RANGOON — As President Thein Sein envisions an end to Burma’s ethnic conflicts on the horizon, Britain has offered to help its former colony work toward peace, announcing a resumption of military ties between the two nations.
The British Ministry of Defense’s aid offer came during a trip by Thein Sein to London, where he became the first Burmese head of state to visit in more than 25 years and asserted that a nationwide end to hostilities between his government and armed rebels was “very possibly” within reach.
“Very possibly, over the coming weeks, we will have a nationwide ceasefire and the guns will go silent everywhere in Myanmar for the first time in more than 60 years,” Thein Sein told an audience at Chatham House, an influential British think tank, on Monday following meetings with British Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague.
Various ethnic rebel groups in Burma have been at war with the government since 1948, shortly after the country gained independence from Britain, in what is now the world’s longest-running civil war.
Among the achievements of the reformist Thein Sein over the last two years, the government has signed ceasefire agreements with 10 of Burma’s 11 major ethnic armed groups. A ceasefire accord with the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) remains elusive, though a seven-point agreement was signed in late May in which the two sides agreed to “undertake efforts to achieve de-escalation and cessation of hostilities.”
In an indicator of just how far London believes the country formerly ruled by a brutal military dictatorship has come on its path of democratization, the British have agreed to assist Burma’s armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw, with training on human rights and accountability.
“Reforming the Burmese military and pursuing a sustainable peace process will be key to Burma’s stability and prosperity,” British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond said in a statement on Monday. “The focus of our defense engagement will be on developing democratic accountability in a modern armed forces, and we have offered training for the Burmese military to this end.”
Mark Farmaner, director of the Burma Campaign UK, a pro-democracy and human rights group, reacted to the announcement of renewed military ties with skepticism.
“The British government says the training is to improve human rights, but they might as well try to teach sharks not to eat fish,” he told The Irrawaddy. “The way to stop the Burmese Army from committing human rights abuses is for there to be justice and accountability for the crimes they have committed.”
Farmaner added that the announcement appeared to be “more about public relations from the British government to counter criticism that they are ignoring ongoing human rights abuses.”
Despite the ceasefires, intermittent fighting involving several ethnic armed groups has persisted. Last month in Shan State, government troops clashed with the Shan State Army-North (SSA-N), and in Kachin State the KIO’s militant wing, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), has fought with the Tatmadaw despite the seven-point agreement signed on May 30.
Given the fragility of the country’s ceasefires, ethnic leaders on Tuesday urged London to go slowly when re-engaging with the Tatmadaw.
“If they train the Burmese army how to fight and give strategies on how to attack, it will encourage the government army to tackle the ethnic conflicts by military means,” Nai Hong Sa, general secretary of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), an alliance of ethnic armed groups, told The Irrawaddy.
“If so, armed struggle will be worse and longer,” he said. “In fact, our armed struggle is based on politics. We have tried to solve this problem through military means for over 60 years. But we haven’t achieved it yet and it is getting worse. So, it will be solved only via political means.”
Nai Hong Sa said he doubted a nationwide ceasefire agreement would be reached “over the coming weeks,” pointing to the fact that government troops have not withdrawn from ethnic-controlled territories and have instead rebuilt or reinforced some of the Tatmadaw’s camps.
“It is not that we are pessimistic,” he said. “But it is the true that we want to publicize [shortcomings of the peace process]. We have to accept the truth and solve problems in the correct way,” Nai Hong Sa said.
Officials in the Thein Sein administration and ethnic rebel leaders have said the government hopes to convene an all-inclusive peace conference, though a date has yet to be determined and some have indicated that any gathering would be contingent on the signing first of a ceasefire accord between the government and the KIO.
Aung Naing Oo, an official with the government-backed Myanmar Peace Center (MPC), declined to comment on specifics of the KIO peace talks but said Thein Sein was “really committed” to achieving a ceasefire, as were other stakeholders.
“The Parliament is onboard—if I’m not wrong—in terms of the peace process, the armed forces are onboard, so everyone is trying to work toward a nationwide ceasefire accord,” he said, adding that the achievement of a peace deal in Kachin State would “herald the start, hopefully, of a political dialogue.”
Humanitarian aid to Kachin State formed the bulk of nearly £30 million in additional development assistance announced by the UK government this week.
One group that apparently will not benefit from British military training is Burma’s notorious border guard force, the Nasaka. Ahead of Thein Sein’s Europe visit, the unit was disbanded, according to the President’s Office, which did not provide a reason for the move.
The Nasaka, which is made up of soldiers, police officers, and customs and immigration officials, has been accused of human rights abuses against Rohingya Muslims in Arakan State.
“It is hereby announced that Border Area Immigration Control Headquarters [Nasaka] has been abolished as of today,” said a notification dated last Friday but posted to the President’s Office website on Sunday, the day of Thein Sein’s departure for Europe.
Human rights campaigners have in recent days urged European leaders to pressure Thein Sein on the persecution of Burma’s ethnic Rohingya during his visit. Movement for the minority Muslim group has been heavily restricted by the government since about 140,000 people were displaced by communal violence in Arakan State last year. Most of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) are Rohingya, who are not granted citizenship rights and have faced discrimination for decades by both the government and ethnic Arakanese Buddhists.
Thein Sein will travel to Paris on Tuesday for talks with government officials, including his French counterpart, Francois Hollande.