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January 31, 2013

Burma Confirms Peace Talks with Kachin Rebels

by Daniel Schearf

Burma has confirmed a new round of peace talks with Kachin rebels will be hosted by another insurgent group, the United Wa State Army.  The Wa have close links to China, which has expressed concern about stability along the border. 

Burma's presidential spokesman Ye Htut confirmed the peace talks to VOA Thursday after Kachin rebels agreed they could take place in eastern Shan state's Panghsang.  

It is the headquarters of the United Wa State Army, Burma's largest ethnic rebel group, with close ties to neighboring China.

Ye Htut says they accepted the Wa's offer to host negotiations between the government and the Kachin Independence Organization.  He says they are still discussing a date for the talks. "We already clearly stated we are ready to meet whenever and what places for the peace talks with the KIO.  So, when the Wa offered their place, we agree on that," he said.

A 17-year ceasefire between the KIO's armed wing, the Kachin Independence Army, and Burma authorities broke down after clashes erupted in 2011.  Each side blame the other for starting the fighting.

In December, clashes between soldiers and rebels intensified in northern Kachin state.

Burma jet fighters and helicopters attacked areas around La Ja Yang and KIO headquarters in Laiza, on the border with China.

Several shells landed along the border and in Chinese territory

Kachin communities on both sides demonstrated for peace and Beijing urged restraint.

The escalating clashes led to international expressions of concern and, under pressure, the government declared a ceasefire.  But witnesses say only the air attacks stopped, while heavy mortar and artillery fire continued.

Wa spokesman U Aung Myint says the government accepted their offer to host the talks several days ago, but were waiting for the KIA agreement, which came Tuesday. 

He says, after the date of the talks is determined, then they need to decide who from the KIA and who from the government will attend the discussions.

U Aung Myint says both sides approve of meeting in Wa territory because it is safe and they know each other well.

The Wa were the largest of several ethnic armed groups to form after the breakup of the Burmese Communist Party in 1989, which Beijing directly supported.

The Wa and Kachin both share borders with China. Burma signed a ceasefire with the Wa in 1989 that has held despite occasional tensions.

It has also allowed them to become the region's largest narcotics dealer with a leader on a U.S. "most wanted" list.

Burma's 2009 attack on a Kokang militia for refusing to become government border guards put the Wa, who also refuse, on guard.

Security analysts say, since then, the Wa have been carefully watching the conflict in Kachin state and quietly building up a stronger military deterrent with China's help.

The Chinese Embassy in Rangoon denies Beijing carried out any weapons transfers.

Burmese authorities and the KIO have held several rounds of talks that made little progress.  The KIO wants to discuss the sensitive issue of autonomy while the government first wants a formal ceasefire.

The Chinese border town, Ruili, hosted the last round of peace talks, in October, but the KIA did not send a commander with decision-making authority.

Ye Htut says the break-down in dialogue led to the renewed clashes. "So, then October 30th, we sent Lt. General Myint Soe, who has control over the Kachin in northern Shan state.  But, they refused to send their authoritative person from the KIA," he stated. "That's why the negotiations stopped at that level and that led to the recent fighting in the La Ja Yang area."

Ye Htut says it is important the KIA sends high-level representatives to this round of talks so real progress can be made.

A KIA spokesperson has not been available for comment since the fighting intensified.

But, peace negotiators and analysts say the rebels' reluctance is based on a lack of trust