RANGOON – The Burma government and the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF) announced a truce on Saturday that will see the long-time antagonists start a political dialogue, in a possible end to a quarter century of on-off armed rebellion by the former students against what was one of the world’s most brutal military regimes.
The deal, which could see the ABSDF open four liaison offices inside Burma, comes two days after the now-40-something leaders of the 1988 student uprising against the military regime marked their Silver Jubilee with three days of ceremony and speeches in Rangoon.
Both government ministers and opposition presidential candidate Aung San Suu Kyi, whose own political career was launched on the back of the uprising, attended the festivities.
The Burmese junta’s brutal crackdown on the demonstrations prompted some student demonstrators to form a militia aimed at overthrowing it: the ABSDF.
Minister Aung Min, the government’s main peace negotiator, told The Irrawaddy that the deal illustrated the changes sweeping Burma. “The essence of the gathering was that people who once fought against each other can share the same room—and this is a testament to the moves we are making toward democracy,” he said.
Since ushering through a series of reforms in March 2011, the Burma government has freed political prisoners, including the key 1988 student leaders, and relaxed bans on trade unions and public protests.
But in the past few days, leaders of a march through Rangoon commemorating the 1988 events have been charged with holding a public protest without a permit. Protestors against land-grabs have also been jailed in recent months.
And although there are 17 ceasefires signed or in negotiation, according to the Myanmar Peace Monitor, a project set up to track the various peace processes, fighting between the Burma Army and ethnic rebels continues in northern Shan and Kachin states.
In a prelude to Saturday’s agreement, the ABSDF signed a regional deal with the Karen State government on August 5.
Than Khe, chairman of the ABSDF, described Saturday’s deal as a “first step,” adding that progress “depends on the attitude of the government.”
But it seems that the ABSDF will focus on negotiations, rather than armed struggle, in the future. “Our uprising was for democracy and human rights,” Than Khe told The Irrawaddy, before adding that “now we have to go ahead with this new path, this political new phase.”
International observers were present as the deal was signed on Saturday. Emma Leslie, executive director of the Phnom Penh-based Center for Peace and Conflict Studies, told The Irrawaddy that the agreement was significant because it was “the first union-level deal between the government and the ABSDF.”
Also in attendance was Thein Zaw, vice-chairman of the Union Peacemaking Work Committee and chairman of the Parliament Committee on National Race Affairs and Internal Peacemaking.
In July, House speaker and presidential hopeful Shwe Mann sought greater Parliament input into the various peace talks between the government and rebel militias, a move widely seen as an attempt to bolster his own standing ahead of Burma’s 2015 national elections.
88 Generation leaders Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi—fresh from their gala commemorations—served as observers to the peace talks, as did Mya Aye, another student demonstrator in 1988, who told The Irrawaddy that “it was a smooth negotiation and it went well.”
Informal negotiations between the government and the ABSDF have been taking place for almost two years, said Aung Naing Oo, a former ABSDF member who now works for government-linked think-tank the Myanmar Peace Center.
“Things took time at first,” he told The Irrawaddy. “But in the last few days the talks went very well and very smoothly.”
The army’s 1988 crackdown killed an estimated 3,000 civilians, prompting some protestors to take to Burma’s jungle borderlands. The 25 years of sporadic fighting since then have cost the lives of 600 ABSDF fighters.
Since then, the “student army” has struck alliances with a number of Burma’s ethnic militias and lost 600 fighters in anti-government fighting. Dozens of members were executed amid internal purges during the 1990s, and for a time the ABSDF was listed as a terrorist organization by the United States.
The ABSDF has set up a Truth and Justice Commission to look into the killings. Criminal proceedings have been started by family members of some of the deceased.