WASHINGTON (AP) — A leader of ethnic Kachin rebels battling government forces in Myanmar has urged the U.S. to play a role in peace talks to quell decades of conflict in the country's lawless border regions.
Clashes in northern Myanmar intensified this month despite efforts to forge a nationwide cease-fire agreement between the government and all armed ethnic groups. Rebel Gen. Sumlut Gun Maw said Monday that the spike in violence is an effort by Myanmar's army to militarily weaken the Kachin forces before any cease-fire is signed.
"I can tell for sure this is not an accident. This is a planned act from the government side," Gun Maw, vice chief of staff of the Kachin Independence Army, or KIA, told The Associated Press as he wrapped up a trip to Washington and New York where he has met with senior U.S. officials.
Myanmar state media have reported that at least 22 people have died in the fighting sparked by a KIA ambush on April 4. Humanitarian groups say hundreds of villagers have since been uprooted, and some crossed into neighboring China.
Gun Maw said it was difficult to say what triggered the latest fighting, but that the Myanmar army had deployed 10 additional battalions — equivalent to about 1,500 troops — in the first week of April during the latest round of cease-fire talks. He said that demonstrated the army's intent to increase its leverage in negotiations.
As Myanmar has shifted from five decades of harsh military rule, opening up the country after years of isolation, President Thein Sein's nominally civilian government has reached individual cease-fires with most of the many ethnic rebel groups. But a long-standing cease-fire with the KIA, one of the largest rebel groups, has collapsed and fighting has flared periodically in the past two years, displacing some 120,000 Kachin civilians.
Gun Maw said there have been positive changes in the democratic transition in the country, also known as Burma, but "one thing that has not changed is how they (the government) view and deal with the ethnic nationalities." He demanded formal recognition for the rebel groups and equal political rights for minorities.
Analysts say the negotiations for a nationwide cease-fire are the most serious peace effort in decades, and the government hopes to reach a deal within the next few months. But the deadline has repeatedly been pushed back. While the Kachin and other ethnic groups have for the first time been able to negotiate collectively with the government, they remain anxious the peace process should lead to serious negotiations on autonomy.
"Our hope is that by involving big countries like the United States, both sides may be more committed to resolve this conflict," said Gun Maw, who is among the ethnic negotiators. China, Britain and the United Nations should also be observers, he said, helping to ensure any deal is adhered to.
Myanmar government spokesman Ye Htut, however, said Tuesday that the conflicts with ethnic armies are an "internal" issue that should be solved locally, "among us."
Ye Htut added that although Thein Sein's administration is open to advice from friendly nations, the U.S. track record in ending fighting in places like Iraq and Afghanistan is "not impressive."
Efforts to resolve Myanmar's ethnic conflicts attract less international attention than other aspects of its democratic opening that began in 2011 and has seen opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi freed from house arrest and elected to parliament. But the ethnic reconciliation efforts could be crucial to the nation's long-term stability.
The economic stakes are high too as border regions such as Kachin state are rich in timber and minerals.
Gun Maw, who has been with the rebel group for 27 years, is making his first trip to the West and has met with senior U.S. administration officials.
In a blog posting Saturday about those meetings, Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Tom Malinowski did not directly address the possibility of U.S. involvement in the cease-fire negotiations. But he wrote that the U.S. expressed firm support for the need for the post-cease-fire peace process to tackle political grievances.
Associated Press writer Robin McDowell in Yangon, Myanmar, contributed to this report.