Last week’s accord with the government brought the feeling that times are really changing in Burma, but bitter experiences of the past are prompting questions of why the KNU left the table without firm guarantees.
It was a heart-pounding moment for many Karen around the world waiting to hear the outcomes of Thursday’s peace talks between the Karen National Union and the Burmese government. It was a moment of hope _ at last thoughts of a peace that we have been longing for for decades. The results of the talks are so far, confusing for many Karen _ do we have a peace deal or not? Ceasefire agreements in the past between military-backed Burmese governments and the KNU have always ended in tatters.
The KNU has been fighting against the military regime that has dominated Burma for more than 60 years. I have never known peace, my father has never known peace. We live in a country that has never reaped the benefits of the stability that peace brings.
Our village of 5,000 or so people has no electricity _ that means no refrigeration for medicine or food. It is even hard to buy candles. To get to the cities takes days during the wet season as the roads are unusable. Not only are the roads bad, but we also have to pay taxes at the many military checkpoints. Our bags are searched. If we do not have the correct travel documents, even for short trips, we are interrogated.
Our schools are run down. We cannot teach our own language to our children.
Our farmers are good at their work and care for the environment, but because of the policies of the previous military government they cannot spend time on their farms. For instance, the Burmese army places them on monthly rosters for forced labour.
More than 140,000 Karen people live in refugee camps in Thailand and thousands of others have resettled to a third country. A report, ”Chronic Emergency”, by the Backpack Health Workers Team, an organisation that delivers medical assistance to displaced people in eastern Burma, states that one in 10 children will die before the age of one, more than one in five before their fifth birthday and one in 12 women will lose their lives from complications of pregnancy and childbirth. International health organisations have deemed malaria, HIV/Aids and tuberculosis rates to be at epidemic levels. For a country as rich in resources as Burma this is deplorable.
Many international humanitarian groups have documented abuses in hundreds of reports, but still we Karen live in hope for peace. We are optimistic, our country is rich in natural resources, cultural diversity and talented people. Given the chance we can make a difference. But we need the stability and relief that a only a peace with laws that protect everyone equally can bring.
We have had peace talks in the past that appeared to lack structure or a coherent process. In 2004, a ceasefire was agreed to by the Burmese army and Karen leader Gen Bo Mya that turned out to be a disaster. The lack of defined rules meant the Burmese army was allowed to travel freely in Karen-held territory during the ceasefire period and map Karen military bases and internally displaced peoples’ hiding sites.
In 2006, according to many international and local human rights groups, as many as 76,000 people in eastern Burma were forced from their homes by Burmese army operations. A detailed report in 2010, ”Protracted displacement and chronic poverty in eastern Burma”, by the Thai Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), shows that by 2010 little had changed and the living standards of people in Burma’s rural areas were further declining.
The TBBC report estimated that at least 73,000 people were forced to leave their homes in eastern Burma in 2010, and more than 446,000 remained internally displaced.
Despite the bitter experiences of the past, this time the peace talks seem different. All the signs suggest the international community wants to engage Burma. The Burmese government has taken some cautious steps towards appeasing fears that dominated our lives before the country’s first national elections held in 2010. Ethnic groups have formed an alliance to offer support and resources to each other and the KNU has called for all Karen and organisations to be involved. This resulted in the KNU delegation presenting 11 key points to the Burmese government representatives at last Thursday’s talks. A pact was signed after government representatives agreed to these key points.
But despite the reported goodwill on both sides, the Karen want a third party involved in peace negotiations. Prior to the peace talks, a network of Karen Community Based Organisations (KCBO) issued a statement making this demand.
Saw Eh Htoo Soe, spokeperson for the KCBO network, said that it is important to have independent third party involvement to monitor the process and ensure no one is cheated. ”The peace talks should be monitored by a third party because in the past there were [ceasefire] agreements without third-party involvement that were easily broken. This time we want to see credible and independent witnesses to ensure the agreements are binding. With independent witnesses at the talks we will know who has not honoured the agreements,” he said.
Not all Karen are pleased with or trust the reported outcomes from Thursday’s meeting. The Karen want to see a peace that is genuine, transparent and long lasting. They say, ”We have waited 60 years, waiting is not a problem” _ if the details to delivering a genuine long-lasting peace to all Karen are contained in the agreement. A female Karen activist told me that she thought it was too quick for the agreement to have been signed within the first round and on the first day of talks. A senior Karen health worker also remarked that the agreement has been signed too quickly, without first informing the public and the international community about the issues in the agreement.
”What I feel is that after we reach points of agreement, we should first take these to the people and to the international community. Whether they also agree to the points or not, at least let them know about it before signing it,” said the health worker.
The KNU’s 11 key points which the government agreed to in principle include a guarantee of human rights and the safety of all civilians, an immediate halt to forced labour, an end to arbitrary taxation and extortion, solutions to settle land rights issues and the release of all political prisoners.
Saw Eh Htoo Soe said that at this point, the Karen should experience some benefits from the ceasefire.
”First of all, human rights violations must be stopped. Land and property confiscated or looted from the villagers should be returned or compensated for. Local villagers must be able to move, work and live freely. Internally displaced persons should be able to return to their villages if they want and the Burmese army should pull out from their outposts at the front lines because they are still a threat to local villagers who are stopped from travelling to work on their farms.”
The KCBO spokesperson also said he hopes that the agreement between the KNU and the Burmese government will bring immediate benefits for the Karen.
”I hope both sides will compromise and respect each others’ demands. The talks and agreements should be for the benefit of the people. As a community-based organisation, we can’t change their decision, but we urge them to do their best for the benefit of the people. The outcomes will show how much both sides care for the … people.”
Saw Eh Htoo Soe also said that to reach a long-term peace, everyone should come together and determine the best course for the country.
”A ceasefire agreement is only the first step _ it should be followed by political dialogue involving ethnic nationalities, democratic forces and Thein Sein’s government. They have to discuss and establish the best system for the country, a genuine federal union. Only then will there be long-term peace. If not [a] civil war could break out again any time. Ethnic nationalities have been struggling for equal rights, self-determination, democratic rights and human rights; these should be in place if we are to have a long-term peace.”
Burma is a country without infrastructure _ poor roads, no reliable electricity grid and a poverty stricken health system _ but above all these physical needs we have to have laws that are fair for all. During the civil war, many military people became rich at the expense of the Burmese people _ future peace agreements must not let this happen again. The Karen want peace, but after many years of struggle and abuses by the Burmese military they also know they need to have a peace agreement that comes with legal guarantees.
Past peace agreements in Burma have done little for the Karen. This time it has to be different. We need legal guarantees that confiscated land is returned to the rightful owners, that all proposed development projects are done without forced labour or eviction of Karen villagers, that writing, meeting and talking with our friends does not come with a jail sentence, and that all of Burma’s political prisoners are released immediately.
Saw Wei Thoo is a Karen refugee, journalist and a founding member of www.karennews.org.
*This op-ed piece appeared first in the Bangkok Post on 15/1/2010