The red-carpet invitation extended to President Thein Sein to visit European capitals at the beginning of March has transformed Burma from pariah state into a new Asian partner, with the international community lavishing praise on the government’s tentative steps towards reform and ending the civil war.
But ethnic leaders and civil society groups inside Burma have painted a less rosy picture. They claim the peace process is undermined by ceasefire violations, land-grabbing by powerful businessmen and the government’s reluctance to discuss a political settlement.
By the end of 2012, many Western governments were impressed that most of the ethnic rebel armies holding sway in areas bordering Thailand and China had signed ceasefire agreements with the reformist-leaning government of President Thein Sein.
The retired general and president’s 11-day European tour included Norway, Finland, Austria and other EU countries, followed later in the month by a visit to New Zealand and Australia. He no doubt delighted his Austrian hosts at a Vienna press conference, assuring them of the complete success of his peace efforts at home.
"There’s no more hostilities, no more fighting over the country, we have been able to end this armed conflict,” Thein Sein said at a joint press conference with Austrian President Heimilitarnz Fischer in Vienna on March 4.
Even as he spoke, however, in northern Burma military clashes were continuing in the Shan and in Kachin states. The Kachin National Organization responded to Thein Sein with a statement claiming, “The Burmese government is committing war crimes and preparing another big scale conflict while claiming 'peace' in Kachinland.”
Only a few weeks before Thein Sein’s European trip, government forces had launched attacks in Kachin state involving helicopters and artillery, with a ferocious assault on KIA rebel positions near the town of Laiza, inside a shrinking liberated zone adjacent to the Chinese border.
In repeated rounds of peace talks with Karen, Shan and Kachin groups, the government has refused calls for a demilitarization of the conflict zones. The shelling may be less frequent, but the guns have not fallen silent. Any celebration of peace is highly premature
The largest ethnic army, the Kachin Independence Army and its political wing, the Kachin Independence Organization met with the government for peace talks in the Chinese city of Ruili on March 11, but declined to sign a ceasefire agreement.