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Peace talks with Myanmar’s minority militias inch forward
By SIMON ROUGHNEEN / Yangon
Inside the Myanmar Peace Center, a Yangon-based governmental body, a line of green-uniformed generals and white-shirted government officials reached across the narrow line of tables dividing the hall in two, each taking the hand of a representative of the country’s ethnic minority militias. Some of the latter wore suits, while others wore tribal dress. Both sides wore smiles, some perhaps a bit more forced than others, and all paused hand-in-hand to pose for a few seconds for a dozen or so jostling photographers.
Myanmar has been host to some of the world’s longest-running civil wars. These grueling, decades-long campaigns have played out in the country’s impoverished, drug-producing mountain borderlands and jungles , and have been marked by numerous instances of forced labour, abduction of children and sexual violence carried out by government troops. More than 100,000 refugees from the violence remain in Thailand, thousands more are in China, while tens of thousands have settled in the West. Inside Myanmar, there are hundreds of thousands of people left homeless by conflicts old and new.
But as the April photo-op suggests, peace is being discussed. The Myanmar government has signed 14 ceasefire agreements with various militias and has been pushing since last year for a national ceasefire – a deal that, on paper at least, would mark the first formal countrywide peace settlement since Burmese independence from British rule.
Myanmar President Thein Sein said in a recent radio address that the government hopes the national deal can be signed by August – in good time for Myanmar’s hosting of a major regional summit that will include U.S. President Barack Obama, Chinese President Xi Jinping and other Asia-Pacific leaders in October. Thein Sein added that the latest talks between government representatives and the militia leaders mean that peace is “one step closer.”
One step forward, two or more steps backward, might cover it better. Just before the Buddhist New Year in mid-April, the Myanmar Army launched an attack on the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), sending around 6,000 people fleeing from their homes and adding to the roughly 100,000 people displaced by fighting between the two sides, which resumed in mid 2011 – just three months after Thein Sein took office – ending a 17-year ceasefire.
The attack came as the government was trying to carry out the first nationwide census since 1983. The KIA’s refusal to allow census-takers to enter areas under its control prompted the Myanmar army to try force a way in, postponing the day, if it comes, when the KIA joins the country’s other militias and signs on for another ceasefire with the government.
The census itself – needed to establish just how many people live in this polyglot, multi-religious country – was both welcomed and opposed by ethnic minorities, who make up an estimated 40 per cent of the population. It was welcomed initially, because it could allow the ethnic minorities to establish their numbers and plan ahead for elections scheduled for late 2015. In the end, though, some opposed the census, because they deemed its categorisation of minorities as flawed – an attempt by the government to employ the “divide and rule tactics” used by the old Myanmar junta in minority-populated borderlands. That the census ended up excluding the Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority labelled as “Bengalis” by the government, was of little concern to the bigger, more powerful minorities such as the Shan, Karen and Kachin.
The census findings have not yet been made public, and there will no doubt be groups who will dispute whatever the government announces. This, in turn, could add to the distrust between the government and the militias taking part in the ceasefire talks. Moreover, new laws aimed at enhancing Buddhism’s status as a de facto state religion – including curbs on inter-religious marriages – will only heighten anxieties felt by minority leaders, some of whom are Christian, about the peace process. So far, that process entails a ceasefire first, but no guarantee that other minority demands – such as renegotiation of Myanmar’s 2008 constitution and greater devolution of powers to their regions – will be discussed. Even the government’s promises of economic development in the resource-rich borderlands, as well as inducements such as lucrative car import licenses for militia leaders, might not be enough to overcome distrust in a process that for the most part the Myanmar government appears to want to play out on its own terms.
In late March, President Thein Sein repeated the government’s pledge to negotiate a federal system of government for Myanmar, a long-standing minority demand.
But it seems the army chief, Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing, has other ideas, raising the question of whether the army and the government are at odds over the peace process, or whether there’s a bit of bait-and-switch being played.
Either way, the army head isn’t backing down, blaming the militias for the ongoing violence and warning, “we made peace agreements, but that doesn’t mean we are afraid to fight. We are afraid of no one. There is no insurgent group we cannot fight or dare not to fight.”