Tentative talks: The head of Burma's peace committee, Aung Win (R), meets with Karen National Union leader General Saw Mutu Sai Po
in Pa-an, 12 January. Image: AP
Tentative talks: The head of Burma's peace committee, Aung Win (R), meets with Karen National Union leader General Saw Mutu Sai Po in Pa-an, 12 January. Image: AP

Halt in hostilities?

Burma edges towards peace.

Hopes of an end to the world's longest-running insurgency were raised in recent days, as several ethnic rebel groups entered into ceasefire agreements with the Burmese government. The most important of these took place on 12 January, when the Karen National Union (KNU) signed a truce with government representatives. This is a potentially significant step towards peace, as the KNU has been fighting for independence from the Burmese government for more than six decades. 'This is a historic event, though it is only the first step in a long process,' said David Htaw, one of the leaders of the KNU delegation, who attended the signing ceremony. 'The people have experienced the horrors of war for a long time. I hope they'll soon be able to fully enjoy the sweet taste of peace.'

The next day, the KNU delegation flew to Naypyidaw, where the members met with Vice-President Tin Aung Mying Oo and Defence Minister Major-General Hla Min. 'That was a very emotional meeting,' a member of the Burmese delegation told this writer. Reportedly, bitter decades-long enemies embraced each other.

Signed in the Karen state capital of Pa'an, the truce involves five components. There is an agreement to stop fighting immediately, to warn each other of troop movements so as to avoid future clashes, and for the KNU to set up liaison offices in various Karen towns in eastern Burma. The KNU members will also be allowed unrestricted, unarmed travel within what are known as the special economic zones within Karen state. Finally, there has been agreement to carry out further discussion on the 11 demands put forth by the KNU delegation.

The KNU leaders insist that this is not a ceasefire agreement. Rather, it is a truce – an end to hostilities so that peace talks can continue and trust-building measures can be implemented. As a young Karen refugee living in exile in Thailand told this writer, 'The most important thing is to end the fighting.' Indeed, 60 years of armed struggle has left some 150,000 Karen living in refugee camps in Thailand, and nearly half a million displaced inside Burma. (This refugee requested anonymity, as did several sources in this story.) According to a Thailand-based international aid group, the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), nearly 100,000 Karen villagers have been evicted from their houses by the Burmese army since 2002.

The 19-member KNU delegation was led by a commander of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), General Mutu Sae Po. It also included a cross-section of political and military representatives from across Karen areas. Railways Minister Aung Min, President Thein Sein's chief ceasefire negotiator, led the government team. The recent agreements were actually only the result of a long period of preparations. Towards the end of last year, the KNU and government representatives had already had three informal discussions in Thailand, paving the way for this first set of formal talks in Pa'an.

'Apart from these discussions, there were also lots of telephone calls in between', says a Burmese academic involved in the process. The KNU delegation members have had access to the minister involved for some time. 'We could call Aung Min directly on the phone at any time,' says a KNU negotiator. 'This helped iron out some of the issues that might have otherwise delayed the agreement.'

Panlong II
The halt in hostilities is an important first step towards long-term peace. However, many other agreements will be needed before the Karen rebels will hand over their arms and join mainstream politics. The KNU representatives plan to take the process step by step. The current agreement is only at the state level; discussions will have to be continued at the national level. 'Although there is no timeframe yet, this is definitely the way forward,' one of the government negotiators said. A lot of the outcome will depend on how the negotiations with other ethnic groups progress, as well.

A longer-term plan involves inviting all the ethnic groups that have agreed to ceasefires to discuss a political settlement in Naypyidaw. The resolution may include constitutional changes allowing for a form of federalism. 'A conference similar to Panlong will be held in the Parliament, with the MPs present,' Aung Min told the leaders of several rebel groups last year, during one of the preliminary ceasefire meetings. He was referring to the Panlong Conference, held in February 1947 between General Aung San, then the leader of the Burmese independence movement, and several ethnic leaders. In an effort to hasten independence from Britain, the general had proposed setting up separate ethnic homelands in the frontier areas, to be later joined to Burma as equal partners in a union. The Panlong agreement stated that ethnic rights would be included in the constitution of an independent Burma.

However, Aung San's assassination later that year, on 19 July, allowed the country's new leaders to ignore the spirit of Panlong. Since then, virtually since Independence, most ethnic groups have been fighting for autonomy and/or independence. The most important of these groups were the Karen, who took up arms against the Burmese army as early as 1949. A civil war has since been raging in the east of the country. Now, with the announcement of a ceasefire, an end to the civil war could be in sight, and there is talk of a follow-up Panlong conference.

