Govt and Rebel Groups Discuss Aid for Ethnic Areas

By Saw Yan Naing 20 February 2013

Burma’s government and an alliance of 11 ethnic militias discussed for the first time how local and international aid projects could be implemented in the country’s impoverished ethnic regions, negotiators from both sides announced on Wednesday.

Government peace negotiator Aung Min met with the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), an alliance of 11 ethnic armed groups, in Chiang Mai, Thailand. On Wednesday evening, the sides held a press conference in the city’s Holiday Inn.

According to a joint statement, they discussed how to arrange the future implementation of government and international development projects in the ethnic regions of the 11 member groups of the UNFC.

Such projects would focus on humanitarian aid, development of agriculture, livestock and fisheries in ethnic regions, as well as the implementation of health and education programs for minorities, the statement said.

It was the first time that Burma’s central government and ethnic rebels discussed such projects, which could bring much needed development and relief to the war-torn and isolated ethnic regions.

Minister Aung Min and his counterpart UNFC secretary Nai Hong Sar told reporters that the meeting had been a success and further talks would be held before the end of April.

“We had a very good meeting, it was very positive,” said Nai Hong Sar. “We are now on the right track,” Aung Min said, adding, “It’s very possible to meet again within two months.”

The leaders said they had also discussed a timeframe for their political dialogue, but they offered few details on how the sides could move closer to a political agreement.

Most of the UNFC’s ethnic groups have fought decades-long conflicts over their demands for greater political autonomy, while they would also like to see the military-drafted 2008 Constitution amended.

All UNFC members have reached tentative ceasefire agreements with Burma’s central government in recent years, except for the Kachin rebels. They are engaged in an ongoing bloody conflict with the government since June 2011.

Government negotiator Aung Min said his delegation would meet with the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) leaders in Chiang Mai this week for further ceasefire talks. Both sides last met in Ruili, China on Feb. 4 but no agreement was reached.

“We agreed to meet with the KIO again and it is a good sign that the KIO general secretary Dr. La Ja attend the [UNFC] meeting today,” said Aung Min. “It is not an official [ceasefire] meeting, but it will be an informal meeting with KIO leaders in Chiang Mai.” The place and time of the meeting had yet to be confirmed, he added.

“Since we met with the KIO on Feb. 4 Kachin State seems more peaceful,” Aung Min said. KIO leader La Ja agreed that the situation in Kachin State had improved, adding, “The fighting between the government and the [Kachin Independence Army] has been reduced.”

Asked whether Burmese troops would withdraw from ethnic areas, Aung Min said this was “a military issue” that had to be discussed with the leaders of Burma’s military.

During an interview after the press conference, Karen National Union (KNU) central committee member Daw Lay Mu said, “The KNU will continue with the ceasefire process but so far there has been no military withdrawal from the KNU areas. So we have to continue our negotiations with the government”

“The conditions are not yet certain, because we only have a ceasefire agreement and we have not talked in detail about the code of conduct,” he said. “We have to wait whether the government will accept the code of conduct.”

Late last year the KNU has proposed a code of conduct that specifies rules for government and rebel troops during the ceasefire. Karen leaders have also demanded a withdrawal of Burmese military.