Standing at the back of a recent Karen National Union press conference, held in Hpa’an state, Burma, Saw Hla Way says he finds it hard to believe the government has good intentions.
“I was just a child when I had to run away from the Burmese army, we lost everything,” he says finishing a cigar. “After everything I’ve been through, how can I believe that they want to finally find peace with the Karen people?”
The same sentiment is echoed throughout the refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border, KNU offices and Karen diaspora across the world. Despite the concerns, the Karen National Union and its military wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), have begun initial ceasefire talks with the Burmese regime. Having fought against the government since the British left in 1948, with thousands dying on both sides, many hope this will be the beginning of a durable peace. But they remain skeptical after so many failed attempts before.
The first meeting between the KNU / KNLA leaders and the Burmese government was held on January 12 in Hpa-an town. At the meeting, they agreed to stop all hostilities towards each other, and to meet again within 45 days. Speaking about the meeting, David Htaw, a KNU representative at the meeting, told The Diplomat, “We noticed a change in the way the government is dealing with the ethnic problem.”
“We can’t be sure, but we hope this time we can achieve a long lasting ceasefire,” he says.
In the press conference, which was organized to explain the current situation surrounding the peace talks, KNU leaders said that they had only begun initial talks and that there was a long way to go. Zipporah Sein, the joint secretary of the KNU, said they had made a four stage plan for the ceasefire talks. This includes “preliminary” and “durable” ceasefire stages, and will end in “political participation.”
But she warns that ceasefires alone won’t achieve a durable peace. “We don’t only want a military ceasefire, we need a political solution to a political problem, only then can we achieve durable peace,” she says.
A major concern voiced at the press conference was that the Burmese army had kept their soldiers in position, and had also continued to resupply their frontline camps. “This is a major concern for us, if they are serious about this ceasefire they shouldn’t be resupplying the frontline positions,” Zipporah Sein says. “We hope we can sort this out in the next meeting.”
The pace at which the ceasefire talks are going has seemingly split the KNU leadership, with some arguing they are going too fast. “We told them to go and talk to the government and see what they were saying, and then they came back having already signed a ceasefire,” David Tackapaw, foreign minister of the KNU, says from the KNU office in Mae Sot. He voices his concern that the main reason why the government wanted a ceasefire was to get sanctions lifted and to allow for the development of the Karen state. “They think that if they bring development then the peace will last, and everyone will be happy,” says Tackapaw. “But if they don’t achieve peace before development then there will never be peace, nor will there be genuine ethnic rights”.
Tackapaw says he believed that the KNU shouldn’t be entering into talks with the Burmese government while they were still attacking the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). “As long as they are fighting with the Kachin, how can we believe they are genuinely trying to achieve peace with the ethnic groups,” Tackapaw says.
The KIA was formed to defend the Kachin state from Burmese military forces entering into the area and ruling by force. They were one of the first ethnic groups to sign a ceasefire in 1994, but fighting broke out again in June last year. Tensions were reignited after the Kachin rejected the regime’s border guard force proposal, which effectively asked them to lay down their weapons and join the state army.
Speaking by phone, Saw Eh, a Karen refugee who has been living in the states and now works as a car mechanic, says he also thinks the KNU are going too fast with the ceasefire talks. “We shouldn’t be entering into ceasefire talks without laying down some firm conditions,” he says. “This is a very important moment for the Karen people, it must be done carefully and looking at the future.” He says he wishes to return to his home country, and urges the KNU to make sure the government will give them the political position they deserve inside the country to be the leaders for all Karen people – and included in the nation’s democratic process.
At the refugee camps dotting along the Thai-Burma border, which are home to over 140,000 refugees, few have confidence the ceasefire will last. The camps have been home for the Karen people who have fled their farms, hills, and rivers, after the conflict gave them little choice. Most Karen refugees The Diplomat spoke with said they had little faith that the Burmese government will help to make peace in the Karen state.
Standing outside his bamboo hut overlooking the Umpiem refugee camp, Satun Eh, 41, a Karen refugee who has languished in the camps for over twenty years, says he has little hope of returning home soon. “They have signed a peace treaty with the Karen National Liberation Army but we know it hasn’t come from their hearts,” says Satun Eh. “They are just playing a game with the Karen people so they can get sanctions lifted, they don’t truly want to find peace with our people.” He adds that the Burmese government has been calling for them to return home but, “up till now we haven’t seen any signs that they are planning to make a secure place for us to go back to.”
According to Sally Thompson, of the Thailand Based Border Consortium, the decade-long conflict has had devastating effects on the Karen people. “The protracted conflict has resulted in increased militarization of southeast Burma. Counter-insurgency operations have targeted civilians in a widespread and systematic manner from direct threats to safety and security with indiscriminate artillery attacks and land mines to indirect threats to livelihoods such as forced labor, restrictions on movements and extortion.”
She says that if political progress continues, the camps will likely be closed within five years, but that “ceasefires are only the beginning of a process of peace building and national reconciliation. There must be political dialogue. It’s a long road ahead to build trust after 60 years of conflict. The government will have to deliver significant improvements in the daily lives of people in former conflict areas to demonstrate their sincerity.”
Despite a ceasefire being agreed, the Free Burma Rangers, a medical NGO providing aid to some of the most difficult to reach internally displaced people, reports that civilian abuse continues. They say that on January 29, for example, villagers were ordered by the Light Infantry Battalion 346 to carry 12 trailers to the frontline. Each village was ordered to carry 30 bags of rice, without any compensation. Since the two sides agreed to stop shooting at each other, several villagers have also been wounded by Burmese soldiers and fighting has continued at times.
It’s these human rights abuses, which have been going on for years, that the KNU hope they can find a way to end. Although they are still a long way off, and the ceasefire talks are only in their initial stages, it appears that there are those on both sides who are willing to enter into negotiations for the sake of the country.
“While we can’t trust the government, we know that our people deserve peace, and have faith that our leaders will do their best to end the suffering,” says Saw Hla Way, looking out over the Karen mountains.
William Lloyd George is a British freelance journalist based in Thailand covering ethnic conflict, politics, and human rights issues.