During a series of high-level talks taking place this week in Naypyidaw, the Burmese government has agreed to withdraw some of its troops from areas close to territory controlled by ethnic Karen rebels in eastern Burma, according to a Karen National Union (KNU) official.
Leaders of the KNU and its armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), are meeting top Burmese government and military officials. The talks come as relations between the Karen ethnic armed group and the Burmese government—who have been fighting a civil war for decades—appear at a high, and as talks are continuing with most of the country’s rebel armies toward a nationwide ceasefire agreement.
Saw Kwe Htoo Win, general secretary of the KNU, told The Irrawaddy on Thursday that the purpose of the meetings this week was to have positive “tripartite dialogue” with the army, the government and Parliament.
The Karen delegation, led by KNU chairman Mutu Say Poe, met with Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the Burmese military, and Burmese President Thein Sein on Wednesday. Parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann was set to meet the delegation Thursday.
According to Saw Kwe Htoo Win, the government side agreed to withdraw some troops from around KNU-controlled territory. Coming in response to a KNU request, it is not the first time the government has made such a pledge, and it is unclear how it will translate into action.
The two sides signed a ceasefire in 2012, but the military retains a large presence in Karen State. Local civil society groups have called for a code of conduct to be finalized and implemented to reduce human rights violations by soldiers.
Relations between government representatives and the Karen rebel leadership—which has been one of the most enthusiastic among Burma’s ethnic groups about a nationwide ceasefire—appear to be friendly. Burmese presidential spokesman Ye Htut, in a post on his Facebook account, said that he was particularly pleased to see KNLA Commander-in-Chief Gen. Saw Johnny in the capital.
“Today at the meeting between President [Thein Sein] and the KNU chairman, there is a person that I wanted to see the most. He is the commander-in-chief of the KNU,” Ye Htut said on Wednesday evening.
Ye Htut explained that as a low-ranking Burmese official in 1980s, he was well aware of Gen. Saw Johnny, who was then serving as a commander of a KNLA battalion and was renowned for his fighting ability.
“Because his ability was great in fighting, when we heard news about his military activities, we had to be alert, aware and keep our eyes on it,” Ye Htut said in the post.
“Although, Gen. Johnny is a rival to us, as a soldier, I respected his ability in war. It is the result of peace that we now see him as a negotiation counterpart at the table, not on the battlefield.”
Aside from Gen. Saw Johnny, it is reported that there are two other KNLA leaders that the Burmese government peace delegation wanted to see the most at peace talks. They are KNLA’s vice commander-in-chief, Gen. Baw Kyaw Heh, who is described by some as a “hardliner” who advocates a cautious approach the peace talks with the government, and Gen. Saw Isaac.
Also present at the meetings in Naypyidaw were other government officials such as President’s Office Minister Aung Min, the government’s key peace negotiator, and Minister of Immigration Khin Yi. The KNU delegation also includes executive committee members such as Mahn Nyein Maung, Col. Saw Roger and Col. Htoo Htoo Lay.
The meetings this week have received widespread coverage in private and state-owned media in Burma, but Karen civil society organizations voiced concerns over the lack of transparency about the content of the meetings.
A group of community-based organizations (CBOs) and civil society organizations (CSO) in a statement welcomed the talks, but said they are “concerned about the lack of transparency in the process under the guise of ‘informal meetings.’”
“The talks must be open and transparent so the people are informed how they are progressing,” the statement said.
“Both sides must recognize and allow the active role that CBOs and CSOs should play in the peace process as they are immediately in contact with the grassroots communities in conflict-affected areas.”