This window of calm should also help ease the humanitarian crisis in eastern Burma, allowing aid to reach areas where there are large numbers of internally displaced Karen. ‘First of all, human-rights violations must be stopped,’ says Saw Eh Htoo Soe, spokesperson for the network of Karen Community Based Organisations (KCBO), reacting to the recent developments. ‘Land and other property confiscated or looted from the villagers should be returned or compensated for. Local villagers must be able to move, work and live freely. Internally displaced persons should be able to return to their villages if they want to. And the Burmese army should pull out from their outposts at the front lines because they stop local villagers from travelling to work on their farms,’ he adds.

Despite the hope for peace, many Karen activists are sceptical of the events of recent weeks. They point to the failure of peace talks in the past, in particular the ‘gentleman’s agreement’ reached between then-prime minister and intelligence chief Khin Nyunt and veteran Karen leader General Saw Bo Mya in 2004. Many KNLA officers have complained that, despite the understanding, Burmese soldiers continued to operate as before. And when Khin Nyunt was ousted from his post later that year, the situation on the ground deteriorated further. (Khin Nyunt was recently released from detention.)

The KNU negotiators, on the other hand, are more optimistic, at least in public. ‘We cannot fail this time – our people need peace,’ David Htaw said after the signing ceremony.

The Kachin catch
So far, the signs of sincerity towards the peace process, from both sides, are encouraging. Most of the ethnic groups are actively involved, apart from the Kachin in the north. Most importantly, as the minister given the task of implementing the peace process, Aung Min says that ‘the government [appears genuinely] serious about finally bringing peace to the country’s troubled ethnic areas.’

According to sources involved in laying out the government’s peace strategy, President Thein Sein has already approved the railway minister’s scheme, including the need for a Panlong-type meeting in Naypyidaw to seal the political deal. Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s strong support for a political solution to the ethnic problem has also strengthened the government’s resolve to end the civil war, and develop border regions. Since her release from house arrest in November 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi has been calling for such a political settlement, even suggesting she could convene her own version of second Panlong conference. According to a government official close to the president, shortly after the historic meeting with the president in August last year, Suu Kyi promised to stand by all of his genuine and serious peace efforts.

Apart from Suu Kyi’s endorsement, President Thein Sein also understands that a resolution to the ethnic issue would play a crucial role in providing the legitimacy his government seeks from the international community. In her talks with the president in December, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton had stressed that a commitment to end the civil war was one of the four key indicators of real change that would prompt a response from Washington. US Senator Mitch McConnell, a key supporter of economic sanctions on Burma, had also said that an end to the country’s ethnic conflicts would be necessary for the Senate to consider lifting the US sanctions.

Success with the ethnic minorities may also be critical in the survival of the liberal-minded leaders in the current Burmese government. Aung Min immediately telephoned President Thein Sein when the deal with the KNU was done. Four hours later, the president announced the release of prisoners, which included a large number of high-profile activists. Their release, according to government sources, was being delayed because of pressure from the hardliners. The success of the talks with the KNU gave the president enough strength to withstand the hardliners, this time at least.

The ongoing conflict in Kachin state, however, remains a major barrier to securing a permanent peace. Fighting erupted last June, and there have been various clashes between Burmese soldier and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) ever since, despite several efforts to broker a new peace deal. The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) signed a ceasefire agreement with the regional commander in 1994, which was broken by Burmese troops when the army launched an unprovoked attack on the KIA some seven months ago. More than 60,000 Kachin have been displaced in the areas near the border, according to Kachin aid agencies working in the area. More than 30,000 refugees have fled across the border into China, according to Western intelligence sources.

The last meeting between the two sides took place in Ruili in China on 18 January, but failed to bring peace any closer. ‘There is a lot of mistrust on both sides,’ said Reverend Saboi Jum, a former Baptist bishop, who helped to broker the last ceasefire agreement. ‘It will take time to overcome this.’ Further talks are scheduled, but no date has yet been set. Aung Min, who is not involved in these talks, is worried that this ‘hiccup’ will give the hardliners in the cabinet ammunition against the president, according to one of the minister’s advisors.

The future of reform, and even the survival of President Thein Sein and the liberal-minded ministers who are pushing the peace process, could be hanging in the balance. ‘If we fail we’ll end up in jail,’ said one of these ministers.

~ Larry Jagan is a former BBC regional correspondent who is based in Bangkok and has extensively covered Burma issues.

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