Ethnic Conflict Key to Rebuilding Nation: Thein Sein

By Saw Yan Naing 4 July 2012

Burma’s President Thein Sein says that ending ethnic conflict is the key to rebuilding the nation, and the benchmark that will denote the transition from the old administration to the new one.

Speaking in Naypyidaw on Tuesday at the first meeting of the Union-level Peace Committee, Thein Sein addressed some top government officials including Vice-president Sai Mauk Kham, Lower House speaker Shwe Mann, Upper House speaker Khin Aung Myint, and the commander-in-chief of the defense service, Vice-Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing.

“The transition should lead in a political and economic direction as this is the foundation of the country,” said Thein Sein, adding that a failure to end the war in ethnic areas would be an obstacle to economic development, and that the continued presence of ethnic armed groups in the country weakens the rule of law in building a democratic process.

“That’s why the efforts being made to end the conflict with the ethnic armed groups is the key foundation to peace-building in the country,” he said.

Under the government sworn in 15 months ago, ceasefire agreements have been signed between Naypyidaw and 10 ethnic armed groups. However, ethnic leaders have reiterated that the ceasefires is just the first step of a process that must include political solutions.

Despite the ceasefires, clashes and skirmishes have been reported on a regular basis in Shan State, Karenni State, Karen State and most notably in Kachin State where the human cost of the conflict is being felt the most. The Kachin rebels have not reached a truce with the government’s Peace Committee despite several rounds of negotiations.

Shan sources said that government troops launched an offensive against the Shan State Army-North (SSA-North) in southern Shan State over the weekend, just eight days after state-level peace talks were held between the two sides in Mandalay.

On June 29, deadly clashes—five government soldiers were reported killed—broke out between government troops and the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), which signed a peace agreement with the government in June.

Speaking with The Irrawaddy on Wednesday, Maj. Sai Lao Hseng, the main spokesperson for the Shan State Army–South (SSA–South), which signed a ceasefire with the government in December, said that Naypyidaw is responsible for implementing the ceasefire by directing its troops on the ground. He said that until it does, the ceasefire is “worth no more than a piece of paper.”

He added: “We agreed that the end of ethnic conflict is the key in peace-building. That’s why we accepted the government’s offer, the ceasefire,” said Sai Lao Hseng.

“The government wanted to start with a ceasefire. So we signed it. But the ceasefire is just an agreement on paper. We think it doesn’t yet reflect the reality,” he added.

In the Burmese capital, Thein Sein said that it is necessary to create equal political and economic opportunities for the ethnic groups in order to end the ethnic conflicts.

James Lum Dau, the deputy chief of foreign affairs in the Kachin Independence Organization, told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday that the Burmese army should represent the reforms initiated by the president.

He said that there are still ethnic conflicts on the ground because the Burmese armed forces have ignored the government-initiated reforms. The armed forces still launch attacks against the ethnic groups while the president himself has given orders several times for the army to stop military offensives, he added.

“We believe that President Thein Sein shares empathy with us. If the armed forces follow his reforms, things will go smoothly,” he said.

The armed conflict that erupted on June 19 last year in Kachin State between the KIO and the government troops has displaced over 60,000 people in northern Burma—24, 000 in government-controlled areas and about 40,000 in KIO-controlled regions, according to UN figures.

In May, the government reorganized its peace team, dividing it into two groups—the central and working committees—to deal with the armed ethnic groups through peace negotiations. Its members include government ministers, heads of divisions, MPs and military officers.

Meanwhile, the Burmese government officially announced a cabinet reshuffle on Wednesday. Upper House speaker Khin Aung Myint announced the retirement of ailing Vice-president Tin Aung Myint Oo, who was reputed to be one of the hardliners in the government.

Speculation exists in Naypyidaw that Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann will replace him. Other names suggested include Election Commission Chairman Tin Aye, Gen Min Aung Hlaing and Htay Oo, who is the secretary-general of the ex-junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party.