Before Burma’s peace talks began this week, police in the country’s capital Naypyidaw sent a letter to ethnic armed groups. The letter’s message: “Please don’t bring weapons to the peace conference”.
Such is the nature of the Union Peace Conference, which began with much fanfare on Wednesday.
The conference is aimed at ending decades of violence a between the country’s many ethnic militias, who mostly fight a guerrilla war in Burma’s mountainous border areas, and the Burma Army. Distrust runs deep.
Already the United Wa State Army, a powerful ethnic group that controls its own fiefdom in eastern Burma, has walked out of the peace talks complaining that there was no “equality”.
Opening the conference, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said: “The long civil war has cost numerous lives and robbed successive generations of their dignity, tranquility and normalcy. It is now clear that there can be no military solution to your differences.”
However, military clashes continue across the country. Last week the Burma Army used helicopter gunships and artillery to attack the positions of one ethnic armed group, the Kachin Independence Army, in Kachin state.
On Monday the Burma Army was also reported to have launched an attack on the Shan State Army in the restive Shan region.
Such conflicts, which have been raging since Burma achieved independence from British colonial rule in 1948, have killed thousands and displaced hundreds of thousands.
According to the United Nations 240,000 people have been displaced by conflict across the country since 2011, and more than 100,000 of those are in Kachin.
International human rights organisations have documented human rights violations by both the Burma Army and the KIA. Allegations against the Burma Army, known locally as the Tatmadaw, include carrying out extrajudicial killings, torture and rape.
In a teashop in Kachin’s state capital Myitkyina, Ja Taung – who fled her home in Garayang village in 2012 – takes a sip from her Coca-Cola bottle and explains matter-of-factly why she cannot go back.
“If the Tatmadaw saw you they would accuse you of being KIA,” she says. “If they see a woman they will rape her. If they see a man they will torture him.”
The 45-year-old fled with her children to the Jan Mai Kawng Catholic Church camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) after the Burma Army bombed a bridge near her village. There are a dozen IDP camps in Myitkyina – out of more than 200 across Kachin – mostly centred around a church in this predominantly Christian area.
Each day Ja Taung joins others from the camp to pray for peace, but she says she has little hope that the fighting will end.
Spokespeople for the Burmese Army could not be reached for comment, but the army repeatedly denies accusations of human rights violations. However, in an unprecedented move last month the military admitted that its soldiers had killed five villagers during an interrogation in Burma’s northern Shan state.
Phil Robertson, deputy director for Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, told the Telegraph: “The peace talks should play a critical role in ending the long history of abuses by the Tatmadaw against civilians in ethnic areas, particularly women, and pave the way for accountability for human rights violations committed by all sides during the many years of civil war in so many parts of Burma.
“The real enemy of peace is impunity to use violence against civilians in Burma, which has plagued the country for decades, and we hope this conference will finally offer a clean break from those practices.”
Burma’s state counsellor and de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi also believes the key is trust.
“If we can build trust, I think all of the other problems can be solved,” she told a preliminary conference meeting on Wednesday.
“If there is no trust, it makes no difference how many peace agreements we sign.”
For Aung San Suu Kyi there is an added historical significance. The peace conference is commonly referred to in Burma as the “21st Century Panglong conference”, a reference to a summit held in the town of Panglong in 1947 by her father General Aung San.
At that summit three ethnic groups agreed to join a united Burma as the country sought independence from British colonial rule. General Aung San was assassinated months later before he could see independence achieved in 1948.
Since then successive Burmese governments, and in particular the military junta, have reneged on promises to ethnic groups. Wars have been the consequence.
This is not the first attempt at bringing peace to Burma. Before last year’s national elections, which Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won with a landslide, the previous military-backed government tried to broker a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA).
However, the success of the NCA was called into question after it was signed by just eight out of the 15 armed groups included. The KIA, the armed wing of the Kachin Independence Organisation political group, was not one of the signatories.
The new peace conference is hailed as more inclusive. Representatives from the KIA will be there along with 16 other ethnic armed groups. Three groups, currently engaged in fighting, declined to attend.
U Zaw Htay told the Telegraph: “The first Panglong conference was very important to get liberation from British colonial rule and to build our country afterwards.
“This Panglong conference is very important as well because the previous governments including the military regime, they only set up ceasefires, but they didn’t solve problems by peaceful means. We need to solve the root cause of our civil wars.”
Another challenge is that of greater autonomy. The Burmese population is officially divided into eight main ethnicities, which the government further divided into 135 ethnic groups. Many of Burma’s conflicts stem from these ethnicities’ demands for self-determination.
In the teashop in Myitkyina, Naw Tawng – who lives in the Jan Mai Kawng Baptist IDP camp – says that “without autonomy there cannot be peace”.
“I would like autonomy so our people can rule our own state,” he says.
Maran Bawk Naw, a 55-year-old from the same camp, chips in. “The peace processes in the past have failed because the government does not listen to the needs of the local people.
“The peace process is nice words for the international community but at the grassroots level it does not work.”
The months ahead will see if words can bring a change, or if dialogue will be swapped for weapons once again.