MYITKYINA, Kachin State — The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and the Burmese government have agreed to set up a peace monitoring commission, as fresh clashes in northern Burma threaten to derail the country’s peace process.
Leaders of the Kachin ethnic armed group are meeting in the Kachin State capital this week with government peace negotiators to try to restore calm in Kachin State and northern Shan State, where fighting between the Burma Army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), as well as the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and Shan State Army-North (SSA-N), has displaced thousands more civilians since last month.
The bilateral meeting is taking place separately from ongoing talks involving most of Burma’s ethnic armed groups toward a nationwide ceasefire agreement.
M-Seik Chan, a central committee member of the New Mon State Party observing the talks, said a commission would be formed to observe troop movements on both sides and establish who is responsible for future clashes.
“Both sides agreed to form a monitoring group to observe fighting in Kachin. There is ongoing discussion on this issue at the meeting,” M-Seik Chan told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday.
“They did not reach an agreement yet on who will participate in this monitoring group.”
It is unclear who has initiated the recent clashes, but the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), an alliance of ethnic armed groups, said last month the Burma Army had “used, positioned and deployed an overwhelming force with the aim of encircling and annihilating the KIA, TNLA and SSA-N forces.”
Sumlut Gam, head of the KIO delegation in Myitkyina, said at the opening of the talks that both sides in the conflict had failed to respect and fully implement previous agreements.
“We have [in the past] agreed to stop fighting with the government. And fighting has reduced in some areas, and some areas have almost no fighting because of the agreement,” he said.
“Our analysis is that fighting broke out again because both sides have weaknesses in maintaining and taking responsibility for peace agreements. Similarly, both sides do not have understanding, and have not respected each other or trusted each other.”
He said the KIO leadership had called this week’s talks because it sincerely believed that negotiations could resolve the conflict.
About 200 people joined the meeting Tuesday at Kachin National Manau Park. The KIO was represented by 10 leaders and the government’s nine-member delegation was led by President’s Office Minister Aung Min. Representatives of the United Nations, the Chinese government, and other ethnic armed groups who are members of the UNFC observed the talks.
Speaking at the meeting, Aung Min said the government and the KIO had met officially on three previous occasions during the current conflict. He agreed with his counterpart that agreements forged between the two sides must be implemented better.
“We had an agreement with the KIO to stop fighting from our first talks. We could not write it on paper, but fighting did stop,” he said.
“We should learn from the causes of the recent fighting. And, at the same time, the KIO and the government should work hard to implement previous agreements.”
He proposed that the two sides have a mechanism for resolving conflicts, in order to prevent clashes that affect civilians.
“It is difficult to build peace if there is no trust. It is difficult to build trust when there is no agreement to stop fighting,” Aung Min said.
Kachin State, which has been the site of the most severe fighting in Burma in recent years, is rich in natural resources, including jade and timber. Some residents view the war since a long-standing ceasefire broke down in 2011 as an attempt by the government to seize control of those resources.
A police detective visiting Myitkyina, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Irrawaddy that commercial interests appeared to be at the heart of the fighting.
“This fighting is just a problem of businesses interest,” he said. “The government troops attack KIA troops for logging. The KIA also attacks back at the government troops for logging. This is the main reason.”
Nai Hong Sar, head of the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team— which representing Burma’s ethnic armed groups in peace talks with the government—said the recent clashes had badly damaged trust at an important point in negotiations for a nationwide ceasefire. The two sides have agreed “in principle” on a draft agreement, but much of the agreement’s wording remains in dispute.
“The KIO has already mentioned that both sides have weaknesses in maintaining and respecting peace agreements. But, the government side did not mentioned this yet,” Nai Hong Sar said of the first morning of the Myitkyina talks.
“From one side, we try to have talks, but another side uses armed force. This does not show a genuine desire for peace in the country. We all are human beings. No one is happy when their people are suffering from fighting.”