Burma Army Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing met with leaders of the Karen National Union (KNU) in Naypyidaw on Saturday and according to Karen representatives the commander reaffirmed his support for the stalled nationwide ceasefire process.
It was the first meeting between the army chief and an ethnic armed group since a surprise army shelling of a Kachin Independence Army (KIA) training school on Nov. 19 left 23 cadets from various rebel groups dead.
Mahn Nyien Maung, a KNU executive committee who attended the meeting, said the commander briefly broached the issue of the attack.
Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing reportedly told the KNU: “We, the Tatmadaw, won’t publicly speak out about it because the problem will become bigger if we state our opinion.” Mahn Nyein Maung added that Min Aung Hlaing maintained that if he publicly discussed the incident it could be viewed negatively by his troops based in Kachin State.
KNU Chairman Mutu Say Poe and eight other KNU leaders, who met Min Aung Hlaing for the sixth time since the group signed a bilateral ceasefire with the government in February 2012, were told that the army chief is committed to achieving a nationwide ceasefire accord with an alliance of 16 ethnic groups.
“He [Min Aung Hlaing] emphasized that he will work hard until he secures peace. He said it repeatedly. He said there will be no stability if there is no peace in the country. And if there is no stability in the country, we cannot practice a multi-party democracy,” said Mahn Nyein Maung.
“He also believes that the government and the NCCT [Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team] will overcome the difficulties that lay ahead,” he said. The NCCT is a working group that represents the ethnic alliance, including the KNU and the KIA.
Since mid-2013, the government, army and an alliance of ethnic groups have held several rounds of talks on a nationwide ceasefire, but in recent months talks have stalled after differences over fundamental issues, such as political autonomy and federalism, could not be bridged.
Deadly fighting between the Burma Army and the KIA, Palaung rebels and other groups in Kachin and northern Shan states has flared up frequently in recent months. Last week, representatives of various groups said the deadly attack on the KIA camp had been a setback for the nationwide ceasefire process.
Different ethnic groups voiced distrust over the army’s intentions, but the KNU has been keen to maintain its relatively good relationship with Naypyidaw and the Burma Army.
James Lum Dau, who is deputy chief of foreign affairs for the Kachin Independence Organization, the KIA’s political wing, said Min Aung Hlaing’s meeting with the KNU showed that the army was trying to create divisions among the ethnic groups, cultivating good relations with some while sidelining others.
“It is obvious that they [the army] are not sincere. They are working on their own strategy. They try to convince the KNU first, so that other ethnic groups may follow later,” said James Lum Dau.
“If they [the army] are sincere in their desire to end nationwide conflict, why did they launch an attack [on the KIA base] while talking about peace with ethnic peace negotiators?” he added.
“They have no honesty as they wage war in the frontline while talking about peace,” said James Lum Dau, adding that Burma was unlikely to see an end to ethnic conflict unless the military-drafted Constitution is changed and minorities are granted more political autonomy and democracy.