BANGKOK—After two rounds of negotiations with the Burmese government, the Karen National Union (KNU) says that it believes Naypyidaw is sincere about peace talks but warns that substantive political issues remain to be discussed and that the 2008 Constitution will likely need revising in advance of any durable settlement.
“I think you can take the government at face value,” said KNU negotiator and spokesperson Naw May Oo Mutraw. “The government has demonstrated a desire for change.”
The KNUs armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), has fought the Burmese army since the late 1940s in what is often-described as the world’s longest running civil war. However, KNU leaders recently met with President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma following an initial series of meetings with government interlocutors back in January.
“There are indications from the second round of talks that the government will not rely on a military solution alone to solve ethnic issues,” said Zipporah Sein, general-secretary of the KNU, speaking at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand in Bangkok on Thursday evening.
Looking ahead, fellow negotiator Saw Kwe Htoo Win said that a permanent political settlement could herald once-unthinkable developments such as Karen militiamen joining the national army. “If there is a political solution, the KNLA can join the Union army,” he said.
The KNU said it wants “self-determination,” but not secession from Burma. “We don’t demand independence, we talk about a federal union,” said May Oo Mutraw.
However, the KNU urged caution, pointing out that difficult and painstaking discussions lie ahead. “A ceasefire is only the first step to allow us to move on to political dialogue,” said Zipporah Sein, who added that the Burmese government army is still using forced labor and burning orchards in Karen State.
Hinting that complicated and possibly-divisive talks must take place before any political solution can be found, May Oo added that “state boundaries are still questionable, and when we bring up the issue of boundaries the government does not like it.”
In sync with changes advocated by new Burmese MP Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy, which this week took its place in the nation’s military-stuffed Parliament, the KNU says that the 2008 Constitution needs to be amended as part of any lasting peace-deal.
“The current Constitution does not empower the ethnic nationalities in any meaningful way,” added May Oo Mutraw.
Burma’s military has historically chafed at giving local autonomy to the country’s larger ethnic minorities, who all told make up perhaps one-third of the population of Burma, the remainder being ethnic Burman.
Fears of secession or rebellion by ethnic militias has long been used as a justification by Burma’s military for its continued grip on power, while army abuses in ethnic areas—such as extrajudicial killings, rape, forced labor and crop burning—have forced hundreds of thousands of Karen and others to flee. Many take refuge in jungle areas or across the border in Thailand where there are currently an estimated 140,000 mostly Karen refugees living in nine camps along the Thai-Burmese frontier.
“We haven’t discussed anything about refugees with the government,” said Zipporah Sein. “Only when there is a peaceful situation in the country and a political settlement can they go back.”
International donors have reduced or withdrawn funding for health, education and nutrition programs in the Thai camps, diverting cash for projects inside Burma—which despite lush natural resources is one of the world’s poorest countries on a per capita basis, with three-quarters of the population left without electricity despite hefty oil and gas exports and hydropower potential.
“We think that it is important that funding continues for the refugees.” said Zipporah Sein. “We still don’t know when the refugees can go back.” Karen State is also littered with landmines, the majority likely laid by government troops, but some also placed by the KNLA.
Part of the reason for the diminished funding is what the KNU sees as premature over-enthusiasm by some donors, which does not yet reflect the limited extent and impact of reforms in Burma, especially in ethnic states.
“The international community is more excited about the reforms in Burma than the people of Burma,” said May Oo Mutraw. “The international community shows an excitement beyond imagination.”
The KNU said that when ethnic groups are ready to discuss a political settlement with the government, they will negotiate on a common platform as part of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC). The umbrella group is comprised of eight leading ethnic minority groups—including the Mon, Shan, Karenni, Chin and Kachin—that have long fought against the Burmese authorities.
If the UNFC members hold to this, it means that broader settlements in areas such as Karen and Mon states will not come about until after a ceasefire between Naypyidaw and the Kachin Independence Organization, arguably the best-armed of the UNFC members, who have been fighting the Burmese government army since a 17-year ceasefire broke down in June 2011.
More than 75,000 civilians, including many women and children, have been driven from their homes by the conflict which continues amid signs that the Burmese military is increasing reinforcements in the region.