RANGOON — Despite President Thein Sein’s government pushing for a nationwide ceasefire agreement, peace negotiators from Naypyidaw and the leaders of Burma’s ethnic armed groups have “incompatible” demands going into further talks, according to a Burma specialist who has studied the country’s ethnic conflicts.
The latest round of negotiations between rebel leaders and the government is scheduled for next month in the Karen State capital of Pa-an, but the expected date of a nationwide ceasefire deal has already been repeatedly put back.
During a visit to The Irrawaddy’s office in Rangoon on Thursday, Swedish journalist Bertil Lintner said that despite high-profile political and economic reforms since the nominally civilian government took power in 2011, the ethnic conflict was “still the most important issue for the future [of Burma], as I see it.”
“Since independence in 1948, the most important issue that has been tearing this country apart has been the question of national identity and ethnicity. The longest lasting civil war in world history has been fought in this country,” said Lintner, who first visited Burma in 1977.
The veteran journalist, who lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand, has published many books and articles on Burma and the region, the majority focusing on Burma and its armed rebels. Among numerous forays into rebel-held territory inside Burma, Lintner spent almost two years in the 1980s in areas under the control of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the now-defunct Communist Party of Burma.
Fighting between the Burma Army and the KIA broke out in 2011 after a 17-year ceasefire. Earlier this month, the government army was continuing to launch operations that displaced thousands of civilians in Kachin’s Bhamo Township just as the latest ceasefire talks were getting underway in the state capital of Myitkyina. At the talks, which concluded on Nov. 5, the government and the majority of ethnic groups exchanged their respective draft proposals for what a ceasefire agreement might look like.
“Right now, you have what people call a peace process. I don’t really quite see it as a process that can lead to peace,” said Lintner. “The only positive thing that’s come out so far is both sides have put their papers on the table—and you can see that they are incompatible.”
Most major ethnic armed groups in Burma have already negotiated individual ceasefire agreements, but ahead of the planned nationwide ceasefire conference they are generally united in demanding a federal Burma, an army that includes all its constituent groups, and recognition of the 1947 Panglong Agreement, which set out a recipe for autonomy of ethnic groups within aunited Burma.
“Of course the military cannot accept this,” said Lintner. “Their idea about the future of this country is entirely different. They want the non-[Burman] ethnic groups to accept the 2008 Constitution, to obey laws imposed by the state, and not to be a burden on the local people—which means no recruitment or tax collection. And that is, of course, unacceptable for the other side.
“I cannot see how these two sides can meet unless they find some kind of common ground. And, so far, I cannot see any common ground at all.”
The ethnic armed groups want a federal army that brings together all of Burma’s ethnic groups—a key sticking point in negotiations. Beginning in 2009, the government attempted to incorporate ethnic armies into the state, through the so-called Border Guard Force. The move backfired as most of the strongest groups refused to sign up, and fighting broke out again in a number of areas that had seen years of peace.
Lintner said the government’s approach was “the wrong idea because, in a federalist structure, border security is a federal issue, not a state issue. You cannot have local armies controlling borders. That will end in chaos and smuggling and all sorts of things.”
However, he also said the rebel demand for a “federal army” was unrealistic. Instead, he proposed a system similar to India, where states have a locally controlled armed police force and borders are controlled by central government.
“So if you take Kachin, for instance, the KIA theoretically could become the Kachin State armed police, controlled by the Kachin State government and answerable to the Kachin State government,” he said. “They would be responsible for protecting the people in Kachin State. Whereas, border security would be controlled by Naypyidaw.”
As the government has attempted to bring armed groups on its side, it has awarded controversial car import licenses to some ethnic leaders, raising fears that personally lucrative deals may be reached at the top level that do not benefit the majority of people in Burma’s frontier areas.
Lintner warned that such “selling out” by ethnic leaders would be dangerous. “It would cause a lot of resentment among the ordinary people,” he said. “There would be a backlash, which would make the situation even more complicated.”