US Will ‘Consider Seriously’ Requests to Support Burma’s Peace Process

By Samantha Michaels 23 April 2014

RANGOON — The US Embassy in Burma says it will seriously consider any request from the Burmese government and ethnic minority groups to support ongoing dialogue as part of the country’s peace process, after an ethnic army leader recently called for greater US involvement.

During a visit to the United States that began last week, Gen. Gun Maw, the deputy commander in chief of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA)—the biggest armed group still fighting the Burmese government—asked US officials to increase their presence in the peace process to ensure an improvement in the human rights situation for ethnic minorities.

“General Gun Maw’s visit to Washington and New York City was very helpful to enable candid discussions at senior levels with US government officials about the state of the peace process here,” a spokesman for the US Embassy in Rangoon told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday.

Gun Maw is thought to be the most senior KIA official ever to visit the United States.

“We support dialogue as the best and only way to address the root cause of longstanding conflict, and to ultimately achieve lasting peace, justice, reconciliation and equitable development in Burma,” the embassy spokesman said. “And we will consider seriously any request that comes from both the union government and the ethnic nationality representatives to support the ongoing dialogue.”

While individual officials from both the KIA and the Burmese government have in the past asked for greater US involvement in peace talks, it is understood that neither side has offered an official invitation for the United States to observe the next round of negotiations.

However, in an interview with Reuters on Monday, Gun Maw indicated that the presence of US observers would be welcomed. “We would like to have the US present at the peace process as a witness, so this agreement will become strong,” he was quoted as saying. “At present, we are still asking the US to be involved. Whether they will be, we don’t know yet.”

The Burmese government said this week that conflicts with ethnic armed groups should be considered a domestic issue only. Presidential spokesman Ye Htut told The Associated Press on Tuesday that his government would listen to advice from other countries, but added that the US track record of ending conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan was “not impressive.”

The Burmese government is engaging with more than a dozen ethnic armed groups in peace negotiations, following decades of civil war. Since 2011, the government has signed individual ceasefire deals with all but two of the country’s major ethnic armed groups, with efforts under way to consolidate those deals into one nationwide ceasefire.

The KIA and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) do not currently have individual ceasefires with the government. In Kachin State, fighting has escalated this month, displacing thousands of civilians and leaving at least 22 people dead, according to state media. Over the past three years, the conflict has displaced more than 100,000 civilians.

Kachin army leaders have held three rounds of peace negotiations with the Burmese government since early 2013 in Kachin State and neighboring China. The next round of talks is scheduled to begin next month.

Meanwhile, leaders of 14 ethnic armed groups, including the KIA and the TNLA, met with government peace negotiators earlier this month in Rangoon to discuss the nationwide ceasefire. Both sides said they agreed “in principle” on a draft of the agreement, but differences remained over the wording of certain elements.

“We welcome progress made by the union government and ethnic armed groups on recent rounds of negotiations on the nationwide ceasefire agreement and we applaud the seriousness of purpose that both sides have brought to the effort in the last few weeks and months,” the US Embassy spokesman told The Irrawaddy.

“And we encourage all parties to build on this momentum and to continue to work toward a sustainable peace and an inclusive process of national and political dialogue because we truly believe the ceasefire is just the beginning, but that after that a process of national political dialogue will be crucial.”

While the United States has never sent observers to formal peace talks in Burma, US Ambassador to Burma Derek Mitchell has repeatedly urged Burmese officials to ensure that the negotiations are inclusive of all ethnic groups and concerned civil society organizations.

The United States funds capacity-building programs for civil society groups in Burma, including many based in ethnic states, to increase their skills and knowledge of topics that could be applicable to long-term political dialogue. A small grants program provides US funding to civil society groups for activities ranging from elections training to land-use workshops and gender empowerment programming. Burmese lawmakers and civil society representatives were also invited to the United States last year to discuss constitutional reform.