Myanmar to overhaul negotiators for ethnic peace talks

Reuters News
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Posted: Apr 29, 2012 4:13 AM
Myanmar to overhaul negotiators for ethnic peace talks

By Aung Hla Tun

YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar will overhaul its peace negotiating teams in a bid to settle festering armed rebellions with ethnic rebel militias following its failure to end a stubborn conflict in the country's strategic Kachin State, sources said on Sunday.

President Thein Sein is planning to restructure the teams after a failure to make a breakthrough in six rounds of talks with Kachin rebels and their political leaders. Fighting between troops and militias has displaced more than 50,000 people since last June, two sources close to the peace effort told Reuters.

The reformist president, who appealed to dozens of ethnic groups in August to start talks, would bring in a vice president, parliamentarians, and top military figures as part of his three-stage plan for "everlasting peace" in a country plagued by decades of ethnic unrest.

"The two teams set up last year will be combined into one and the new team will comprise many members including senior army officers, parliamentary law makers and state chief ministers and will be led a vice president," one source said, requesting anonymity because the issue was highly sensitive.

The need for permanent political deals with the rebels has been pushed by Western powers as a priority for stability and economic development. Preliminary ceasefires have already been agreed with about a dozen political organizations or armies.

One of the biggest groups, the Karen National Union (KNU), which waged one of the world's longest-running insurgencies until recently, began talks towards a political agreement earlier this month.

The substance of those talks is expected to be granting a degree of autonomy if they agree to form political parties.

It was not known exactly who would be brought in or replaced, the sources said. The two teams are led by Rail Transportation Minister Aung Min and Aung Thaung, a heavyweight in the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and former Industry Minister.

Analysts and diplomats say Aung Min's group has managed to win the trust of skeptical rebel groups and enjoyed far more success than the team led by Aung Thaung, who is considered a hardliner from the authoritarian military regime that ruled Myanmar until last year.

Aung Thaung's team has been in talks with the Kachin Independence Army and its political wing, the Kachin Independence Organisation, but the dialogue towards a ceasefire in the murky conflict has been fruitless.

The international community has repeatedly called for restraint on both sides, while rights groups say the military, which President Thein Sein has instructed not to attack the KIA, has committed a litany of rights abuses, including rape, forced labor and extrajudicial killings.

The KIA is one of the most powerful ethnic armies. The Kachin State is also crucial to Myanmar's economic interests, home to hydropower plants and from next year, twin gas and oil pipelines from the Bay of Bengal being built to feed China's growing energy needs.

(Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)