PAPUN DISTRICT, Karen State—After crossing the Thai border into northern Karen State, eastern Burma, by taking a home-made wooden ferry upstream the muddy Salween River, I reach a base for the rebel Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA).
While taking a rest at a small hut made of bamboo and leaves, gunfire nearby alerts my interest. I quickly realize there was a military training camp nearby filled with rebel soldiers—despite a ceasefire signed between the Karen National Union (KNU), the political wing of the KNLA, and Burmese government in January.
Lt-Col Kyawt Mue of KNLA Brigade 5 used the words of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi’s to explain why. “As Aung San Suu Kyi said—hope for the best and prepare for the worst,” he told The Irrawaddy.
“It is true that hostilities are not active, but we can’t say it is peace. There should be a government troop withdrawal. But government troops still remain in the frontline. This is the situation we are facing now.”
After talking with several KNLA officials and soldiers, all expressed a similar perspective regarding the peace process—it was a “wait and see” affair. Their prime desire is for the withdrawal of government troops from KNLA-controlled territories, which seems the only way for the government to earn their trust.
Brigade 5 has around 1,500 of the KNLA’s estimated total of 10,000 soldiers and is believed to be the strongest of the rebel’s seven brigades. Despite living in the jungle, they closely follow news about the peace process by listening to short-wave radio.
The name of government’s chief peace negotiator, Aung Min, a minister in the President’s Office, crops up regularly in conversations.
Kyawt Mue disagreed with Aung Min’s statement that ethnic rebels would not hold weapons if the government creates a rich and comfortable life for them. He said that the Karen people only want to live in peace and without fear.
Ongoing government offensives against the ethnic rebel Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in northernmost Burma motivates the Karen rebels to remain doubtful.
Noe Noe, a KNLA bomb disposal specialist and military instructor, spoke to me through teeth stained red by betel nut.
“I don’t hope for much [from the peace talks],” he said. “I think it is a game created by our enemy. Now they open a frontline war in Kachin State so they will keep a soft approach to the Karen.
“I told my trainees not to meet government troops on the ground,” explained Noe Noe, adding that he worries that the KNLA leadership will soon be in the pocket of the government.
Business interests behind the peace talks are often discussed. Speaking with several KNLA officials, they see government development projects as being behind ceasefire negotiations which draw pragmatic KNU and KNLA leaders into pacts.
But there are also reports of Karen leaders being ideologically divided over the peace deal—one faction reportedly combines KNLA brigades 5 and 2 with the other comprised of 1,3,4,6 and 7.
It is said that brigades 5 and 2 will not oppose KNU central committee leaders over the peace process, but will follow talks closely—refusing to follow if they think the deal is not right. Meanwhile, they remain busy with military training and recruiting new soldiers.
Some Karen villagers worry about a possible conflict within the KNLA. They point at the division within Brigade 7 in 2006 that led former commander Maj-Gen Htain Maung to change sides and join the government.
KNLA Brigade 5 in northern Karen State is the subject of huge business interests but leaders have banned gold mining and logging despite local Thai firms approaching them for trade.
Brigade 5-controlled territories, better known by the government as Papun District bordering northern Thailand’s Mae Hong Son Province, is the shortest overland route to Burma’s capital Naypyidaw and commercial center Rangoon, especially compared to other Thai-Burmese border trading points such as Mae Sot-Myawaddy, Mae Sai-Tachileik or Ranong-Kawthawng.
Kyawt Mue said that some lower-ranking government troops in Brigade 5 territories asked him not to plant landmines where they travel.
“They told me that soldiers of other KNLA brigades meet with respective government soldiers in the frontline and build relationships,” he said. “But they wonder why KNLA Brigade 5 will not willingly meet with them?”
Kyawt Mue simply replied to the government representatives that he has to listen to higher KNU and KNLA officials.
Ler Mutraw, of the KNLA administration department, said that the peace deal must take time as the problem is decades-old and must be handled through political means.
“There is not much improvement on the ground,” he said. “But politics is difficult and slow. As the resistance has lasted for over 60 years, it can’t be settled within months. It needs time to move step-by-step. So it will take time.”
KNU leaders held a third round of peace talks with Naypyidaw representatives in the Karen state capital Pa-an in early September and signed an agreement over a draft “code of conduct” which both government and rebel troops must obey.
It will be reviewed by President Thein Sein and then finalized by the KNU and government peace delegation in the next round of negotiations, which are likely to be held towards the end of the year.
The government delegation also agreed in principle for the repositioning of its frontline troops. However, the military relocation sites proposed by the ethnic rebels first have to be reviewed by Vice-Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the Burmese armed forces.
Since late 2011, the government peace team reached ceasefire deals with ethnic armed groups including Karen, Karenni, Shan, Mon and Chin.
However, it has not yet reached a ceasefire deal with the Kachin rebels despite meeting several times for talks. The KIA leadership says they do not want a ceasefire alone and instead demand a political dialogue through an ethnic alliance.
Bertil Lintner, Burma expert and author of several books about ethnic insurgencies, said, “The shaky business deals which the ruling military has reached with some rebel group can hardly serve as models for a lasting solution to Burma’s ethnic crisis.”
He explained that these agreements have merely frozen the ethnic problems without addressing the underlying issues—including demands for ethnic rights and a federal system—which caused the minorities to take up arms in the first place.
“As the Kachins have discovered after several rounds of talks with the government — there is no negotiating space for concessions that would jeopardize the military’s notion of a unitary state with itself at the apex,” said Lintner.