Myanmar president orders shakeup for peace talks

YANGON Sun Apr 29, 2012 4:33pm IST

Myanmar's President Thein Sein adjusts his glasses as he attends a joint news conference with other leaders of Mekong region nations and Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda (not pictured) at the Japan-Mekong summit in Tokyo April 21, 2012. REUTERS/Tomoyuki Kaya/Pool

Myanmar's President Thein Sein adjusts his glasses as he attends a joint news conference with other leaders of Mekong region nations and Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda (not pictured) at the Japan-Mekong summit in Tokyo April 21, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Tomoyuki Kaya/Pool

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YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar will overhaul its peace negotiating teams in a bid to settle armed rebellions with ethnic rebel militias following a failure to end a stubborn conflict in the strategic Kachin State, sources close to the process said on Sunday.

President Thein Sein has ordered a shakeup after a lack of a breakthrough after six rounds of talks with Kachin political leaders. Fighting between troops and militias has displaced more than 50,000 people since June.

The reformist president, who appealed to dozens of ethnic groups in August to start talks, would bring in more senior people to lead talks as part of his three-stage plan for "everlasting peace" in a country plagued by decades of unrest.

Two sources close to the government's peace effort said the new faces would include one of Thein Sein's two vice presidents and top military figures.

"The new team will comprise many members including senior army officers, parliamentary lawmakers and state chief ministers and will be led by a vice president," one source said, requesting anonymity because the issue was highly sensitive.

The Kachin Independence Army (KIA) is one of the most powerful rebel groups in Myanmar. Kachin State is crucial to Myanmar's economic interests, home to hydropower plants and from next year, twin gas and oil pipelines from the being built to feed the growing energy needs of neighbouring China.

Rail Transportation Minister Aung Min, one of the top negotiators, told reporters in the capital Naypyitaw two negotiating teams would be consolidated into one, but gave no further details, a local journalist said. The comments could not be immediately confirmed.

WESTERN PRESSURE

The need for permanent political deals with the rebels has been pushed by Western powers as a priority for stability and economic development. Preliminary ceasefires have been agreed with at least 10 ethnic political groups or armies in Myanmar.

The Karen National Union (KNU), which waged one of the world's longest-running insurgencies until recently, this month became the first group to begin talks towards a political agreement. The substance of those talks is expected to be granting some autonomy if they agree to form political parties.

It was not known exactly who would be brought in or replaced, the sources said. The two teams are led by Aung Min and Aung Thaung, a heavyweight in the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and former Industry Minister.

Analysts and diplomats say Aung Min's group has managed to win the trust of sceptical rebel leaders and enjoyed far more success than the team led by Aung Thaung, who is considered a hardliner from the authoritarian military regime that ruled Myanmar until last year.

Aung Thaung's team has been in talks with the Kachin Independence Army and its political wing, the Kachin Independence Organisation, but the dialogue towards a ceasefire in the murky conflict has been fruitless.

State media said three local government officials were killed and three were missing following a KIA attack on an administrative office in Sadon, Kachin State, on Saturday. Rebels also destroyed vehicles and a bridge, newspapers said.

The international community has repeatedly called for restraint on both sides, while rights groups say the military, which Thein Sein has instructed not to attack the KIA, has committed a litany of rights abuses, including rape, forced labour and extrajudicial killings.

(Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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