CHIANG MAI, Thailand —The Karen National Union (KNU) has appealed for the government and military to find “politically dignified” and “nonviolent ways” to alleviate the current Rakhine State crisis.
About 536,000 self-identifying Rohingya Muslims have fled Rakhine for Bangladesh since Aug. 25 Muslim militant attacks on police stations and an army base intensified clearance operations plagued by accusations of indiscriminate killing, rape and arson.
The KNU had fought with the Tatmadaw for more than six decades starting in 1949 until the ethnic armed group signed a bilateral ceasefire with the quasi-civilian government in 2012 and then became one of eight signatories to the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) in 2015.
Padoh Saw Ta Doh Moo, general secretary of the KNU, told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday the KNU is concerned about the welfare of civilians affected by the violence, as ethnic Karen endured similar military operations in 1979-80 and 1998-99 that led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of the Karen population of southeast Myanmar.
A KNU statement released on the second anniversary of the NCA on Sunday read that the government and Tatmadaw’s handling of the Rakhine crisis “bring the memory of what the KNU and the Karen people have experienced under the state’s four-cut policy through various forms of aggressive military operations that caused over 200,000 Karen people to become internally displaced persons (IDPs) and over 150,000 to become refugees.”
The statement acknowledged “efforts to achieve peace are being made,” but “regrets to witness the repeat of the history from the past 20-30 years.” It called for nonviolent solutions to the crisis and stated worries that the peace process will be derailed.
“As a peace partner, we raise our concerns to change those situations,” Padoh Saw Ta Doh Moo told The Irrawaddy.
“For disputes and problems between our nationalities, we could find the solutions through negotiations based on our national reconciliation concept, but the Rakhine crisis is related to international and religious beliefs. Such pressure is an added burden to Myanmar and affects the peace process,” he said.
Self-identifying Rohingya Muslims are not considered indigenous people of Myanmar by most in the country and widely referred to as “Bengalis.”
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi launched the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development in Rakhine last week to tackle the humanitarian crisis. The enterprise will focus on repatriating and providing aid for those who fled to Bangladesh, according to the government.
But the predicament of other mass repatriation efforts paints a gloomy picture for Rakhine. Displaced Karen in the southeast, Shan in the east, and Kachin in the north are yet to be repatriated.
“We have not yet been able to start the repatriations of Karen refugees who became displaced in the last two or three decades,” said Padoh Saw Ta Doh Moo. “At that time, many innocent civilians faced many troubles.”
Nearly 100,000 refugees live in nine camps along the Thailand-Myanmar border, the majority of them Karen, according to a 2016 The Border Consortium (TBC) report.
Padoh Saw Ta Doh Moo said Rakhine’s deep-rooted problems “should have been tackled carefully and systematically by the governments although they [Muslims in Rakhine] may not be the ethnic nationalities, but the remains of the negative legacy of colonial Burma [Myanmar] in northern Rakhine.”
Because of the lack of solutions, he said, the problems have expanded and weighed on Myanmar’s existing social issues.
The KNU statement urged for a constitutional change to “create a society for peaceful coexistence” and to address the “remaining negative legacy of colonialism” in Myanmar. The negative legacy, said Padoh Saw Ta Doh Moo, was problems arising from Muslim laborers brought into Myanmar from the then Indian colony.
“In order for a check and balance system to emerge, we need to change the 2008 Constitution, as the [military-backed] Constitution is different from democratic principles, and now the government and the Tatmadaw have to negotiate for the power,” he said.
The KNU statement reiterated its commitment to achieve peace through solving the problems by way of political means.
The NCA signatories’ peace process steering team led by KNU chairman Gen Saw Mutu Say Poe met separately with the State Counselor and the Tatmadaw chief Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing on Monday afternoon to discuss the effective implementation of the NCA.
The State Counselor agreed to a joint review of the NCA and further collaboration in order to hold union peace conferences, said KNU vice chairman Padoh Saw Kwe Htoo Win, who was present at the meetings.
Leaders of the NCA signatories were in Naypyitaw for two days, as they joined the NCA two-year commemoration.
On Monday morning, Gen Saw Mutu Say Poe and Gen Yawd Serk, chairman of the Restoration Council of Shan State, also separately met the former president U Thein Sein for social greetings, according to the spokespersons of both groups.