Change in Myanmar leadership may strain ethnic peace

Friday, October 22nd 2004, 9:10 am
By: News On 6

BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) _ One of the few unchallenged accomplishments of Myanmar's military junta _ securing peace with the country's armed ethnic rebel groups _ may be in jeopardy after Prime Minister Gen. Khin Nyunt lost his job this week.

A delegation of Karen ethnic guerrillas _ among the last rebel groups that has not signed a cease-fire with the government _ returned to their jungle bases Thursday from a peace mission to Myanmar's capital, staying only two days for what were supposed to be weeklong talks.

The interruption came after Khin Nyunt, architect of 17 ceasefires reached with ethnic separatists, was abruptly ousted on Tuesday and replaced with Lt. Gen. Soe Win, who is associated with a more hard-line army faction disinclined to compromise with its opponents.

Myanmar officials have quickly underlined that policies won't change on some of the major issues facing the regime _ a promised timetable for gradual democratization and the cease-fires with ethnic minorities seeking greater autonomy.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, has been under military rule since 1962. The current group of generals has been in power since 1988 and has attracted widespread international criticism for its widely documented human rights abuses and refusal to allow democracy. It held elections in 1990, but refused to hand over power when the party of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi won a landslide victory. Suu Kyi is currently in detention.

Amid the government assurances, the Karen are taking a wait-and-see attitude to the new premier. But another group, the Shan State Army, believes the future is bleak.

``The generals are clinging to a military solution, we believe that once they settle their internal affairs, the military will launch more offensives on the ethnic nationalities,'' said the group's spokeswoman, Khur Hsen.

Soe Win traveled to Myanmar's north to meet with former rebels to reassure them that the government would maintain its policy of granting them limited autonomy and promoting development in their regions, a news report said Friday.

Soe Win told former rebels in the northern Kachin state that the junta's ``policy toward the cease-fire groups will not change,'' Radio Free Asia reported, quoting Ngu Yin Taung Haw, a spokesman for the New Democratic Army of Kachin.

Khin Nyunt, who was also military intelligence chief, was considered pragmatic and willing to engage in dialogue with both ethnic rebels and Suu Kyi's pro-democracy movement.

``Khin Nyunt was the man who masterminded cease-fires _ 17 in all _ and reduced the wars on the frontier even if he did not stop the predatory behavior of the military toward civilians,'' said Josef Silverstein, a longtime U.S. scholar of Myanmar affairs.

Debbie Stothard, head of the Southeast Asian human rights group ALTSEAN-Burma, said that as a result of the change in leadership: `` In addition to a hardening line against democracy movement, there is a possibility that ethnic nationality communities will also see greater military attacks, and therefore more refugees leaving the country.''

Unrest among ethnic minorities, mostly along the eastern border with Thailand, has bedeviled the country since it gained independence from Britain in 1948.

The junta since 1988 secured cease-fires with most of the restive groups by granting them a degree of autonomy. In some cases, this involved turning a blind eye to production of illegal drugs, such as heroin and methamphetamine.

The Karen National Union _ the only major group that hasn't signed a full cease-fire agreement _ entered into peace late last year. Its 16-member delegation arrived in Yangon for a third round of formal talks just as Khin Nyunt was being ousted.

Returning Thursday to bases on the Thai border, they said nothing untoward occurred during their abbreviated talks, denying reports they had been held under house arrest in the Myanmar capital.

``We understood their elders were busy because of sudden (political) changes, and they asked us to meet again next time but the date has not been fixed yet,'' said David Htaw, the group's foreign affairs chief and head of the delegation.

On Thursday, Foreign Minister Nyan Win told foreign diplomats that government policy toward ethnic minority groups with whom it has signed cease-fires would remain the same.

But Shan State Army spokeswoman Khur Hsen said that ``They sacked Khin Nyunt because Khin Nyunt pushed for democracy and national reconciliation with ethnic minorities.''