Myanmar called for peace talks with ethnic Kachin rebels amid growing concern over attacks on civilians and the potential that the conflict might spill over into neighboring China.
A government peace negotiating committee invited the Kachin Independence Organization, the armed group’s political wing, for negotiations in a letter to chairman Zaung Haya dated Jan. 19, the state-run New Light of Myanmar reported. Fighting erupted in June 2011 after a 17-year hiatus, making it Myanmar’s last ethnic conflict without a cease-fire agreement.
President Thein Sein announced a unilateral cease-fire two days ago following a three-week offensive against Kachin fighters that involved the use of air power. The army attacked a Kachin base Jan. 19, signaling a possible resumption in fighting, the BBC reported. La Nan, a spokesman for the Kachin, didn’t answer calls to his mobile phone.
The conflict is testing Thein Sein’s control over army commanders two years after he took power following an election that ended about five decades of direct military rule. The president vowed to push for peace at a meeting at the weekend with donor nations aimed at coordinating plans to modernize the country’s financial system and infrastructure.
“I want to stress that we continue to try to achieve genuine peace in the country,” Thein Sein said in his speech. “I want to invite my colleagues from KIO to come to the peace meeting from here on again. I believe KIO will soon join us in the peace process.”
The fighting in Kachin state threatens to undermine Thein Sein’s authority among ethnic armies after he allowed greater political freedom and held talks with dissident Aung San Suu Kyi. He said that political dialogue would start with 10 ethnic armies that reached cease-fires with the government.
The New Light of Myanmar said the Kachin army attacked a police station on Jan. 18, killing two officers, and injuring 22 civilians in mine attacks targeted at three vehicles. Human Rights Watch last week called on the government to halt indiscriminate attacks against the Kachin, such as one on Jan. 14 that killed three civilians, and to allow humanitarian groups access to about 15,000 displaced people.
The U.S. has urged both sides to enter talks to end the fighting, while China welcomed the cease-fire announced by the government after a bomb landed in its territory.
“The border areas are close and people have frequent exchanges, so war will surely affect the other,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a briefing in Beijing today. “China hopes both sides will start peace negotiations to restore stability to the border area. China would like to play a positive role in this process.”
The last attempt at peace talks in October broke down when the Kachin sent low-ranking officials to a meeting with senior Myanmar generals, which was perceived as a snub, according to the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based policy research group.
Still, the conflict is “much simpler” to resolve than fighting between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya that erupted last year, Jim Della-Giacoma, Crisis Group’s Southeast Asia project director, wrote on Jan. 10.
“The years of fighting and the cease-fire in Kachin State have produced two sides that may be wary but are very familiar with each other and in regular contact,” he wrote. “There is now informal discussion about what the contours of a cease-fire might be as well as what might follow in terms of sharing of revenues from resources, economic development, political structures, transitions arrangements, and the possible devolution of some power.”
Kachin, bordering China and India, is the northernmost of Myanmar’s 14 provinces and home to natural resources including precious gems, jade, copper and gold. Ethnic Kachins are predominately Christian Baptists and Roman Catholic in the majority Buddhist country.
The Kachin took up arms against the military government in 1961, and the group’s Kachin Independence Army has grown to become Myanmar’s second-largest non-state ethnic armed group, according to Human Rights Watch. The KIO maintains a civilian administration that acts as a parallel state, the group said.
Recent clashes between government troops and Kachin rebels have occurred close to oil and gas pipelines being built by China National Petroleum Corp. and China Power Investment Corp.’s $3.6 billion hydropower project that Thein Sein suspended in 2011 because of environmental concerns. In a 2011 statement, the government said Kachin rebels attacked Chinese staff working at hydropower projects in the northern state.
Myanmar has more than 30 armed ethnic minority groups that have resisted central government control since it gained independence from Britain in 1948. Since June 2011, the Kachin have killed 35 soldiers and left 190 injured, according to a government statement on Jan. 18.