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.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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.