Burma Reaches Deal with Rebels to Ease Tensions

By Aye Aye Win 5 February 2013

RANGOON — Burma’s government reached an agreement with ethnic Kachin rebels on Monday to work to end a bloody conflict that has cast a shadow over the country’s progress in moving away from almost half a century of repressive military rule.

Copies of the statement released by both sides after seven hours of talks in southern China said the Kachin Independence Organization and the government’s Central Peace Committee agreed to de-escalate military tensions, open lines of communication and invite observers to attend their next meeting to be held before end of February.

Like Burma’s other ethnic minorities, the Kachin have long sought greater autonomy from the central government. They are the only major ethnic rebel group that has not reached a truce with President Thein Sein’s elected government, which came to power in 2011 after decades of brutal military rule.

Both sides also agreed to hold a political dialogue—as opposed to just ceasefire talks—and to establish a monitoring system to implement a ceasefire between warring government troops and Kachin guerrillas in the country’s north. The agreement was reported on Burmese state television on Monday evening.

The meeting in the Chines town of Ruili came after the government gained the upper hand by capturing several strategic hilltop positions near the town of Laiza, which serves as a headquarters for the rebels.

None of the points in the agreement appeared to break new ground, but it seems to offer a face-saving way out of a situation that had put both sides in a difficult position. The Kachin faced a severe military setback, and the government was suffering from bad publicity as it continues to seek to burnish its image with the international community and receive aid and investment to boost the country’s lagging economy.

The government had previously announced a unilateral ceasefire, but fighting continued as late as Saturday, and the Kachin claimed there had been some shelling by the government on Sunday.

Intermittent fighting escalated last month when the rebels rejected a government demand that they allow supply convoys to reach an army base. The Kachin headquarters at Laiza, near the border with China, and a government base are close to each other, and access to both is by the same road.

The Kachin staged attacks on government convoys trying to get through to the base, saying the supplies included ammunition that could be used to try to take their headquarters. The army claimed its actions were in self-defense, a response to the Kachin blocking the road.

A ceasefire that held for nearly two decades broke down in June 2011 after the Kachin refused to abandon a strategic base near a hydropower plant that is a joint venture with a Chinese company. The conflict has forced about 100,000 Kachin from their homes since then, and many are in camps near Laiza.