Kachin Rebels, Govt to Hold Talks in China

By Todd Pitman 4 February 2013

LAIZA, Kachin State — The Burmese government and ethnic Kachin rebels in northern Burma will hold talks in China this week after some of the worst fighting in the country in years, even as fresh shelling boomed across the front line.

The talks will begin Monday in the Chinese border town of Ruili, officials on both sides said Sunday.

The meeting comes after the army captured several strategic guerrilla-held hilltops this month in the hills around Laiza, which serves as a headquarters for the rebel movement.

The army used fighter jets, helicopter gunships and intense artillery barrages to seize the rebel outposts during its offensive, and there has been speculation that the government launched the assault to strengthen its hand at the negotiating table.

Laiza has been largely quiet since Burma’s army took control of Hkaya Bhum, the highest hill in the area, on Jan. 26. However, Kachin Independence Army (KIA) officers say government troops still sporadically shell rebel posts, some of which have been newly dug as the guerrillas retreated. The rebels say fighting is still occurring in other parts of Kachin State.

Khon Ja, an activist with the Kachin Peace Network, said the army fired four artillery shells at one rebel post a few kilometers west of Laiza on Sunday. A day earlier, they attacked a rebel post at Lawa Yang, just to the southwest.

Government forces are “trying to harass us,” said Sgt. Brang Shawng, who is deployed at Lawa Yang. “They are trying to draw us into a fight, but we are under strict orders not to fire back.”

He said army troops on a hilltop overlooking Lawa Yang attacked his position with rocket-propelled grenades, mortar rounds and bursts of gunfire twice on Saturday.

Referring to Monday’s talks, Brang Shawng said: “We hope there will be a truce so peace will come, but nobody thinks this is going to end soon.”

Since the conflict resumed in June 2011 after a 17-year ceasefire, the two sides have held at least 10 rounds of talks to try to end it.

Monday’s meeting was confirmed by a KIA officer and a civilian official working with the government’s negotiation team. The officials declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject.

The Kachin, like Burma’s other ethnic minorities, 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 administration, which has been praised by world powers for making political and economic strides toward democratic rule over the last two years.

AP writer Yadana Htun contributed to this report from Rangoon.