NEGOTIATING WITH THE BURMA GOVERNMENT: In Search of a National Consensus

Saw Kapi

Just over a year ago, the Karen National Union entered into negotiations with President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government with the ultimate aim of attaining a democratic federal Union of Burma/Myanmar, wherein diverse ethnic nationalities equally enjoy a level of right to self-determination.

From the start, there is a realization within the KNU that negotiations would entail compromises on the path to be followed to the ultimate objective. And, the negotiation process, most Karens understand, will be influenced by the prevailing balance of political forces. A peaceful political settlement has always been the first option of Karen people’s movement. It was only when the prospect of a peaceful settlement diminished that the perspective of an armed resistance was adopted back in 1949.

But today, the overwhelming worry among most ordinary Karen people is that the initial ceasefire agreement signed in early 2012 between the KNU and Burmese government might have prepared the grounds for rampant, not-properly-regulated extraction of natural resources in Karen state with no tangible benefits for the local citizens. They are quietly concerned that this brutal economic exploitation in Karen state under the disguise of ceasefire agreement will reduce the organization that has spearheaded Karen resistance for more than sixty years to a mere economic partner of former regime’s cronies and, consequently, lead to its eventual demise, both as a leading resistance organization and as an important political voice representing Karen people’s will.

On the one hand, they are aware of the uneven power balance between the Burma army and ethnic resistance forces and the pressure from resource-hungry international community – governments and non-governments alike – that are eager to see a business-friendly environment established in the country as quickly as possible. And, therefore that cooperation with the new Burmese government is inevitable, no matter how imperfect are the 2008 constitution and the subsequent elections, through which it came into power. On the other hand, they are concerned that the new KNU leadership lacks the necessary unity and strategic vision for achieving constitutional recognition of self-determination. And that some of them may be unwittingly acting to the tune of government chief negotiator Minister Aung Min and his secretariat outfit, the Myanmar Peace Center.

It has become apparent that, within the top KNU leadership, there are two radically different views on how to approach negotiations with the Burmese government. There are those who want to move cautiously and systematically in accordance with the organization’s own policy while at the same time keeping the Karen public abreast with changes and adjustments in the policy concerning them so as to ensure not only transparency and accountability but also participatory process; and those who, believing that there is only a small window of political opportunity while the reformist president Thein Sein is still in power, are keen on moving swiftly and decisively, but, perhaps too compromisingly at times.

To be sure, however, both views recognize that political negotiation is not only a preferred method of the struggle but it is also a matter of KNU’s long standing principle. The KNU has repeatedly stated that ethnic issues in Burma essentially are political problems that should be resolved by political means. Consistent with that principle, the KNU has held numerous rounds of dialogues with all previous Burmese governments. The underlying issue, therefore, is not ‘whether or not’ but rather ‘where,’ ‘when’ and ‘how’ negotiations should be conducted with the Burmese government.

And yet, the absence of a sound political program representing collective Karen national interest follows rapid erosion of the KNU-controlled territory. Since the beginning of ceasefire talks in early 2012, not only have the number of extractive industries coming into Karen state vying for natural resources skyrocketed, but the number of Burma Army troops stationing in the region have also increased significantly. Meanwhile, there has not been any serious indication from the government that it is indeed interested in addressing the question of autonomy for ethnic nationalities – the very fundamental goal of the Karen struggle. Despite relaxed restriction on freedom of expression and decreased human right violations in some parts of the country, prospect for real political transformation remains largely uncertain.

On the part of the government, it seeks to employ negotiations to retain as much economic privileges and political power for itself as possible. Although there is no active fighting in the ethnic areas at the moment, the Burma army seeks to solidify its military dominance – stockpile military supplies and strengthen its frontline military outposts. Under the guise of development-first strategy, it is seemingly trying to pursue an outcome in which ethnic resistance forces would yield to immediate economic incentives and finally succumb to a combination of political and military pressure. Thus, for the government, as much as the current peace negotiation process serves as a platform to find a resolution to Burma’s decade-long conflicts, it is also used as a means through which the government seeks to shift the balance of political power and public opinion to its favor.

For the ethnic nationalities, the best they can do, perhaps, is to broaden the space for free political activities though a combination of mobilization for public participation, interethnic cooperation and continued self-defence. The KNU, as the principal negotiator for collective Karen interest, must continue to draw President Thein Sein and his team onto the terrain of genuine negotiations leading towards comprehensive national political dialogues. The policies and practices it adopts must be transparent and accountable to the people who have put their trust in and supported the organization in the face of brutal repression throughout the past several decades.

Hence, efforts to crystallize Karen political aspirations must start with mass education and communications that reach out to Karens everywhere, including the Diasporas and those living inside Burma, but also beyond the current government-administered area. Efforts must be made to ensure that the approaches we adopt are people-centered, religion-neutral and gender-sensitive. This, in turn, will require an active and willful participation of Karen people from all walks of life, with the KNU as a flagship carrier of the Karen political voice.

In the end, the potential for genuine political reforms will have to emerge from a combined – political, economic, social, and civic – platform. The KNU must seek to engender this platform, define the scope of its geographic reach, and the salience of its political representation. This is probably where an all-inclusive Karen national consultative conference should come into play. Such national consultative conference should be held with the aim to establish national consensus on the broad direction in which the negotiation process with the current Burmese government should unfold; and broad consensus on the need for a multi-ethnic national assembly that will chart a political path towards Burma’s better future.

*Saw Kapi is the Director of Salween Institute (www.salweeninstitute.org). His opinion does not reflect that of Karen News’. He can be reached by email at sawkapi@yahoo.com.

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