Karen Groups Back Suu Kyi Constitutional Reform Campaign

By Yen Saning 3 June 2014

RANGOON — Karen political parties, armed groups and civil society organizations meeting in eastern Karen State last weekend have reiterated calls for the creation of a federal union, while offering support for Aung San Suu Kyi’s constitutional reform campaign.

“The Karen’s political stance is to work towards a federal union based on self-determination, national equality and democracy, under the leadership of Karen National Union (KNU),” said a joint statement from the 10th Karen National Unity Seminar, which was held in the KNU-controlled area of Lay Wah in eastern Hpa-an District.

“The representatives at the seminar greatly support amendments to the Constitution and cooperation with political parties and democratic forces,” the statement said.

Karen Women’s Action Group director Naw Susanna Hla Hla Soe, who participated in the seminar, said Karen groups are keen to support the current constitutional reform campaign of National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society.

“Ethnic people demand self-determination and a federal [system], which the current 2008 Constitution cannot grant. That’s why amendments are needed,” she told The Irrawaddy. “What the NLD and the 88 Generation are doing is to [try to] amend Article 436, which is the key to amending other articles.”

The NLD and the 88 Generation activist started a campaign this month calling for amendments to military-drafted Constitution, which prevents Suu Kyi from becoming president and gives the Burma Army political powers and control in ethnic areas.

She said the seminar representatives agreed to be under the leadership of the KNU because it “existed for more than 60 years. Karen people rely on this organization… It’s also a democratic organization where the leaders are selected by votes. Decisions are made through meetings.”

The KNU, the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) and the Karen Peace Council gathered with representatives of more than 60 Karen political parties, youth groups and community-based organizations based in Burma and abroad to discuss the issues facing the ethnic Karen people, who live in Karen State and other parts of eastern Burma, and in Rangoon and the Irrawaddy Delta.

The KNU and DKBA signed ceasefire agreements with the government in 2012, and Karen areas in eastern Burma have since enjoyed a period of relative calm after decades of civil war.

A recent Karen Human Rights Group report said rights abuses associated with conflict, such as forced labor, landmine contamination and army attacks on civilians have decreased. But these trends have been offset by a worsening of drug problems and the influx of investment projects that have led to land grabbing and environmental destruction affecting communities.

The seminar statement said the government should not allow any large investment projects in Karen areas until a comprehensive peace agreement is signed. Participants also agreed to work together to fight against the increase in drug use and trafficking in the area.

Naw Susanna Hla Hla Soe said the KNU-government ceasefire agreement reportedly includes government guarantees that no large-scale investment would be approved before a peace agreement has been reached.

“Sometimes we hear about projects—sometimes just rumors, sometimes real—such as plans to build [Salween River] dams, or a cement factory that will demolish a mountain. This is getting local residents worried,” she said.

She added that the approximately 150,000 Karen refugees living in camps on the Thai-Burma border should not be forced to return before there is peace.