

The Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) are two groups that have not signed a ceasefire with the government. The groups have sporadically clashed with the Burma Army in the past year, but in recent weeks government troops have reportedly launched a number of attacks, killing rebel soldiers and seizing several rebel defense posts in northern Shan and Kachin states.

The Shan State Army-North has also come under attack in the area, despite having signed a ceasefire with Naypyidaw in January 2012. The group said it lost two strategically important camps to Burma Army attacks last week.