LAW KHEE LAR, Karen State — Ethnic leaders and observers at an ongoing conference of ethnic armed groups in southeastern Burma say their confidence in the peace-making process has been shaken by recent reports that the commander-in-chief of the government army declared his troops had only ever acted defensively against the rebels.
Building trust with the government is a major concern moving forward, they say, after Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing reportedly defended his army’s operations in Kachin State and cast blame for violence on ethnic rebels, while also saying his troops were “afraid of no one.”
“There is very little trust between them,” Naw Susanna Hla Hla Soe, director of the Rangoon-based Karen Women’s Action Group (KWAG), a civil society group, told The Irrawaddy, referring to the government and ethnic rebel groups. She is attending the conference as an observer, and said ethnic rebel leaders including members of the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT) were “very concerned about the comments made recently by the commander-in-chief.”
According to local media reports, Min Aung Hlaing made the comments in a November speech while addressing a group of officers in Naypyidaw who had completed a training course. Local newspaper True News broke the story earlier this month, saying it had obtained a transcript of the speech. The newspaper’s story was later shared on the official Facebook page of the Burmese-language state run Mirror newspaper.
A conference of most of Burma’s ethnic armed groups began on Monday in Karen National Union (KNU)-controlled territory near the Burma-Thai border, with an ethnic Karen leader affirming his support for ongoing talks with the government toward a nationwide ceasefire agreement. The conference at the KNU’s Law Khee Lah base is taking place ahead of more talks with government negotiators in the Karen State capital of Pa-an next month,
Observers on Wednesday said poor trust with the government was not the only obstacle on the path to peace. Than Khe, head of the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF), said disagreements within and between ethnic armed groups were also slowing negotiations.
“Overall, they agree that political problems must be solved through political means. But I think there is major concern that they will not be able to commit to what the government has asked of them, based on their histories and backgrounds,” he told The Irrawaddy.
One debate concerns terminology. Some ethnic leaders want to refer to themselves as ethnic “revolution” armed groups in any future nationwide ceasefire agreement, to indicate that they have been fighting for a political purpose, but the government rejects this term.
Col. Sai Hla, a spokesman for the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), said that despite some disagreements, his group would follow the desires of the majority.
The RCSS did not initially sign up to terms agreed by other ethnic armed groups at an earlier conference in Laiza, Kachin State, at the beginning of November.
“The idea that has been raised in the meeting—to hold negotiations on a nationwide ceasefire agreement, followed by the framework of political dialogue—is close to our policy. So even though we did not sign the agreement with the NCCT [in Laiza], we will sign it at any time when the government agrees to it.”