BANGKOK—Welcoming the tentative recent truce between the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Burmese government, several Karen leaders say that reforms are not yet being felt in Karen State and other ethnic regions of Burma.
“The KNU is still a banned organisation,” says Zoya Phan, the chair of the European Karen Network. “Many of the repressive laws are still in place in Burma, and these need to be changed.”
The rules effectively mean that the KNU cannot discuss peace openly with Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy, and that an estimated 160 Karen political prisoners remain in jail, despite recent government amnesties.
Fighting began in Karen State in the late 1940s, making the war between the Burmese army and the Karen the world’s longest-running. Ending the conflict in Karen State is touted as one of several reforms needed if international sanctions on the country are to be dropped. However the Burmese army and the Karen are yet to discuss a political solution to the fighting, which many Karen say is necessary for the recent truce is to go further.
“Having a ceasefire without a political solution is like pressing a pause button, not a stop button,” says Zoya Phan, speaking in Bangkok on Monday.
The Karen number an estimated 3-4 million people, and live in Karen State along the border with Thailand, and in Burma’s Irrawaddy delta. Originally animist, a belief system to which many Karen still adhere, the majority of Karen are now Buddhist, with a significant Christian minority of perhaps 30 percent. Over recent decades, hundreds of thousands of Karen have fled fighting in Burma to Thailand, where around 140,000 mostly Karen refugees live in nine camps along the Thai-Burma border, while tens of thousands more have been resettled in Western countries.
Welcoming the reforms undertaken by the Burmese government in recent months, K’nyaw Paw, a member of the Karen Women’s Organisation, said that though there has been positive change elsewhere in Burma, “there needs to be a genuine ceasefire leading to genuine dialogue with ethnic groups.”
Echoing long-standing demands for a decentralized, federal Burma, Zoya Phan, whose father was a KNU leader before being assassinated in Mae Sot, Thailand, in 2008, said, “We Karen want peace, and a federal democratic government.”
One hundred and sixty-seven Karen delegates congregated in Karen State in late February to discuss the recent reforms in Burma and the proposed KNU-Burmese army truce.
Saw Kenneth Moe, a Karen representative based in South Korea, said that the Burmese army remains stationed in Karen villages, preventing Karen civilians from returning home. “We heard from refugees and displaced people,” he said, “and they cannot go home.”
Over 3,000 villages, mostly Karen, have been destroyed in eastern Burma, according to human rights organisations. The destruction—wrought largely by the Burmese army—has prompted calls for a Commission of Inquiry (CoI) into human rights abuses in Burma, an inquest that could lead to some form of international tribunal.
However proponents of the CoI have pulled back from this demand in recent months. “We are not working on this issue at present, because of the current political climate,” said Zoya Phan.
The Karen representatives said that there should be international access to Burma’s prisons to account fully for the remaining political prisoners. “There are around 160 Karen political prisoners,” says K’nyaw Paw. “But the number could be higher, as it is very difficult to gather all the information from inside Burma.”