Myanmar halts army attacks on rebels

2011-12-12 19:12

Yangon - Myanmar's president has ordered the country's powerful military to cease attacks against ethnic Kachin rebels in an effort to solve the damaging conflict politically, his office said on Monday.

President Thein Sein, a former junta general who has indicated a will to reform the long-isolated nation, told the army to stop fighting two days ago, officials said, after months of fierce clashes in the northern state of Kachin.

"The president instructed the military on Saturday not to start any fighting with the KIA [Kachin Independence Army] in Kachin State, except for self defence. All military commands were sent the president's instruction," the President office in Naypyidaw told AFP.

An official announcement is expected in the coming days.

The military-dominated nation's new nominally civilian government has recently inked a deal with one rebel group - the Shan State Army South - but has not formally agreed an end to fighting in the strategically important Kachin area, which borders China.

Doibu, of the Unity and Democracy Party in Myanmar's lower house, confirmed to AFP that the president's instructions to stop fighting had been sent.

"We do not know the situation clearly yet. I think small fighting for self defence has continued," the MP told AFP by telephone from the Kachin town of Myitkyina.

The KIA, one of the largest ethnic armed groups, has been locked in conflict with the Myanmar army since June in Kachin, where there has been resentment of Chinese backed hydro power projects.

In a rare response to public opposition, Myanmar's president in September suspended construction of a controversial mega-dam in the state.

Chemical weapons

But fighting continued and the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), whose group attended the November peace meeting, last week accused Myanmar's military of deploying more troops and using chemical weapons - an allegation that could not be independently verified.

The battles have forced tens of thousands to flee their homes.

Peace talks between the KIA and Myanmar government are ongoing, said a Myanmar government official, who did not want to be named.

"The president really wants to achieve peace with the KIA. He also wants them to know that this is his wish. That's why he has been trying to solve this problem politically," he told AFP.

Myanmar has been racked by civil conflict - and human rights abuses involving government troops - in ethnic areas since it became independent from British rule in 1948, including an uprising in Kachin, which gathered momentum from the early 1960s.

The predominantly Baptist and Catholic Kachin account for about 7% of the country's population.

Efforts at peace "mark one of the most significant moments in the six decades of conflict," the think-tank International Crisis Group (ICG) said in a recent report, while adding that "lasting peace cannot be assured".

On her landmark visit to the country earlier this month, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton welcomed what she said were efforts by the regime to resolve ethnic conflicts, after talks with the country's rulers.

But throughout Clinton's visit - the first by such a high level US politician in 50 years - US officials said they expected the ethnic fighting to be one of the most difficult issues for Myanmar to resolve.