The Karen National Union (KNU), one of Southeast Asia’s oldest insurgent groups, marked the 64th anniversary of its struggle for greater autonomy on Thursday with vows to continue fighting until its ultimate goal has been reached.
“We’re not there yet. We’re only at the middle of our journey,” KNU Vice-Chairperson Zipporah Sein told The Irrawaddy on Thursday.
The remarks, coming a year after the KNU signed its first ceasefire agreement with Burma’s government since the founding of its armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), on Jan. 31, 1949, show that despite the progress of peace talks over the past two years, the demands of Burma’s many ethnic minorities remain largely unmet.
Like the KNU, many groups in Burma say that their ultimate goal is greater autonomy for ethnic areas, not just a temporary cessation of hostilities. A lasting peace, they say, can only be achieved through negotiations leading to a political settlement—something the government has so far avoided.
“We have to implement the peace process step-by-step until we reach a political dialogue,” said Zipporah Sein, adding that a final political settlement is “very important for not only for the KNU but also for other ethnic groups than want to achieve a federal state.”
After resisting the government for more than six decades, the KNU signed a historic ceasefire deal on Jan. 12 of last year. However, observers say the truce could collapse at any time if the government continue to ignore demands for a binding agreement that recognizes key KNU demands.
Besides the lack of progress on political talks, there are also concerns about the continuing presence of Burmese troops near KNU territory, deterring thousands of displaced civilians from returning to their home villages for fear of another outbreak of fighting.
Even Gen Mutu Say Poe, the KNU’s new chairman and a prominent advocate of the peace agreement, acknowledged at a Karen Resistance Day ceremony on Thursday that many issues have yet to be addressed.
“We still have not reached the stage of a firm ceasefire. The code of conduct to be observed by the troops of both sides is still not in place,” he said, according to a KNU press release.
“As military conflict is a consequence of politics, an acceptable resolution of political problems is the main cause [of peace]. As we have not reached an acceptable resolution of the political problems, peace cannot yet be established,” he added.
He also said that dialogue and ceasefire do not mean surrender.
“[The ceasefire agreement] is not the denial of the aspirations of our people. It is a step for holding political dialogue and minimizing the ravages of war. The current ceasefire is an endeavor for reaching the stage of political dialogue. However, in the current situation, we are still within the context of revolutionary armed resistance,” said the KNU leader.
According to the KNU statement, cooperation with the other ethnic nationalities is vitally important in the effort to find an acceptable resolution of the main political problem that has caused civil war in Burma.
“The dialogue for a viable settlement of the political problem cannot be just between the KNU and the government in power. Together with the ethnic nationality organizations, all the organizations having stakes in the struggle must be able to participate in the dialogue,” read the statement.
Meanwhile, Karen civil society and religious organizations, including KNU representatives, concluded a two-day meeting on Tuesday in Pa-an, the capital of Karen State, where they discussed the implementation of the peace agreement and the resettlement of displaced refugees.
The meeting, attended by about 40 representatives from various Karen organizations, resulted in an agreement to form a peace-negotiating committee and organize a conference in March, according Saw Moe Myint, an executive committee member of the Rangoon-based Kayin People’s Party.
“We intend to invite 200 Karen leaders to the conference and we will discuss how to have a permanent peace, and how to set a policy for the future of ethnic Karen people, including economic development and the resettlement and rehabilitation of refugees,” said Saw Moe Myint.
“I hope this conference will help to speed up the peace process between the KNU and the government,” he added.