Nov 22, 2011

Chin: Burma Tries To Make Amends With Minorities Before Clinton Visit

Five ethnic groups have been involved in peace talks in government effort to ease international criticism.

Below is an article published by Businessweek

Myanmar’s government proposed a ceasefire with five ethnic armies during peace talks that ended two days ago [20 November 2011], building on recent moves to reach out to dissident political factions and ease international criticism.

Minister of Rail Transportation Aung Min invited five ethnic organizations for two days of talks on the Thai-Myanmar border that ended Nov. 20, said Sui Khar, a member of the Chin National Front, whose group was represented at the meeting. The ethnic groups will hold further meetings to discuss a truce in the coming months, he said.

Aung Min “said to us that this time they are trying to look for a solution for permanent peace,” Sui Khar said by phone from Chiang Mai, Thailand. “He agreed to have this political dialogue. I’m very positive.”

Striking peace deals with more than 30 ethnic armies is key to President Thein Sein’s efforts to stabilize Myanmar’s politics and improve relations with Western nations. Hillary Clinton, who next week will become the first U.S. Secretary of State to visit Myanmar in more than five decades, has cited ethnic reconciliation as a benchmark for boosting ties.

“Should the government pursue genuine and lasting reform for the benefits of its citizens, it will find a partner in the United States,” Clinton said on Nov. 10. The U.S. maintains sanctions that ban new investment, imports from Myanmar and transferring funds into the country.

The last U.S. secretary of state to visit Myanmar was John Foster Dulles in 1955, according to State Department records.

The peace talks included the Shan State Army-South, Kachin Independence Organization, Karen National Union, Karenni National Progressive Party and the Chin National Front, Sui Khar said. The groups plan to meet for further talks with regional governments at meetings that will include representatives from Thein Sein’s administration, he said.

Myanmar’s shift is in part a consequence of its leaders seeking to limit China’s political and economic influence, according to analysts including Willy Lam, an adjunct professor of history at Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Ties with China recently have been strained, according to Lam, with Thein Sein in September suspending China’s construction of a $3.6 billion dam. India agreed last month to extend $500 million of credit to Myanmar, and the two countries agreed to boost trade ties. 

Aung Min, the Myanmar minister, also proposed creating a liaison office and having both the government and ethnic groups request permission before entering areas controlled by the other, Sui Khar said. The Kachin group proposed an end to military operations before talks continue, a recommendation Aung Min said he would take to the president, Sui Khar said.

Myanmar’s constitution, passed by a referendum in 2008, calls for a unitary state and says “all the armed forces in the Union shall be under the command of the Defense Services.” About a third of the country’s 55 million people are members of ethnic minorities who occupy roughly half its total land area, according to the International Crisis Group.

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi will stand in an election for the first time after her party voted to rejoin politics as the former military dictatorship undertakes democratic reforms, spokesman Nyan Win said yesterday. Thein Sein has moved to end Myanmar’s political isolation since taking power nine months ago, releasing political prisoners, legalizing unions and lifting censorship of media outlets like the BBC.

Suu Kyi was released last year, a week after Thein Sein’s Union Solidarity and Development Party, backed by the former ruling junta, won about 80 percent of 664 seats in the election. The military retains a quarter of seats in the two houses of Parliament, according to the constitution.

Representatives from the U.S. and Europe have been traveling to the country formerly known as Burma in recent months as they review financial and economic sanctions. The 10- member Association of Southeast Asian Nations agreed Nov. 17 that Myanmar will chair the group in 2014, a move they say will provide further momentum for changes.

International companies have stepped up deals in Myanmar. Italian-Thai Development Pcl, Thailand’s biggest construction company, signed a contract worth $8.6 billion last year to build a deep-sea port and industrial park. India approved plans for Oil & Natural Gas Corp. and GAIL India Ltd. to invest $1.3 billion in a natural gas project.

Myanmar’s 60 million people are the poorest in Asia, earning about $1.15 a day on average, about a tenth of per capita income in neighboring Thailand, according to Asean statistics.