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Burma in the Throes of Change – Part 1

CHIANG MAI, Thailand, Feb 7 2012 (IPS) - Moves by the Burmese government to settle ethnic conflicts in the country, notably with the Karen in the mountainous eastern part of the country, have caught most observers by surprise.

When the government and the Karen National Union (KNU) held ceasefire talks on Jan. 12 aimed at ending the 62-year-old Karen insurgency – the world’s oldest running ethnic conflict – there was scepticism as to whether the powerful Burmese military would honour conditions laid down by the rebels.

The government agreed to all 11 points put forth by the KNU at the historic meeting, making the initial round a success. But a ceasefire ‘agreement’ has not yet been reached, the current truce being tentative and dependent on future negotiations at a national level.

The KNU has outlined “trust building through dialogue, discussion and pulling out/reduction of government troops” and “collaboration with other ethnic national nationality forces at the stage of political dialogue and negotiation” as key demands.

“There are still no guarantees, but the fact that they (government) are addressing the problems is a shock and positive surprise in itself,” explains Kim Jolliffe, a research consultant specialising in conflict and displacement who is based on the Thai-Burma border.

Jolliffe said the situation remains relatively stable and the parties are keen to uphold the conditions laid down at the January talks between the KNU and the pro-reform government of President Thein Sein.

“The KNU has ‘welcomed’ the government’s acceptance of its 11-point proposal and says it will continue ‘concrete discussions’ on how the terms and conditions will ‘materialise on the ground’ before both sides can agree on a final agreement,” Jolliffe elaborated.

Through its militant wing, the Karen National Liberation Army, the KNU has been fighting successive governments to secure independence or greater autonomy for the Karen since 1949, a year after Burma gained independence from British colonial rule.

Burma’s military, which has ruled the country since a 1962 coup, responded with repressive measures that included systematic rape, evictions, forced labour, torture and murder.

A crackdown on student protests in 1988 and refusal to honour the results of elections held in 1990, overwhelmingly in favour of the National League for Democracy, prompted two decades of sanctions by the European Union and the United States.

Representatives on both sides acknowledge that it will take a cumbersome process before ‘everlasting peace’ is achieved in a region riddled by conflict for over six decades.

At a press conference in Rangoon (also Yangon) before the ceasefire talks, Aung Thung, minister for industry and head of the government’s negotiating group, estimated that “it will take up to three years to reach peace agreements with all armed ethnic groups.”

An agreement has been reached with rebels of the Shan State Army (southern faction) that seeks to establish an autonomous Shan state in the north-eastern part of the country.

However, negotiations have not borne positive results in a third major ethnic area, the northern Kachin state that shares a long border with China.

Talks with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) have been derailed by continued fighting, despite orders by President Thein Sein, last month, to end military operations in the Kachin state.

According to the New York-based watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW), the number of civilians displaced in Kachin state has risen over 50,000 in the fighting that erupted in June 2011, ending a 17-year ceasefire between the KIA and the Burmese military.

Despite the fragility of the situation activists such as Aung Naing Oo, director of the Chiang Mai-based Vahu Development Institute, feel that significant momentum has been generated for peace efforts with a new perspective.

“It is not only because of the new government’s policy, but also prevailing conditions such as general political progress, release of political prisoners, improved international relationships and, above all, greater political space,” explains Aung Naing Oo, a leader of the failed student-led uprising of 1988 that left 3,000 people dead.

A positive effect of the ceasefire talks is that unlike previous years, when deliberate displacement campaigns and burning down of villages by the state military were common over the winter months, there has been relative calm in Karen state.

But the situation remains frail and disagreements between the government and KNU could erupt over economic development plans, especially around the exploitation of natural resources that are attractive to foreign investors.

Jolliffe says the Karen leadership will claim to “become key economic stakeholders in order to maintain relevance in a modern political environment and continue making demands on behalf of the people they aim to represent.”

“Most important of all, I think we need a new roadmap for reconciliation with armed ethnic groups because we have to create a proper and comprehensive peace process,” says Aung Naing Oo.

According to HRW, human rights abuses continued through 2011. “The Burmese military continues to violate international humanitarian law through the use of extrajudicial killings, torture, sexual violence, beatings, abusive forced labour, antipersonnel landmines, and pillaging of property, particularly in Kachin, Shan, and Karen states,” says a January press release from HRW.

Khin Ohmar, of the Thailand-based Burma Partnership, believes that the international community should maintain pressure on the regime to “put an end to attacks on ethnic communities” and keep this as a “key benchmark while considering lifting of sanctions.”

The ceasefire talks between the Karen and the Burmese military were followed by the release of about 300 political prisoners on Jan. 13, many of them high-profile dissidents or political leaders. But, Ohmar is sceptical about political freedom for those released, in upcoming elections.

“Given that laws prohibiting free expression remain in place, speaking out against the regime could lead to a return to prison,” she said.

Former Burmese army captain Nay Myo Zin, arrested under the infamous Electronics Act – that bans Burmese citizens from using the Internet to send information critical of the government to foreign audiences – was re-arrested within two weeks of the January amnesty.

*This is the first of a two-part series on Burma’s transition from decades of dictatorship.

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