Japanese envoy meets ethnic armed organisations in northern Thailand

Yohei Sasakawa, the Japanese special envoy to Myanmar and chair of the Nippon Foundation, met separately with representatives of Karen, Karenni and Shan ethnic armed organisations as well as junta affiliates in neighbouring Thailand on Thursday, with full details of their discussions still undisclosed. 

Aid—but not military relations—was brought up in the talks in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, Aung San Myint, the deputy secretary of the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) told Myanmar Now. He attended the meeting with Sasakawa along with KNPP chair Khu Oo Reh and Nal Nae Palo from the Karenni Emergency Rescue Team. 

“We’ve worked with them regarding education matters before,” he said of the Nippon Foundation. “He invited us to come to the meeting and we agreed to go.”

The meeting was the KNPP’s first with Sasakawa since Myanmar’s coup more than a year ago, Aung San Myint said, adding that the special envoy had shown an interest in the needs of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the ethnic armed organisation’s area. 

“We will have to find more ways to send supplies to IDPs. There is still no plan underway,” he  said.

“We will continue to work together with our allies towards federal democracy and the end of the dictatorship,” he continued. “[Sasakawa’s team] said nothing about [political and military affairs] and we are not planning to discuss that matter with them either.”

Clashes between the military and resistance forces including the KNPP’s Karenni Army have been breaking out daily in Karenni (Kayah) State since last year, with civil society estimates indicating that two-thirds of the state’s population have been displaced during that time. The Myanmar Army has frequently carried out airstrikes on civilian areas and used heavy weapons in their attacks in the region. 

Padoh Saw Mutu Say Poe, the chair of the Karen National Union (KNU), along with several other officers from the organisation, also met with Sasakawa on Thursday.

KNU spokesperson Padoh Saw Taw Nee, who did not attend the meeting, speculated that the participants likely discussed matters relating to tension in the Karen State town of Lay Kay Kaw in Myawaddy Township, which is located in KNU-administered territory near the Thai-Myanmar border. It was built with financial support from the Nippon Foundation, as a tribute to “peace” in line with the now defunct Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement between the military and some of the country’s ethnic armed organisations, including the KNU.

“They have worked together with our chair before regarding the building of Lay Kay Kaw town. I think they only talked about the matters regarding the Nippon Foundation’s funding of the building of Lay Kay Kaw,” he said, adding that he did not have “much further information” on the meeting.

Lay Kay Kaw was the site of a major military offensive last December that led to the arrest of striking civil servants and parliamentarians who had sought refuge in KNU territory. The attacks and airstrikes on the area displaced thousands of civilians.

Battles with allied resistance forces there have recently resumed, including with a junta airstrike on Wednesday following a KNU ultimatum to leave the area. A member of a local defence force allied with the KNU said five junta troops were killed in a clash in Lay Kay Kaw on the same day. 

Padoh Saw Taw Nee said that there was no reason to discuss political matters in Myanmar with the Nippon Foundation chair. Sasakawa has previously acted as a negotiator between the military and ethnic armed organisations. 

“We can’t negotiate with the military council during times like this. Everyone knows what our aims are. There’s nothing to discuss with the military council,” he said.

The Irrawaddy reported on and shared photos from another Thursday meeting in Chiang Mai between military-linked negotiators Hla Maung Shwe and Aung Naing Oo, who, according to the news outlet, were “believed to be brokering on behalf of the regime.” Both worked on peace talks on behalf of previous government administrations. 

At the time of reporting, the military council had not released a statement regarding the meeting. 

Chair of the Restoration Council of Shan State Yawd Serk and an accompanying delegation also met with Sasakawa, and was seen in The Irrawaddy’s photos.

Mr. Sasakawa meets Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (Samdech Hun Sen, Cambodian Prime Minister / Facebook)

Earlier this month, Sasakawa visited Cambodia and met with a delegation that included Prime Minister Hun Sen—ASEAN’s chair—and Cambodian foreign affairs minister Prak Sokhonn, who is also ASEAN’s special envoy for Myanmar. The Phnom Penh Post reported that Hun Sen had asked Sasakawa to intervene in addressing the crisis in Myanmar. 

There are reports that Sasakawa will go to Naypyitaw to meet with coup leader Min Aung Hlaing on March 20, but Myanmar Now is unable to independently confirm this. Also scheduled for March 20 is the start of a three-day visit to the junta’s administrative capital by ASEAN’s special envoy. 

Sasakawa is last known to have met with Min Aung Hlaing in November of last year. At that time, the Japanese minister of foreign affairs said that Sasakawa’s actions were not in affiliation with the Japanese government. 

The military council reported that Sasakawa was among the persons who requested the release of American journalist Danny Fenster, who was detained in Insein Prison for nearly six months before being released in November. 

Mr. Sasakawa meets with Min Aung Hlaing in Naypyitaw on November 13, 2021 (Office of the Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Service Website)

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