Burma: Kachin rebels agree to peace talks

Burmese government negotiators and representatives from the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) this week agreed to hold talks at Panghsang in northern Shan state, territory under the control of the United Wa State Army (UWSA), another rebel group that has entered into a peace deal.  The KIO, the political wing of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), accepted the plan Jan. 29. No official date has been set for the talks as government troops inch closer to Laiza after taking a key KIA hill station over the weekend, which served as the last line of strategic defense for the Kachin stronghold.

On Jan. 19, President Thein Sein announced a ceasefire, but it broke down within hours as the army renewed its offensive. The following day hundreds of troops closed in on Laiza. If Laiza falls, it could mark a turning point in the long struggle between the government and the Kachin that flared up again in 2011 after a 17-year ceasefire. The government maintains that its forces are acting only in self-defense, but in recent weeks the army has gained a large amount of territory that had been controlled by the KIA for half a century.

In his ceasefire announcement, the president sent a letter to the KIO asking to resume peace talks, but the group rejected their offer, insisting they will only negotiate with the United Nationalities Federal Council, an umbrella group made up of 11 major of the country’s ethnic armed groups including the KIO. Under the new deal, the UNFC will monitor the talks. Kachin peace mediator La Mai Gunja urged both the government and the KIO to stop fighting to prevent further suffering of civilians caught in the crossfire and displaced by the conflict.

The UWSA signed a ceasefire agreement with the government in 1989 and is regarded as the largest and most powerful non-state militia in the country, with more than 20,000 troops. The militia has been repeatedly accused of producing and trafficking opium from their mountain stronghold. (The Economist, Feb. 2;