May 02, 2013

No ceasefire agreement at "positive" Myanmar peace talks -iHS

May 02, '13

The latest round of peace talks between the Myanmar government and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) on 4 February brought no breakthrough, but opens the doors for further dialogue.

The Myanmar government's Union Peace-Making Committee held talks with the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) on 4 February. The talks come after an offensive by government forces that began in mid-December that led to the insurgents losing a string of key mountain outposts around their headquarters in Laiza, as the Myanmar armed forces (Tatmadaw) launched daily barrages of artillery and mortar fire. The Tatmadaw made unprecedented use of light jet fighters (Karakorum-8) and its new Mi-35 Hind-E helicopter gunships to attack rebel positions, eventually forcing the KIO's military wing, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), to abandon four critical mountain posts around Laiza. Since taking the highest point in the region at Hka Ya mountain on 26 January, the Tatmadaw has virtually ceased hostilities in the region, although fighting continues in more remote parts of the state. The KIA has been in open conflict with the Tatmadaw since June 2011, when a 17-year ceasefire collapsed.
As with earlier such dialogue between the KIO/KIA and the government, the latest peace talks yielded little in the way of substantive agreements, and both sides failed to make sufficient concessions to sign a fresh ceasefire. Despite this, the talks were seen as tentatively positive by the two conflict parties and observers, in the sense that they opened the door for further dialogue, which is likely to take place in late February. A joint statement by both sides also stressed the need to ease military tension, and to have lines of communication on either side. If followed up, these are potentially important confidence-building measures. Since December 2011, President Thein Sein has called on the military to cease any military action against the KIA that is not defensive, a demand that has consistently been ignored by the Tatmadaw leadership. This has called into question the nature of the relationship between the executive and the military, with its contours still unclear, and potentially serious implications for the prospects of peace not only between the government and the KIA, but also between the government and other armed ethnic minority groups.
Mediation efforts
Recent rounds of peace talks have been notable not for what they addressed, but for China's role in facilitating them. China, which became Myanmar's dominant economic partner during the latter's years as an international pariah, is primarily interested in protecting its investments. It has spent around USD13 billion since 2008 – much of it in Kachin State – to exploit Myanmar's jade, timber, gold, and energy resources. The escalation of conflict has also come close to China's new oil and gas pipelines, which are due to start operations in May and will link its eastern Yunnan province to the Bay of Bengal by cutting straight across Myanmar. These pipelines have the potential to cut China's reliance on shipments through the congested Malacca Strait by up to a third. This has led China to repeatedly call for an end to hostilities and offer its territory as a site for negotiations between the KIA and the Myanmar government. While China's credentials as an interlocutor appear obvious, the agreement on the Chinese border town of Ruili as a venue for the peace talks did not come easy. It was mainly the KIO/KIA pushing for this venue, as for the group it was important to hold talks in a neutral setting if they could not be held in KIO/KIA-held territory. The KIO/KIA previously rejected the government's offer to hold such talks in Myanmar's capital Naypyidaw. Apart from China, the broader international community also remains a force for conciliation. The United States and European Union both condemned the escalation in fighting in Kachin over the past month, and pressed the government on progress in peace talks, which has probably reinforced the Thein Sein administration's amenable rhetoric on the issue.
KIA soldiers guard an outpost on the Law Hpyu hilltop, 
5 km from the town of Laiza, in Northern Myanmar's Kachin-controlled region, 
on 31 January.

Intractable conflict?
The outcome of the talks does not immediately indicate whether either of the two sides has entered the dialogue with a changed attitude. Previously, the two sides' demands were all but mutually exclusive. Disenchanted by the complete lack of progress during the 17-year ceasefire that ended in June 2011, the KIO/KIA has demanded that the government addresses political aspects of the conflict before signing a fresh ceasefire. For the KIO/KIA (and for a number of other groups that are combined in the loose alliance of the United National Federal Council (UNFC)), this entails a federal state solution with far-reaching autonomy from the centre; a demand that has been consistently rejected by successive military government since 1962, and continues to be vigorously opposed by the current semi-civilian government under Thein Sein. The KIO/KIA fears that if it signs another ceasefire along the lines of the one that lapsed in June 2011, it is unlikely that its political status would be addressed anytime soon. On the other hand, the government is under pressure from the international community, and particularly China, and has attempted to coax the KIO/KIA into a ceasefire deal that would have resembled the one struck in 1994. Concomitant to the softened language of the new government, it has also openly stressed its readiness for political dialogue, but maintained that any political solution to the conflict would have to be struck through the legal political route, namely by political parties in parliament, as the KIO/KIA's demands would require important changes to the 2008 constitution. Successive governments have evinced a highly suspicious attitude towards the word "federal", as it is seen as a first step towards secession. The change from direct military rule to a semi-civilian entity is slowly working to soften such perceptions, but complex transitional dynamics between the main pillars of power in the country make it imperative for the government to maintain stability by maintaining its conservative stance on the ethnic issue, even if it is softened with more progressive rhetoric.
Given the restrictive provisions of the constitution, the KIO/KIA (as well as all other members of the UNFC) has rejected the government's proposals of addressing their status in parliament, as they fear that the constitutionally protected dominant role of the military in national politics could dilute any efforts of political decentralisation. The progress would also be delayed, as the earliest date by which potentially newly formed ethnic parties could make a difference in parliament would be after the next general elections, which are scheduled for November 2015. It should also be noted that while all other members of the UNFC have signed preliminary ceasefires with the government on a one-to-one basis, they are in agreement that any lasting political solution would have to be struck between the government and the UNFC as a whole. In this sense, the refusal of the KIO/KIA to sign a fresh ceasefire before political issues are addressed effectively serves as an insurance policy for the UNFC as a whole, which aims to prevent the kind of divide-and-rule practices that it has accused the government of over the past decades. The complexity of the situation means that despite the high pressure on both sides to come to an agreement, quick progress towards a more lasting peace agreement is unlikely.
Outlook and implications
The complexity of the conflict situation in Myanmar limits the chances of a lasting political resolution. However, for different reasons, Western governments and China are keen to see meaningful negotiations between all relevant stakeholders and have considerable leverage as Myanmar seeks international legitimacy and foreign investment. Despite the Tatmadaw's undisputed advantage of its overwhelming firepower, the recent campaigns have also exposed weaknesses in its military power. Combined with the risk of a sustained guerrilla campaign on the part of the KIO/KIA in case its headquarters is taken, Myanmar is unlikely to be able, or willing, to end the conflict militarily, meaning that decisions are most likely to emerge from negotiations rather than on the battlefield. Without a marked change in the Myanmar government's, and crucially the Tatmadaw's, approach to these discussions, further outbreaks of fighting are likely.

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