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Burma pledge to free political prisoners paves way for peace

By Rohit Wadhwaney
Call for peace: An activist dressed in combat uniform lies on the ground during an International Day of Peace march on Sept. 21 in Yangon, Burma. Protesters called for an end to the nation’s civil conflicts. [AFP]

Call for peace: An activist dressed in combat uniform lies on the ground during an International Day of Peace march on Sept. 21 in Yangon, Burma. Protesters called for an end to the nation’s civil conflicts. [AFP]

Burma’s recent pledge to free all political prisoners by the end of the year is paving the way for a possible ceasefire across the country ravaged by war for nearly 60 years.

The announcement of the release of all prisoners of war by the end of 2013 follows the Burmese government’s peace deal with the United Wa State Army [UWSA], the country’s largest rebel group with a force of an estimated 30,000 soldiers.

“By the end of the year there will be no prisoners of conscience in Myanmar [Burma],” Burmese President Thein Sein said during a speech in London following talks with British Prime Minister David Cameron.

The Burmese government has formed a special committee to review the cases of every political prisoner in the country in a bid to rule out the possibility of anyone left languishing behind bars as a result of their political beliefs, Thein Sein told an audience at the Chatham House think tank.

He stated there is a possibility of a nationwide ceasefire with all of the ethnic rebel groups in the country seeking autonomy.

“It’s possible that there will be a nationwide ceasefire in the coming weeks. It will be the first time in 60 years that the guns would fall silent,” the Burmese president said.

Government, guerillas reach five-point agreement

The Burmese government and the UWSA, which was formed after the collapse of the Communist Party of Burma in 1989, reached a five-point agreement following talks at the Triangle region Command Headquarters in the eastern Shan State’s Wa region in July. It is the first time in almost 24 years the two sides have agreed to a peace treaty.

The rebel group, whose fight for an autonomous Wa State has crippled Burma’s stability over the past two decades, had reached a ceasefire agreement with the country’s former military regime in 1989.

Tension between the Burmese government and the UWSA escalated in 2009, when the latter turned down the regime’s proposal to reduce its troops and bring them under the command of the Army. Since then, the UWSA has gradually increased its soldiers.

The two sides were on the brink of war in early July when the Burmese Army surrounded the Wa territory and stationed its troops there.

But the latest peace deal with the UWSA, which follows ceasefire agreements with the Karen and Kachin separatist groups earlier this year, has made clear Burma’s intention of finally ending its internal conflict – the world’s longest-running civil war.

As part of the five-point treaty:

• The two sides agreed to follow through on the consensus reached during future state-level and union-level peace talks.

• Both sides agreed to strengthen mutual understanding and peace through regular dialogues and positive negotiations.

• In case an issue arises between the Burmese Army and the UWSA, both sides agreed to resolve the problem using a mutually transparent approach based on constructive traditions.

• The UWSA made a commitment not to secede from Burma, agreeing that the Wa region was an integral part of the country, hence the breaking away of the region from the state was out of the question.

• Both sides agreed to mutually cooperate to ensure progress of the Wa region and eradication of narcotics.

In addition, Burma’s military and the UWSA agreed to return to positions they occupied before the stand-off.

“Misunderstanding has led to increased military tension, but leaders of both sides are seeking ways to reconcile the situation,” state-run media quoted Lt. Gen. Aung Than Htut, commander-in-chief of the Burmese Army.

The UWSA at a glance

The UWSA, formed by Chinese-speaking Wa ethnic group, is the military wing of the United Wa State Party [UWSP] and was instrumental in ending the long-running Communist insurgency in Burma in 1989.

The United States government designated UWSA, Southeast Asia’s largest drug-producing network as a narcotics trafficking organization in 2003.

Most drugs smuggled into Thailand come from the UWSA-controlled Shan-state, which lies in the heart of the notorious Golden Triangle region and where the drugs are manufactured, according to the Thai government.

China main source of arms supply to UWSA

The UWSA gets most of its weapons and equipment from China, according to a 2012 report by U.K.-based intelligence monitor Jane’s Information Group.

China delivered several Mil Mi-17 ‘Hip’ medium-transport helicopters armed with TY-90 air-to-air missile to the WA in late February and early March [2012], according to both [Burma] ethnic minority and [Burma] government sources,” the report said.

A 2008 report by the intelligence monitor said the UWSA acts as the link between arms manufacturers in China and northeast Burma’s separatist groups.

Consignments of weapons and other military equipment frequently pass through the Sino-Burmese border, according to a military observer stationed on the border.

Is there a peace strategy that can resolve Burma’s political prisoner issue and weapons smuggling simultaneously? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.


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