RANGOON — After more than three years of fighting, Burma’s President Thein Sein finally shook hands with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) leaders during the group’s first ever visit to Naypyidaw on Monday.
The KIA, one of Burma’s strongest ethnic armed groups, has been engaged in occasionally intense fighting with the Burma Army since mid-2011 when a 17-year-old ceasefire collapsed.
The meeting comes at a time of an escalation in the fighting between the Kokang rebels of the Myanmar Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the Burma Army, a conflict that has killed dozens of soldiers and displaced tens of thousands of civilians in northern Shan State since Feb. 9.
The Kachin leaders visited Naypyidaw while on their way to a nationwide ceasefire meeting between the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT) and the Union Peacemaking Working Committee of Minister Aung Min in Rangoon this week.
Following the ceasefire negotiations on Tuesday, NCCT leader Khun Okkar said the latest round of talks had proceeded smoothly, aided by an “understanding” reached between the government and the KIA during their meeting—an understanding that could help reduce the conflict in northern Shan State.
The KIA is an influential member of the NCCT, which represents 16 ethnic armed groups involved in the ceasefire process, and it currently chairs the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), an alliance of ethnic groups.
It seems that ethnic leaders and the government have realized that the KIA is a key player in reducing conflict in northern Burma and in bringing the nationwide ceasefire process back on track after it hit deadlock in September.
Until now, the government had blamed the KIA for the Kachin conflict and even claimed that the group doesn’t want a ceasefire. Instead, the government actively courted its oldest foe, the Karen National Union (KNU), which has enjoyed good relations with Naypyidaw since singing a bilateral ceasefire in 2012.
The government put a special emphasis on cultivating its relations with KNU leader Mutu Say Poe, who has met with Thein Sein and Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing several times, in the hope that the group could further the nationwide ceasefire process. On Union Day, Thein Sein offered a ceasefire process pledge to ethnic leaders but only the KNU, two smaller Karen rebel groups and the Shan State Army-South signed it.
The KNU’s influence on other ethnic groups appears limited and Mutu Say Poe’s standing among NCCT leaders seems low. Instead, KIA deputy chief-of-staff Gen. Gun Maw has proven himself a pragmatic and capable leader who has earned the respect of fellow ethnic leaders in the NCCT and UNFC.
Following the escalation in the Kokang conflict, the government might now feel it needs to shift its focus northward and improve relations with the KIA if it wants to advance peace among ethnic groups in Shan and Kachin states.
This new government approach could produce results for Burma’s peace process, yet fundamental problems remain in Naypyidaw’s plans. These have long included a strategy of “divide and rule” among the various ethnic groups, and smaller groups have been actively marginalized by the government.
The Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) is an ally of the KIA and was supposed to join KIA leaders during their Naypyidaw visit, but the government refused to meet the ethnic Palaung leaders.
The latter have been invited for a meeting with the government only twice in recent years, even though the Palaung insurgency in northern Shan State has widened and gained popular support. The number of TNLA fighters has grown from a few hundred to several thousands in recent years and clashes between the TNLA and government forces are becoming increasingly frequent.
The government refuses to recognize the Kokang rebels of the MNDAA and the Arakan Army, both relatively small rebel groups. Now, the TNLA, the MNDAA and the Arakan Army have linked up and are jointly putting up tough resistance against the army in northern Shan State.
Unless the government begins to treat all ethnic armed groups equally Burma cannot have peace. Improving only the relations with major armed groups is not enough to resolve the country’s long-running ethnic conflict. All groups should be treated with equal respect so that a permanent solution can be found.