Friday, February 13, 2015

Myanmar army loses 47 killed

Fighting between ethnic Kokang rebels and government forces in northeastern Myanmar's Shan state has left 47 troops dead and 73 wounded in the past three days, the Myanmar army said in a statement on Thursday.

The latest casualty numbers were revealed as Myanmar's President Thein Sein met with leaders of armed ethnic groups in the capital Naypyidaw to sign a preliminary peace agreement with four rebel armies amid the country's February 12 Union Day celebrations.

The army said it had imposed martial law in Laukkai, the capital of the Kokang region in the northern part of Shan state near Myanmar's river border with China. Fighting erupted Monday between government forces and rebel troops, known as the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA).

The army statement said the casualties included five officers and 42 of "other ranks" killed, and 11 officers and 62 other troops wounded, including a lieutenant colonel. No casualty figures were given for the MNDAA or civilians.

The army said it had engaged in 13 clashes with "renegades" since February 9, and called up heavy artillery and air support from helicopter gunships in five of the battles.

More than 100 refugees had fled villages in the combat zone and taken shelter at Mansu monastery in Lashio, the monastery's abbot told RFA's Burmese Service.

The Irrawaddy online newspaper reported on Wednesday that thousands of residents of Kokang had fled into neighboring China's Yunnan province to escape fighting.

Local Myanmar media reports earlier this week said the MNDAA and allied rebel groups were fighting to retake the Kokang self-administered zone, which the MNDAA had controlled until 2009.

The MNDAA was formerly part of a China-backed guerrilla force called the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), and became the first of about a dozen factions to sign a bilateral cease-fire agreement with the government after the group broke apart in 1989.

However, the agreement faltered in 2009 when armed groups came under pressure to transform into a paramilitary Border Guard Force under the control of Myanmar's military - a move the MNDAA resisted.

In December, seven soldiers from Myanmar's military were killed and 20 others wounded in an attack by the MNDAA on an army outpost in Shan state around 30 kilometers (20 miles) from the Chinese border.

Union Day agreement
The latest casualty numbers were revealed as Myanmar's President Thein Sein met with leaders of armed ethnic groups in the capital Naypyidaw to sign a preliminary peace agreement with four rebel armies amid the country's February 12 Union Day celebrations.

The casualties in Shan state, the greatest death toll since Thein Sein took office in 2010, put a damper on government efforts to sign a nationwide cease-fire agreement with armed ethnic groups on Myanmar's 68th Union Day, which marks a 1947 deal ahead of independence from British colonial rule that provided autonomy for major ethnic minority areas in exchange for remaining part of the country.

Thein Sein met with around a dozen armed ethnic groups for hours during a Union Day banquet Thursday in the capital, but was able to win a commitment to work towards peace from just four rebel groups: the Karen National Union (KNU), the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA), the KNU-KNLA Peace Council and the Southern Shan State RCSS-SSA.

Under the agreement, according to results from political dialogue which would follow any nationwide cease-fire, the government and its opponents will build a union based on democracy and a federal system which includes national equality, justice, and autonomy.

They also agreed to sign a nationwide cease-fire agreement "as soon as possible", to be followed by political discussions focusing on giving greater representation to ethnic groups as Myanmar transitions into a democracy following nearly five decades of military rule.

Thein Sein called the pledge - which was also signed by speaker of the lower house of parliament Shwe Mann, upper house speaker Khin Aung Myint, and representatives of the military - "an important milestone" for the country's peace process, despite nine of the attending rebel groups refusing to take part.

KNU chairman Mutu Say Poe told RFA he signed Thursday's agreement because he wanted to "forge ahead" with the nation's peace process.

Senior advisor for the government-affiliated Myanmar Peace Center Hla Maung Shwe, who took part in the signing event, called the pact "a promise", rather than a treaty.

"This is the beginning of the political dialogue. We can say it's a 'pre-political dialogue'," he told RFA. "I understand that today we made a promise so that we can all march toward a federalism that is truly peaceful and pleasant. This is not an agreement or treaty. Therefore, in legal terms, it is 'non-binding'. It is a promise."

Representatives of armed ethnic groups which did not sign the agreement said they had been given no advance warning and felt they could not proceed without first discussing the proposal internally.

"It's not that we won't sign this agreement - we agree to it - but all of our ethnic brothers, including those who have misunderstandings, should participate in signing," Khun Myint Tun, chairman of the Pa-Oh National Liberation Organization (PNLO), told RFA.

"Whether developing a roadmap for the country or developing policy, I don't want that we, on the one hand, are fighting [against the government], while others are in agreement. I want a policy where no one is arguing, but everyone is acting in unison," he said.

Aung Myint, a spokesperson for the United Wa State Army (UWSA), which also attended the meeting but did not sign, said that he would have to present the proposal to his group before proceeding.

"The invitation simply asked for us to attend a Union Day event - nothing else was mentioned, so we don't have a decision from our central committee," he said. "We will have to present it to the central committee first."

Representatives from the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) or MNDAA were absent from the celebrations, as was another rebel group known as the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP).

The Burmese government has reached bilateral ceasefire agreements with more than a dozen armed groups since 2011, with the notable exception of the TNLA, the KIO and the MNDAA, which was involved in clashes with the army this week.

Ongoing talks
Myanmar's government says signing a nationwide cease-fire agreement is central to the success of reform and development in the nation, which saw Thein Sein's nominally civilian government take power from the former junta following elections in 2010.

Last September, the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team, which represents more than a dozen rebel groups, and the government's Union Peace Working Committee failed to reach a nationwide cease-fire agreement after five days of talks.

The meetings ended following disagreements over military issues and a format for talks on providing greater power to ethnic states, although they agreed in principle to a new draft accord.

Sporadic attacks by armed ethnic groups and government forces in various hotspots around the country have also prevented significant progress in the ongoing talks between government and rebel negotiators.

Myanmar's ethnic groups have been seeking a federal system since the former British colony known as Burma gained independence after World War II, but the country's former military rulers have resisted their efforts because they equate local autonomy with separatism.

Reported by Myo Thant Khine and Kyaw Htun Naing for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane and Than Than Win. Written in English by Paul Eckert and Joshua Lipes.

Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Asia.

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