A number of international governments, organisations and individuals try to squeeze the current situation of the Karen people into a narrow, restrictive and simplistic narrative that is usually framed like this.
‘After more than sixty years of conflict, at last the Karen have peace. There has been a ceasefire for almost two years, the Karen National Union and government of Burma are in dialogue, development projects and aid are coming into Karen State to help the people, and finally refugees can return home.’
If all this is true, why aren’t Karen people celebrating? As a nation, the Karen people have suffered so much. Generation after generation has grown up in fear, facing conflict, displacement and repression. Unknown millions have been forced from their homes, uncounted thousands have been killed, and there has been so much suffering. Surely if there is a real peace, we’d all be happy?
Certainly for several communities in conflict zones the ceasefire makes a big difference. People are not being attacked as they were before, their villages destroyed, their lives taken, and the use of forced labour has fallen. However, even in these communities there is great caution. It’s a caution shared by most Karen people across Burma, in neighbouring Thailand, and those further abroad.
International observers should be trying to understand exactly why people who have suffered so much from conflict and human rights abuses are not celebrating the current peace and reform process. If they fail to do so, they’ll fail to understand what is happening in Burma, and they will never see the lasting peace they claim they want to see in our country.
We don’t see President Thein Sein acting in good faith. He doesn’t think what his government has done in the past was wrong. He hasn’t unbanned ethnic organisations, repealed the laws used to oppress us, entered into genuine political dialogue, withdrawn his soldiers from our villages, or even just made a simple apology.
Rather than trying to dismiss the caution of conflict affected communities as the concerns of people stuck in an old way of thinking, looking at the past rather than the future, or as being the views out of touch exiles or hardliners, the international community needs to try to understand the root causes of the conflict.
We Karen took up arms to defend ourselves from military attacks, but we also stand firm in the knowledge that a genuine political solution that accepts the rights of the Karen people is the only way to ensure a lasting end to conflict, human rights abuses and repression of our people. Almost two years into the ceasefire with the Karen National Union, the government of Burma is still refusing to enter into genuine political dialogue to address the root causes of the conflict. The longer the government of Burma delays this dialogue, the greater the mistrust becomes.
Another cause of mistrust about this delay is what appears to be an agenda of the government of Burma to promote ‘investment opportunities’, hoping that they can ‘buy off’ key Karen people with business opportunities to persuade them to support the government’s agenda.
The government minister responsible for the peace process, Aung Min, has said about the Karen that; ” If they become rich, no one will want to hold arms. If their regions are developed, no one will hold arms. If we do all these for them they will automatically abandon their arms.” Comments like this reveal not only their real agenda, but also a complete lack of understanding about the need for genuine ethnic rights and protection. He thinks the Karen can be bought with so-called ‘development projects’ and would give up their long-fought struggle to defend their rights and identity.
Karen people also see how the government of Burma, and even foreign NGO workers, are interfering in the internal politics of the Karen National Union, trying to use divide and rule tactics and promote people who are closer to the government of Burma’s position, rather than what the people at the grassroots want.
We also see more soldiers – not less – coming into our Karen areas since the ceasefire. It is clear the government of Burma is using the ceasefire as an opportunity to strengthen and consolidate its military strength in Karen State.
This increased militarisation, in what is supposed to be a peace process, is of great concern, especially to the tens of thousands of Karen refugees who are being pressured to return to Burma. Their concerns are not being listened to. They don’t feel safe going back to where they came from, when there are more Burma Army soldiers in civilian areas, not less. This is the Army that invaded their land, shot, killed, raped and looted them at will. Many refugees also come from heavily landmined areas that still have not been cleared. Refugees are not being offered sufficient help with tools, seeds, livestock or skills to help rebuild their homes and their farms if they did return. Refugees do not want to be forced into new industrial zones as cheap factory labour, as the Burmese government has proposed.
Another massive problem linked to the current peace process is the huge amount of land being confiscated. Land that people have been on for generations is being seized from Karen and other ethnic people with little or no compensation, it is happening on a mass scale and much bigger since the peace process began. It is Karen land being taken by the central government and often ‘sold’ to Rangoon based or foreign companies and business cronies.
Many international observers seem to forget that the current reform process began with President Thein Sein bringing in a new undemocratic constitution and that in the drafting process he rejected every proposal by ethnic representatives for rights, protection and some level of autonomy for ethnic nationalities.
Despite the overwhelming documentation there has also never been any apology or any kind of acknowledgment that the Burma Army did anything wrong when it killed, raped, tortured and enslaved our people.
All peace processes have many obstacles to overcome. But when you look at what is happening in Burma, in the examples I have outlined here, a clear picture starts to emerge of a systematic pattern of behavior by the government of Burma that casts doubt on its sincerity.
Internal and international pressure finally forced the military dictatorship in Burma to accept it had to change, but in doing so are making the smallest concessions to get international pressure lifted. One of those conditions is an end to armed conflict. This is one reason why the government is so desperate to quickly have the veneer of a high profile nationwide ceasefire ceremony conducted.
The main demand of the international community is for ceasefires, not for justice or for the rights of ethnic people. A ceasefire alone only tackles the symptoms of the problem, not the root causes. A nationwide ceasefire without a genuine political solution will not end the conflict. If the international community really wants to support a peace process in Burma its baseline should be a long-term political solution, not just a ceasefire. The Burma Army might not be shooting at us as much as it used to, but we know the Burmese government continues its battle against the Karen people using different tactics. As long as they do, the risk of a return to armed conflict will always be there.
The international community has endorsed and resourced the current peace process, and so put its own credibility at stake. Maybe it is for this reason that they seem so willing to dismiss and ignore caution and concerns of these conflict affected communities. But, ignoring these problems won’t make them go away. As Karen people we are not living in the past, but we have learnt from it. We want peace more than anyone, and we have more at stake than any Burmese government minister or foreign aid worker or so-called ‘peace expert’.
This is about our land, our home, our future and our survival as a race. It’s time the international community acknowledged the possibility that conflict affected communities in Burma understand their own situation a lot better than the international community does. Our fears and concerns are justified, and continuing to ignore them is one of the biggest threats to the entire peace process.
*Zoya Phan is Campaigns Manager at Burma Campaign UK. Her autobiography is published as ‘Undaunted’ in the USA, and ‘Little Daughter’ in the rest of the world. She is recognised as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.