Myanmar closer to ceasefire with rebels

Myanmar closer to ceasefire with rebels

YANGON - Hopes for a nationwide ceasefire accord between the Myanmar government and 16 armed ethnic groups and alliances have brightened.

The seventh round of long-running peace talks in Yangon paused on Sunday for a week but are expected to result in an agreement when the parties reconvene on March 30.

Sources said groundwork for the progress, after months of cordial but stalled negotiations and armed clashes in some areas, came in meetings last week in the capital Naypyitaw between the top leadership of the powerful Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) and President Thein Sein.

The KIO leaders also met separately with Myanmar's army chief, General Min Aung Hlaing, whose troops are fighting a Kokang warlord on the border with China.

It was the first time the Kachin leadership, which had been split between a faction in Myanmar and a faction in northern Thailand, had presented a united front, said a government insider familiar with the talks.

"This time around, the KIO's armed forces chief, Major-General Sumlut Gun Maw, was able to convince the KIO central committee to give it a chance," he said.

Analysts say the war in Kokang was a wake-up call.

Kokang rebels aided by factions from some other armed groups launched attacks on the Myanmar army but then found themselves subjected to a full-scale offensive by a confident Gen Min Aung Hlaing.

It showed that the army was serious and "the longer it - the talks - drag on, the more the armed groups have to lose", the government insider said.

All issues have now been agreed upon, except so-called "interim arrangements" that would be put in place to manage a ceasefire until political talks begin in May.

"We are confident that we can start political dialogue in May," Mr Soe Thane, a minister in the President's Office, told The Straits Times.

The accord is a sought-after goal for President Thein Sein.

It would, on paper, put an end to decades of grinding civil wars that erupted soon after independence in 1948 from British colonial rule, pitting ethnic minorities against the Burman majority.

Ceasefires have thus far been tenuous, with some armed minorities running their own de facto states in border areas.

A new, nationwide ceasefire would also bring a measure of stability as the country edges towards a landmark general election at the end of the year.

But a lack of trust and wrangling over the military's role and clashes between the army and groups from the Kachin and Shan had stalled talks for months.

With time running out, government negotiators launched a last-ditch effort during five days of talks last week to extract an agreement after it failed to materialise on the original target date, Feb 12.

Mr Richard Horsey, an independent analyst based in Yangon, said: "Things are certainly looking much more hopeful, although there remains some way to go to getting the NCA agreed and signed," he said, referring to the accord.

"The Kokang fighting may have played a part in this, with some groups worrying about a risk of contagion and thus wanting to demonstrate their continued commitment to a political resolution of the conflicts."

Another analyst who asked not to be named said: "The KIO and others felt the need to demonstrate very strongly that they were part of the solution, not part of the problem."

But he cautioned that while a nationwide ceasefire now seemed more likely, contentious issues involving the military had been kicked into the future - thus potentially emerging again to erode an agreement.

This article was first published on March 24, 2015.
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