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Burma: Government, Ethnic Minority Begin Second Round of Talks - 2004-02-23

Representatives of Burma's largest ethnic minority, the Karen, have started a second round of talks with the military government on reaching a formal ceasefire. But analysts expect the Karen to remain cautious despite the government's hope of including them in a national constitutional convention later this year. The talks between the Karen leaders and the military government began Monday in the southern Burmese town of Moulmein.

This is the first meeting since leaders from the Karen National Union - KNU - and the government reached what they call a "gentlemen's agreement" last December on a ceasefire. Despite that agreement, military skirmishes have continued in recent months. KNU leaders say they want to cement the December agreement into a written ceasefire, to formally end government military operations in Karen areas. The Karen live mainly along the eastern border with Thailand. Thailand has also been pressing for an agreement between Rangoon and the KNU, to return as many as 140 thousand Karen in Thai refugee camps to Burma.

Aung Zaw is the editor of a Burmese newspaper, The Irrawaddy, published in Thailand. He says a quick agreement is unlikely, especially on issues of territorial control. "I think it will take time. I don't think a lot of KNU leaders, they don't want to rush into making a hasty decision," he says. "I think they will take time." Burma's government is encouraging the KNU and other groups to participate in the national convention, as part of a seven-point road map to democracy the government put forward last year. The convention is to draft a new constitution as a precursor to general elections.

It is not clear all the Karen support the ceasefire effort.

Aung Zaw says he believes the government is willing to accept KNU representatives, even if there are still internal disagreements in the group. "Even if [the] KNU is split and separated because of the disagreement over ceasefire I think Rangoon is willing to accommodate and entertain any faction that will be divided from the mainstream KNU." The KNU is the last of the major ethnic minority guerilla groups in Burma still fighting the government. The conflict to establish a separate Karen state has run for more than 50 years. But the KNU suffered major setbacks in 1995 and again in 1997 when Burma's military overran its headquarters following divisions within the KNU ranks. The government has reached ceasefire agreements with 17 other armed groups since 1989.