*Outbreak of fighting dents hopes for peace

While the government insists it wants to end its conflicts with ethnic groups, locals in Karen State say they are still bearing the brunt of the brutal divide and conquer tactics.

Recent escalation in heavy fighting in Karen State sent shockwaves through ethnic villages, shattering any trust they may have had in the current ceasefire and “peace talks” between the Myanmar government and the Karen National Union.

Community leaders, civil society groups and Karen villagers claim that so far the ceasefire has delivered little for them other than the freedom to travel more openly.

Myi Aye, a villager from Kawkareik, told Spectrum the fighting has been constant for weeks and she is now worried for her children’s safety.

“We are scared. We can hear shooting,” she said. “When I heard the shells dropping I ran from my paddy field and got my kids out of school. I fear for our safety. I told my older son not to travel back home from Myawaddy in his school break as heavily armed soldiers are on the roads.”

Myi Aye said she does not trust that the ceasefire between government forces and the Karen will hold.
“We read or hear on television about how the country is changing, but little has changed for us,” she said. “We still see soldiers with guns every day. We don’t trust the government. How can we?”

CAUGHT IN THE FIRING LINE

The armed conflict in Karen State between the government army and the Border Guard Force, a militia under its control, and opposing Karen armed groups is of great concern to residents living in the state’s villages and towns who are caught in the middle of the fighting.

Heavy clashes have seen civilian buses hit by shell fragments, seriously injuring passengers. Soldiers on all sides have been killed and wounded. Heavy artillery has been fired into civilian areas. Fighting has closed schools, roads and border crossings into Thailand.

“We’re fearful. We don’t know when and where the shooting will start,” said trader and Myawaddy resident Myo Kyaw. “Since the fighting started there are more Burma Army [government] soldiers on the roads and in the surrounding towns.”

Myo Kyaw said the fighting has left the town’s traders and residents feeling scared and insecure.
“Our trade is down, we have less goods coming from Thailand. We can’t resupply our stock. We have difficulty meeting orders and many of the goods we do get are damaged,” she said.

“The government is supposed to be working to reform the country, and now this. I hope this fighting stops and we can have some peace and stability so we can get on with our lives.”

A senior officer with the Karen National Liberation Army, Poe Klee, told Spectrum that the fighting is all part of a Myanmar military strategy to destabilise ethnic aspirations.
“It’s not only the fighting we are concerned about. Since the ceasefire the Burma Army has made structural changes to reinforce its bases,” he said. “In our area it has built two helicopter landing pads. It has increased patrols. Soldiers have crossed our lines.”

Poe Klee said each of these acts is part of a broader strategy to take control of ethnic lands.
“This a clear provocation and a clear message that they have no concerns,” he said. “They have a systematic plan to take control of our territory. We are concerned and try to avoid clashes — that’s why the Karen National Union has been pushing so hard for a code of conduct. We are trying to build trust, but we need rules.”

Poe Klee pointed out that as a Karen officer he is concerned the government is dragging its feet on a code of conduct.
“No code, no rules and more fighting could derail the peace process,” he said. “The Burma Army will continue to provoke us and if we retaliate they can claim that Karen State needs more security, as the area is unstable. That will be the excuse to send in more troops to complete the grabbing of our lands and resources.”

Spectrum made numerous attempts to contact Burma Army Central Command No 4 for comment, but received no response.

ETHNIC OPPRESSION

Ethnic leaders have stated many times that the survival of Karen state’s culture, equality, justice and ownership of lands and resources are a critical part of the country’s broader political problems and must be solved by political means.

As long ago as 1947, revolutionary leader Aung San — father of current opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi — recognised that the ethnic people of what was then known as Burma were getting a raw deal. Aung San wrote that ethnic people had to be treated equally and with justice.

“A minority is discontented because it does not enjoy liberty of conscience, etc. Give it these liberties and it will cease to be discontented. Thus, national equality in all forms is an essential element in the solution of the national problem,” he declared in a speech.

In a 2009 report on the future of ceasefire agreements in Myanmar, the Transnational Institute concluded that “ethnic conflict is a key issue that needs to be resolved in order to bring about a lasting political solution. Without a political settlement that addresses the ethnic minority issue, it is extremely unlikely there will be peace and democracy in [Myanmar].”

In March this year, Tomas Quintana, then UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, reported to the Human Rights Council. He said that in his discussions with ethnic armed groups he found that there was “deep-seated mistrust” that the government would move to political dialogue after a nationwide ceasefire was signed, “which finds its source in a long history of ceasefires which have not led to political dialogue on underlying grievances”.

Mr Quintana noted in his address to the UN that 14 ethnic armed groups had signed ceasefire agreements with the government. He also pointed out that conflict had displaced 100,000 civilians in Kachin state and raised “allegations that over 100 women and girls had been raped by the [Burma] army since 2010”.

WAR WITHOUT RULES

Community groups point out that the irony that the latest fighting in Karen state has taken place at a time when the government is trying to push ethnic political organisations to agree to a nationwide ceasefire.

Naw K’nay Paw, secretary of the Karen Women Organisation, stressed that any peace talks or ceasefires are doomed to fail unless there are agreed rules put in place and agreed to by all parties.

“We are concerned for the welfare of our civilians,” she said. “There is an urgent need to have a code of conduct that all sides agree to. They government is stalling — it doesn’t want a code of conduct. It makes conflict easier when there’s no rules. I am afraid war will break out.”

Naw K’nay Paw is critical of what she describes as the government’s go-slow on achieving any concrete results towards peace.
“The talks have delivered little for our people — they are still victims of land grabs, polluted waterways from badly planned investment projects,” she said. “If you compare the government’s record on investment and so-called development projects and the peace talks, it is not hard to see what has priority.”

Naw K’nay Paw said the recent fighting is a signal that should not be underestimated or ignored. “It’s a clear message to the Karen that they [the government] don’t respect the demarcation of territory, they don’t respect ethnic people or their rights,” she said.

Regional security analysts agree that the factional splits within the Karen National Union have reduced the effectiveness of its armed resistance to the regime.

PLAYING FAVOURITES

Naw K’nay Paw explained that the fighting is not the only strategy the government is using to undermine ethnic groups.
“It’s a clear case of divide and rule,” she said. “It has worked for the government for so long and is in play again. The government favours one ethnic group or faction. They are now pressuring the Karen leadership to drop out of the ethnic alliance and go it alone. The Wa [ethnic group] has been granted favours by the regime. Ethnic political groups need to wake up and realise they are being played.”

Maj Gen Ner Dah is chairman of the Karen National Defence Organisation. He agrees the government’s strategy is to cause rifts among the ethnic political groups.
“We have to be very careful right now,” he said. “We know they have a strategy to divide us. They are afraid when they know our people are united. They are good at it, they have had a lot of practice.

“If they don’t do it, they know they are in the minority and when we are united as one it makes them scared. They use bribery, force, offer benefits to one group and not the other to start fights — they will use anything to keep us divided.”

Maj Gen Ner Dah said it was in the interest of all ethnic groups to unite and trust each other. “The Burmese soldiers are not highly motivated, many are child soldiers or forced conscripts. Our soldiers and people are motivated, it is our land and our cause. We are volunteers fighting for our people.”

Despite the general’s fighting talk, he admits that he respects the rights of the government and its military.
“We live in the same country. We are different people, but we have to have open minds, we have to work together so we can live in peace,” he said.

“It won’t work if one has the advantage over the other. They have to change their mentality. They can’t solve [Myanmar’s] problems with force.”

*This story first appeared in The Bangkok Post Spectrum magazine on 5/10/14

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