Rebel Kachin Leader Says Trust in Burma Is Low

By Todd Pitman 5 December 2014

BANGKOK — A leader of ethnic Kachin rebels fighting in Burma said Friday that trust in the country’s military-dominated government was at an all-time low despite years of peace talks aimed at resolving the conflict in the country’s jade-rich north.

But rebel Gen. Gun Maw told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview that the insurgent group was still committed to dialogue because it is “the only way forward.”

Fighting between the army and Kachin insurgents flared anew in 2011, ending a 17-year-ceasefire and forcing more than 120,000 people from their homes. Since then, Burma President Thein Sein’s administration has agreed to tentative truces with 14 insurgent factions, but it has been unable to secure a deal with the Kachin or broker a broader, nationwide ceasefire with a rebel alliance that top government negotiators have met with regularly since last year.

“Our trust in the government and the army is lower now than when we started talking,” Gun Maw said during a visit to Bangkok. “But the lack of trust is why talks are necessary.”

Already strained negotiations were dealt a severe blow on Nov. 19 when the army fired a pair of 105mm artillery shells at a Kachin military academy just north of their headquarters in Laiza on the Chinese border, killing 23 people and injuring 20. Only four of the wounded were part of the Kachin rebel organization, however. The rest were members of other allied ethnic groups who had come for training, said Gun Maw, who serves as vice chief of staff of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).

Both sides have accused each other of initiating firefights in recent months, and rebels say the Burma Army is still firing shells sporadically at Kachin outposts from hills they seized during a weeks-long offensive that ended in January 2013.

Gun Maw said the rebels’ main aim was to achieve equal rights and autonomy within a federalist system, an idea first enshrined in the so-called Panglong Agreement of 1947—which was sealed with ethnic groups who make up about 40 percent of the population. The deal fell apart after national independence hero Gen. Aung San was assassinated the same year and has been generally ignored by the authoritarian military regimes that followed.

A major stumbling block to any deal, Gun Maw said, is the army’s insistence that rebels accept the military-drafted 2008 Constitution, which deprives ethnic minorities the right to self-determination. The charter also ensures military domination over the government, giving the armed forces chief more power than the president—including the extraordinary “right to take over and exercise state sovereign power” if an emergency is deemed to threaten the union. It also ensures that 25 percent of lawmakers are military appointees who retain veto power over all constitutional amendments.

“Ultimately they don’t want to change the 2008 Constitution because doing so would reduce their power,” Gun Maw said. “Their approach to negotiations has been, ‘You have to listen to our demands.’”

Another sticking point is the future of the ethnic armies who control a vast patchwork of territories along Burma’s northern and eastern borders. There has been no agreement on whether they would lay down their arms or join a federal army, and Gun Maw said that would only be discussed after a general political agreement is eventually reached.

Gun Maw said that peace talks so far had achieved only the minutest of successes—for example, not agreement on federalism or political dialogue, but an understanding that those issues must be discussed in the future.

After retired general Thein Sein assumed the presidency in 2011 and spearheaded a series of dramatic reforms that have opened the country and liberalized its economy, millions of people hoped the country was finally turning around after half a century of military rule. But analysts say reforms have now stalled and continued fighting on the battlefield is part of a greater effort by the army to strengthen its hand and secure mining regions rich in jade and timber.

Asked if he believed the government was committed to peace, Gun Maw said: “I have faith that there will eventually be a solution.”