BANGKOK – After two rounds of peace talks with the Burmese government, the Karen National Union (KNU) says that it believes the government is sincere about peace talks, but warns that substantive political issues remain to be discussed and that the 2008 constitution will likely need revising in advance of any durable settlement.
“I think you can take the government at face value,” said KNU negotiator and spokesperson Naw May Oo Mutraw. “The government has demonstrated a desire for change,” she added.
The KNUs armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) has fought the Burmese army since the late 1940s in what is often-described as the world’s longest running civil war, but KNU leaders recently met in Burma with President Thein Sein and with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, after a first series of meetings with government interlocutors back in January.
“There are indications from the second round of talks that the government will not rely on a military solution alone to solve ethnic issues,” said Naw Zipporah Sein, General-Secretary of the KNU, speaking at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand in Bangkok on Thursday night.
Looking ahead, fellow negotiator Saw Kwe Htoo Win said that if there is a settlement, once-unthinkable developments such as Karen militiamen joining the national army might be possible. “If there is a political solution, the KNLA can join the union army”, he said.
The KNU said it wants ‘self-determination”, but not secession from Burma. “We don’t demand independence, we talk about a federal union,” said May Oo Mutraw.
However the KNU urged caution, pointing out that difficult and painstaking discussions lie ahead. “A ceasefire is only the first step to allow us move on to political dialogue,” said Zipporah Sein, who added that the Burmese army is still using forced labour and is burning orchards in Karen state.
Hinting that complicated and possibly-divisive talks will take place before any political solution can be found, May Oo added that “state boundaries are still questionable, and when we bring up the issue of boundaries the government does not like it”.
In-sync with changes advocated by Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD), which this week took its place in Burma’s army-stuffed parliament, the KNU says that Burma’s 2008 constitution needs to be amended as part of any political settlement. “The current constitution does not empower the ethnic nationalities in any meaningful way,” added May Oo Mutraw.
Burma’s military has historically chafed at giving local autonomy to the country’s larger ethnic minorities, who all told make up perhaps 1/3 of the population of Burma, the remainder being ethnic Burman.
Fears of secession or rebellion by ethnic militias has been long used as a justification by Burma’s army for its continued grip on power, while army abuses in ethnic areas – such as extrajudicial killings, rape, forced labour, crop burning – have forced hundreds of thousands of Karen and others to flee into the Burmese jungles or across the border into Thailand, where currently around 140,000 mostly Karen refugees live in 9 camps along the Thai-Burmese frontier.
“We haven’t discussed anything about refugees with the government,” said Zipporah Sein. “Only when there is a peaceful situation in the country and a political settlement can they go back, ” she added.
International donors have reduced or withdrawn funding for health, education and nutrition programs in the Thai camps, diverting cash for projects inside Burma – which despite lush natural resources, is one of the world’s poorest countries on a per capita basis, with 3/4s of the population left without electricity despite Burma’s hefty oil and gas exports and hydropower potential.
“We think that is important that the funding continue for the refugees,” said Zipporah Sein, “we still don’t know when the refugees can go back.” Karen state is littered with landmines, the majority likely laid by the army, but some also placed by the KNLA.
Part of the reason for the diminished funding is what the KNU sees as premature over-enthusiasm on the part of some donors, which does not yet reflect the extent of and impact of reforms in Burma, especially in ethnic states. “The international community is more excited about the reforms in Burma than the people of Burma, and shows an excitement beyond imagination,” she lamented.
The KNU said that when ethnic groups are ready to discuss a political settlement with the government, they will negotiate on a common platform as part of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), an umbrella group comprised of 11 leading groups – including the Mon, Shan, Karenni, Chin, and Kachin – other large ethnic minorities that have fought with the army.
If the UNFC members hold to this, it means that broader settlements in areas such as Karen and Mon state will not come about until after a ceasefire between the Burma government and the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), arguably the best-armed of the UNFC members, who have been fighting the Burma army since June 2011. Over 70000 people, mostly Kachin civilians, have been driven from their homes by the fighting, which continues amid signs that the Burma army is increasing reinforcements in the region.Show