CHIANG MAI, Thailand — The recent deadly attack on a Kachin rebel training school has been a significant setback for the nationwide ceasefire process and it seems unlikely that a breakthrough can be achieved before the end of the year, negotiators on both sides said on Thursday.
“The attack is a big obstacle for the peace process,” said Nai Hong Sar, the head of the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT), which represents an alliance of 16 ethnic armed groups that have been discussing a nationwide ceasefire agreement with the Burmese government and army.
On Nov. 19, the Burma Army surprised cadets carrying out exercises when it fired several shells at a Kachin Independence Army (KIA) training school. Four Kachin commanders were injured, while 23 trainees were killed belonging to KIA allies, the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front; Arakan Army; Chin National Front and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA).
The army claimed it fired the shells into the grounds in response to a KIA attack on a road construction site, but the KIA denied it had carried out an attack.
Nai Hong Sar was speaking after a meeting in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, where the NCCT held discussions with the Myanmar Peace Center (MPC), a government-affiliated institute involved in ceasefire negotiations.
He said he believed that there is only a small chance that the NCCT and the government can reach an agreement before the year’s end, adding that a meeting between the NCCT and Minister Aung Min’s Union Peace-making Work Committee planned in the days before Christmas would be an important moment to assess how fast the ceasefire process could move forward again.
Hla Maung Shwe, a government advisor at the MPC, acknowledged that the attack on the KIA base had affected the ceasefire negotiations, but he still held out some hope that a breakthrough could occur at the upcoming meeting and lead to a nationwide ceasefire this year.
“There will be some difficulties to move forward with the nationwide ceasefire agreement. But the nature of politics is like the tide; it goes up and down,” he said. “Instead of highlighting this [attack on the KIA], it is important that we move forward to a political dialogue.”
The meeting in Chiang Mai did not result in any concrete agreements as the MPC plays an advisory role and has no authority to negotiate on behalf of the government and Burma Army.
Observers at the meeting said the recent attack had damaged trust between both sides and that the ethnic groups—and especially the KIA, which is one of the largest armed groups and influential within the NCCT—were wary of the government and army’s intentions, a situation that is likely to slow down the process.
One observer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he believed that the Kachin rebels were preparing for the conflict to escalate again if no breakthrough in the ceasefire talks is reached soon.
“One [road] is to going to political dialogue, and another one is to go back to war,” he said.
More than a dozen ethnic armed groups have signed bilateral ceasefires with the government since President Thein Sein’s nominally-civilian administration took office in 2011, but attempts to reach a comprehensive nationwide ceasefire hit a deadlock in recent months.
Bouts of deadly fighting between the army and the KIA and TNLA have occurred frequently in northern Burma in recent months.
The KIA and the Burma Army fought an at times intense war in northern Burma’s Kachin and northern Shan states since a 17-year-old ceasefire broke down in June 2011.
Fighting peaked in late 2012 and early 2013, but quieted down in February 2013 when the first rounds of bilateral ceasefire talks began. These have, however, not led to an agreement and the KIA and the TNLA are the only groups that have no agreement with the government.