Sunday, December 4, 2011

Burma signs ceasefire with Shan State

Bangkok Post

Tensions along the Thai-Burmese border are easing after Naypyidaw signed a ceasefire with the armed ethnic group, the Shan State Army, and agreed to reopen two border checkpoints.

The Thein Sein government's attempts to ease conflicts with the country's minorities, including the SSA, have begun to bear fruit during the first visit in more than 50 years of a US secretary of state.

Hillary Clinton arrived in the Burmese capital of Naypyidaw last Wednesday on a three-day trip.
A soldier from the Shan State Army (File photo)
Also on Saturday, local media report that Burmese Prsident Thein Sein signed a bill allowing citizens to protest peacefully - sort of.

Burmese will need permission, five days ahead of any planned protest. They will have to say when and where they wish to protest, and what they want to protest about. Signs, chants and the text of any speeches will have to be submitted, and the route of any march that might be planned.

Finally, there cannot be any disturbances during rallies.

If groups satisfy these requirements, they might get a licence to protest. If not, it's two years in jail.

It is a commentary on the 49-year military dictatorship that the protest bill signed on Saturday is a huge improvement on the old law.

The truce with the SSA, which was agreed on Friday in Shan State's capital of Taunggyi, is a part of efforts to end clashes between the two sides which stretch back almost 60 years. "This is a good start," SSA leader Col Yodsuek said. "We believe the Burmese government is being sincere and more open to the calls of people in Shan State."

The Burmese negotiation team, led by Railways Minister U Aung Min, has suggested the two sides set a date for more peace talks and that unarmed people be allowed to enter certain areas on each side.

The Burmese government has called on supporters of the SSA to back the reconciliation drive. "People can visit the state military camp while Burmese soldiers can enter villages if they are not armed," said Col Yodsuek, referring to the government's announcement.

The Burmese government has also agreed to reopen the Kio Phawok border checkpoint in Ban Arunothai opposite Chiang Mai's Chiang Dao district, which has been closed for over two years, as a New Year gift for the Shan.

This would enable Tai Yai descendants, who live in Shan State, to cross the border between Burma and Thailand. More than one million Tai Yai people work in Thailand, he said.

Shan State residents have welcomed the Burmese government's move to ease tensions with the SSA.

Col Yodsuek said the SSA asked Naypyidaw to grant it a "special area for development", and to carry out a joint crackdown on drug trafficking. The government will consider the requests.

Whether attempts to eliminate the conflict with armed ethic groups are successful depends largely on the government, Col Yodsuek said.

"If the government does not keep its word, Burma will get nothing," he said. "For me, I will take my gun to fight again."

The SSA, along with the Karen National Union, the Karenni National Peoples' Party and the Chin National Front, met U Aung Min last month for talks.

The United States has welcomed the changes, including government attempts to mend its relationship with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Mrs Clinton says the US will consider offering aid to Burma and upgrading its diplomatic ties with the Thein Sein government in return.

Meanwhile, Burma will reopen its Myawaddy border checkpoint, opposite Tak's Mae Sot district, tomorrow for the first time in more than a year.

Mae Sot mayor Thoetkiat Chinsoranan said businesses were keen for trade to resume. The closure has cost 20 billion baht in lost trade through the Mae Sot customs checkpoint, said Banphot Kokiatcharoen, chairman of the Tak Chamber of Commerce.

Naypyidaw closed the checkpoint on July 18 last year after Thailand built an embankment along the Moei River at Ban Tha At in Mae Sot district. The Burmese government was concerned it would affect the border line.

Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul said he believed the reopening was to mark the King's birthday.
Col Yodsuek, in front of an SSA recruiting poster (File photo, 2004)
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