Aid workers in Myanmar’s northern Kachin State are cautious following the latest round of peace talks between the Burmese government and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO).
“We’re able to work a bit easier, but we can’t say how long it will last,” La Rip, coordinator of Relief Action Network for IDPs and Refugees (RANIR), told IRIN from the Burmese border town of Laiza, the de-facto KIO capital, citing a recent lull in fighting near the 2,000km Burmese-Chinese border. “There is always the possibility fighting could erupt again.”
The network of 13 local NGOs provides assistance to more than 45,000 displaced persons in KIO-controlled areas, including food, shelter, health, water and sanitation.
There are no international UN agencies or international NGOs in KIO-controlled areas, while the UN and a handful of international NGOs are active in government-controlled areas.
“We welcome anything that will improve the lives of those people suffering on the ground. However, it’s still a very fluid situation,” said Moon Nay Li, coordinator of the Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand (KWAT) in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai. “There is still troop movement in the area.”
Peace talks between the two sides in the Chinese border town of Ruili on 4 February aimed to reduce tension, improve communication and establish a surveillance system with the goal of achieving a ceasefire, according to a joint statement.
Chinese officials, as well as representatives of the Shan and Karen minorities, also attended the talks.
“There is no major fighting in Kachin State,” Ye Htut, Myanmar's presidential spokesman, said from Naypyidaw, the Burmese capital, on 6 February. “There may be some small incidents, but these are isolated events.”
“The border area near Laiza is quiet,” confirmed Khun Okker, a spokesman for the United Nationalities Federal Council, an umbrella group of 11 of Myanmar’s leading ethnic groups - including the Mon, Shan, Karenni, Chin, and Kachin people. “This shows promise. However, we need to wait at least a week to see if this holds,” he said, noting, however, that fighting was continuing in Hpakant Township, as well as parts of northern Shan State, where the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the military arm of the KIO, is also active.
Since the conflict reignited in June 2011 (ending a 17-year ceasefire between the government and KIA), there have been 12 peace talks between the two sides, including five in China. During this period some 75,000 people have been displaced.
The Burmese military ramped up its offensive in December, and began using Russian-made Mi-35 helicopters and jet fighters, says the Free Burma Rangers, a humanitarian group working in the area.
On 18 January, the government announced a unilateral ceasefire, but then proceeded to capture a key outpost and move its forces to within a few kilometres of Laiza.
“The situation was quite tense. Some aid workers even left the area out of concern for their security,” KWAT’s Moon Nay Li said.
“A small step”
China - the host of this week’s peace talks and a long-standing ally of Myanmar - has called for a ceasefire and remains concerned about the possible influx of refugees.
A shell landed on its territory in January, Xinhua, China’s state news agency, reported.
“It’s a small step, but we’re a long way away,” said Khun Okker on the latest round of talks. “Only with further negotiations can serious political dialogue begin.”
On 6 February, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the Joint Statement issued by Myanmar’s Peacemaking Committee and the KIO, calling on both parties to continue their efforts towards genuine and sustainable peace.
The two sides have agreed to another round of talks at the end of February.