Fri 20 Jan 2012
Filed under: Inside Burma
Foreign investors are among the observers anxiously watching events unfold in Burma, monitoring the new government’s program of reforms, trying to lipread government officials and foreign diplomats for indications that economic sanctions might soon be lifted.
We have seen in recent weeks two of the three criteria met: the release of political prisoners; and a willingness to bring Aung San Suu Kyi and the opposition into the political fray.
The main obstacle remaining is unarguably the most difficult condition that Naypyidaw must fulfill: bringing a peaceful end to decades of civil war.
However, where just months ago the chasm of distrust between the warring sides appeared too ingrained to resolve, the recent statements issued by ethnic representatives following rounds of ceasefire talks have resounded of positive sound-bites.
Even when negotiations have broken down, both the government delegation and ethnic militias have agreed to further talks.
Of course, signing a truce and ceasing hostilities at the frontline can be diverging interests; but several observers say they believe the all-important political solution is closer to reality, while the military solution is more frequently being seen as outdated.
Perhaps, finally, Burma watchers say, one of the world’s longest-running insurgencies is drawing to a close.
A look at the outcome of each ethnic group’s bilateral talks with the Burmese government reveals that progress has indeed been made, but skepticism generally remains high.
Naypyidaw can take credit for a string of political coups—the apparent progress in relations with the the Karen, the Shan, the Chin and the Wa. And the domino effect of momentum has ensured negotiations with resistant ethnic militias, most notably, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), have been rekindled.
According to Shan journalist Sai Murng, the ethnic rebels are “testing the waters” to see how their long-time enemy reacts.
On Jan. 12, the Karen National Union, seen by many as the keystone of the ethnic rebellion, signed a ceasefire agreement with a government peace delegation in Pa-an, tentatively ending a 63-year-long war.
KNU peace negotiator Saw David Taw said, “We have been fighting and demanding our rights for a long time. Now, because we see the government attempting to find a peaceful solution, I think the armed conflict will end slowly and step by step.
“The modern world does not support solutions by military means. War is out of date in this age,” he said. However, the KNU will hold on to their weapons for self-protection “just in case,” he said.
Although it is very early days, no reports of a breakdown in the ceasefire have been reported.
David Taw noted that the previous ceasefire, in 2004, had been a verbal agreement. He said he believed last week’s signed ceasefire was evidence of steps toward a “real peace.”
The estimated 3,000 fighting men of the Shan State Army–South (SSA–South) have also enjoyed a time-out in hostilities since the group reached an 11-point plan for a ceasefire on Dec. 2, its first truce with the Burmese army after decades of continual conflict.
Maj Sai Lao Hseng, the main spokesperson for the SSA–South, said that military resistance was not the solution to Burma’s ethnic conflicts—only political agreements.
The SSA-South says it now plans to officially reopen its liaison offices around Shan State.
Also based in Shan State, the United Wa State Army, the largest ethnic rebel group in the country with an estimated 30,000 troops, partnered by its ethnic allies the Mongla Group, also reached ceasefire agreements with Naypyidaw in December.
Non-ceasefire groups are watching these agreements closely and with due caution.
Nai Hang Thar, the secretary of the New Mon State Party (NMSP), said, “If all the other ethnic armed groups make peace deals with the government, we will also follow suit.”
However, he said that he doubted the government could maintain truces in the region, and cited as evidence its continuous attacks against strongholds of the KIO in Kachin and Shan states.
The NMSP has met several times with government delegations, but failed to come to any agreement.
However, other ethnic representatives who have sat around the table in recent months with the so-called Union Level Peace Discussion Group leaders have praised the government delegation for its sincerity and most agreed that Naypyidaw’s approach this time is much different from previous meetings when their delegates were often described as “arrogant.”
The ethnic sources said that the new government delegation has a higher authority, and includes decision-makers such as Aung Min, the Minster for Railways, who is close to the office of President Thein Sein. Many ethnic delegates claimed that previous government representatives behaved more like informers and had no real authority to make decisions.
Undoubtedly, a crucial element that is motivating the ethnic leaders is the series of political reforms that juxtapose the peace talks. Most say they take encouragement from the recognition of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the release of political prisoners, and the government’s concessions on media and Burmese dissidents.
Meanwhile, as talks between the government and the KIO stalled in southwestern China on Jan. 18-19 without agreement, Kachin leaders insisted they needed more time to rebuild trust.
The KIO previously signed a ceasefire agreement with the government in 1994, but it broke down in June last year.
La Nan, the spokesperson for the KIO, said that a ceasefire alone would not be enough to end the civil war.
“We do not fight each other simply because we have the weapons,” he said. “It is because of political problems.”
“If we had autonomy and the right to self-determination, do you think we would still be fighting?” he questioned.
Other ethnic leaders are similarly outspoken about their doubts. Rimond Htoo, a senior member of the Karenni National Progressive Party, said, “This series of ceasefires reminds us of the ethnic groups who turned in their arms in exchange for peace in the early 1990s. What has the government done since then to solve their issues? Nothing!”
He said that the ethnic groups were told to take their demands to the National Convention, but that ethnic issues were never discussed there.
Veteran journalist Larry Jagan said he believed this was the beginning of the end of the civil war in Burma.
“But it is not going to be quick and easy,” he said. “There has to be a political solution in the end.”
That sentiment was echoed by Aung Thaung, the head of the Burmese government’s peace delegation in late 2011 who said that it would take up to three years to reach peace agreements with all the ethnic armed groups.
At the end of the day, this current series of ceasefire agreements and peace talks will probably not put a sudden end to Burma’s civil war—but it might be enough to convince Western nations to lift economic sanctions on the Burmese government.