Zoya Phan, campaign manager at Burma Campaign UK (Photo-Karen News)

Burma Democracy – Still A Long Way To Go…Part One

In an exclusive two-part interview with Karen News, *Zoya Phan, the Campaigns Manager at Burma Campaign UK and recognized as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, outlines what Burma’s government needs to do if it is to have genuine political dialogue with the country’s people.

Zoya Phan, the Campaigns Manager at Burma Campaign UK explained to Karen News that many international governments have accepted the simple narrative on Burma that all’s well with the country now that it appears to have embraced deomocracy.

“Many governments and international communities, including diplomats and organizations around the world, many of them think that Burma is free and there is peace in the country. But actually being back in Karen State, Burma recently and talking to many people on the ground, I would say that Burma is not as free as many people think. We still have a long way to go.”

Zoya Phan acknowledged to Karen News that while there have been some changes in many parts of rural Burma much is still the same.

“Of course there has been some political space in the cities like in Rangoon, Mandalay, Naypyidaw and in the main city areas but for ethnic minorities, in many parts of the remote areas nothing has really changed. The human right situation is getting worse. Since the new President Thein Sein came into power, issues like rape, sexual violence and other human right abuses such as forced labor, arbitrary detention, arbitrary arrest, forced relocation, displacement and land confiscation – many of these kind of human right violations are still going on.”

Zoya Phan notes that while Aung San Suu Kyi has been elected it may have blunted some of her effectiveness.

“Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD are now within the government system and Aung San Suu Kyi is now an MP. She would like to push for further changes within the parliament and within the government system. But there has been very limited space and we still have a long way to go.”

Zoya Phan points out that while Burma has released hundreds of political prisoners other remain in jail and many of the country’s draconian laws have yet to be changed.

“For example, the unlawful association law – this law enables the government to arrest activists, farmers and politicians who speak out for human rights, land rights and for the people. So I would say that Burma still has a long way to go.”

Zoya Phan said that despite two years of a ceasefire between the government and the Karen National Union there has been little achieved to solve political issues between the two sides.

“The Karen National Union has the ceasefire agreement with the government for almost two years now, but there hasn’t been any political dialogue because for the Karen National Union the aim of the ceasefire is to have a political dialogue, solve the problem in political way and then have proper development for the people and also its include the changing and reforming of the constitution. But so far, even with ceasefire based on the experience that I have and talking to people on the ground here, it’s very fragile. There is still lack of trust. There are still so many things to be done in terms of Code-of-Conduct and other agreement.”

Zoya Phan said that the government’s push for economic development projects is at the expense of what local people need – roads, schools and health services.”

“The impression that I have is that the Burmese government, after the ceasefire, wants to have developments – like economy developments such as big economic zones, dams and development projects that involve land confiscation, human right abuses against the local people and environmental destruction. These are not good for the local people. For the Karen National Union, the main aim is to have political dialogue. So far, there is no sign of the Burmese government wanting to have political dialogue.”

Zoya Phan urged the government to have real political dialogue with all the people of Burma.

“Unless there is political dialogue, I am afraid there can’t be proper peace and prosperity in the country. Having a ceasefire alone without political solution is like pressing a pause button to the conflict – it’s not a stop button. The conflict could come back at any time because the root causes of the problem are still there. And the main thing that the international community need to understand is solving the political problems is the most important and is key for creating peace in Burma.”

Zoya Phan says the ceasefire has allowed many ‘developers’ to wreck havoc on the environment and has resulted in many land confiscation cases.

“Since the ceasefire took place in Karen area, we’ve seen more and more economical destruction, environmental destruction and land confiscation where local people who have lived on their farm and have been working on their farm for many years – their lands have been taken by authorities for business people – these kinds of human right violations happen more and on a bigger scale since the ceasefire took place.”

Zoya Phan criticized the international community for failing to scrutinize ceasefire agreements and for being prepared to accept ceasefires as peace rather than a first step.

“The Burmese government got huge support from the international community by having some kind of ceasefire agreement with the Karen National Union. And again when you look at the territory of the Karen, the Burma Army instead of withdrawing their army, they increased their army. And local people cannot go back to their places, for example refugees from the Thai Burma border and internally displaced areas, they still can’t go back to their own homeland because of the lack of safety and security. There are still Burmese army soldiers in their village that was the reason they have to flee from for the first time.”

Zoya Phan said that the current push to send refugees and displaced people back to relocation areas is premature.

“When you look at on the ground there are still lots of land mine, is not safe for the people to go back and there is no health care and education system and proper administrations for the local people to go back and have their livelihood in their own homeland. And for some people in refugee camps of course they want to go back to their own village. They don’t want to go back and work as cheap labors in the government factories or economic zones. And this is one thing that international community needs to understand refugee should only return to their homeland when it is safe and when they can volunteer to go back home.”

Zoya Phan said that the ceasefire has delivered some benefits.

“There has been some space [opened]. For example, some communities in Karen area can now travel better and they have more access to reach out to their family members in other parts of the country. The Karen National Union can also talk to other Karen organizations that they couldn’t do before which is quite positive.”

Zoya Phan points out that the political challenges facing the ethnic pro-democracy groups still exist.

“The Karen National Union is still a banned organization and the unlawful association law is still there that banned the KNU and, anyone who associates with the KNU can be arrested according to the government’s law. That’s why still many people in Burma, especially in Irrawaddy, Rangoon, Tenassarim and other areas that still fear to contact and associate with the Karen National Union.”

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