KNU Airs Grievances to Thein Sein Ahead of Nationwide Ceasefire Talks

By Lawi Weng & Saw yan Naing 6 January 2014

RANGOON — President Thein Sein on Sunday met representatives of the Karen National Union (KNU), an ethnic rebel group that waged war against Burma’s former military regime for more than six decades but has increasingly engaged in dialogue with Naypyidaw amid a push by the now quasi-civilian government to secure a lasting peace in the conflict-torn country.

Leaders of the KNU, which signed a ceasefire with the government in 2012, said Thein Sein assured them that he was committed to convening a political dialogue with Burma’s ethnic armed groups as the only means of achieving a permanent peace. That dialogue would be inclusive and based on equal rights for all, the president said, according to KNU leaders who attended the meeting.

The KNU responded with suggestions on how to reinforce the durability of current ceasefire arrangements and the ethnic Karen leaders even requested that Thein Sein allow the military to participate in the peace process, which they said was important given the outsized role the institution has played in decades of conflict.

Speaking to The Irrawaddy, KNU central committee member Ta Doh Moo said the leadership expressed concern over several challenges to the national reconciliation process, including the continued close proximity of government troops to rebel armed forces despite an agreement to keep their distance during ongoing peace negotiations to lessen the likelihood of clashes.

The KNU leaders told Thein Sein that this was one of multiple promises made by the government that were not being kept, citing a failure by Naypyidaw to form a peace monitoring group as another example.

Later this month, the central government and more than a dozen ethnic armed groups including the KNU will sit down to hash out differences between proposals from the two sides on conditions for the signing of a “nationwide ceasefire agreement.” Bridging the divide between the two camps was another challenge raised by the KNU over the weekend.

While saying he believed the government was genuine in its desire for peace, Ta Doh Moo cautioned its peace negotiators against rushing to force a ceasefire accord upon the ethnic groups, citing a lingering trust deficit as an obstacle to be overcome first through compromise.

“We really believe that there must be negotiation to have peace. This is a standard of democracy,” Ta Doh Moo said.

Thein Sein met top KNU leaders including the group’s chairman Saw Mutu Say Poe, General Secretary Saw Kwe Htoo Win, Gen Saw Isaac and Saw Roger Khin. Senior Burmese government officials and military chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing were also in attendance for the gathering on Sunday in Naypyidaw.

Meanwhile, several rebel armed groups will hold a four-day conference on ethnic affairs in an area controlled by the KNU on Jan. 20, days before many ethnic groups are scheduled to hold peace talks with the government in the Karen State capital of Hpa-an.

“We will mainly discuss how to sign a nationwide peace agreement and what needs to be included in the agreement before we sign it,” said Khun Okkar, joint secretary of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), an alliance of 11 ethnic groups that will participate in the talks.

The ethnic Pa-O leader said that a successful peace agreement would require that the government approach negoations with honesty, an open mind, and a willingness to consider the legitimate political grievances raised by the country’s ethnic minority groups.

The four-day ethnic affairs conference will take place in Lay Wah, Pa-an District, and the meeting in Hpa-an Township will be held from Jan. 24-26. The latter gathering will mark the second round of peace talks between the ethnic armed groups and the government. Their first meeting was convened in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State, in early November.