A top government negotiator and a senior leader of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) held informal talks in northern Thailand’s Chiang Rai Province on Monday, meeting for the first time since the formation of a new government peace committee on May 3.
According to both government and KIA sources, Aung Min, a vice chairman of Naypyidaw’s Union Peace-making Working Committee, met with the KIA’s vice chief of staff, Maj-Gen Sumlut Gun Maw, on Monday morning to exchange views on the ongoing conflict in Kachin State.
“It was just an informal meeting that lasted the whole morning until lunch time. It was just a beginning for possible meetings in the future. So both sides just agreed to meet again,” said Gun Maw after the talks.
A government source who said that discussions also took place over dinner on Sunday evening described the encounter as “frank” and “positive” for both sides.
Aung Min previously met a Kachin delegation led by N’Ban La, the vice chairman of the KIA’s political wing, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), in November of last year. Today’s meeting was his first with Gun Maw, who is the KIA’s second highest ranking commander.
The two sides have been fighting since June 2011, when government troops attacked KIA bases around the Chinese-invested Tapaing hydro-power stations near the Sino-Burmese border.
Despite reports that the conflict in Kachin State is intensifying, some say the prospects for peace have improved since President Thein Sein decided earlier this month to chair the government’s peace committee alongside other senior figures in Burma’s power hierarchy.
Since August 2011, government negotiators have held peace talks with 11 ethnic armed groups, including the KIO, the Karen National Union (KNU), the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), the New Mon State Party (NMSP), the Chin National Front (CNF) and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), as well as two Shan armed groups.
Although most of these negotiations have been successful, the Kachin conflict has yet to show any signs of nearing a resolution, raising concerns among international observers, including governments eager to engage the Thein Sein administration.
“We are concerned about violence in Kachin State in recent weeks, and I was very pleased to hear about new mechanisms, both official and nongovernmental, to encourage meaningful dialogue,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Thursday after her meeting with Burmese Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin in Washington, D.C.
Despite the creation of these “new mechanisms,” however, the conflict continues, with fresh reports of skirmishes and government army artillery shelling on the villages of Laja-yang and Nalung, near the KIO headquarters of Laiza, ahead of today’s meeting.
Meanwhile, the state-run New Light of Myanmar alleged on Sunday that the KIA used mines to destroy four transmission towers in northern Shan State over the weekend.
There are also concerns that the reshuffle of the government’s peace team will bring no more than superficial changes. State media on Saturday published details of the new peace committee’s agenda, which critics said showed the government has not fundamentally altered its position in its negotiations with ethnic armed groups.
According to the reports, the groups are expected “to unconditionally return to the legal fold … in line with the constitution” and “transform into an armed organization in line with the constitution.”
This second condition is reminiscent of an effort by Burma’s former junta to transform ceasefire groups into “border guard forces” under Burmese military command in the run-up to the November 2010 election, a move that sparked renewed hostilities between government and ethnic forces.