Suu Kyi Meets Karen Rebels

By Aye Aye Win 9 April 2012

RANGOON—Leaders of Burma’s most enduring ethnic rebel group met with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi a day after meeting with the country’s president, the latest step in the group’s effort to open a dialogue to achieve greater autonomy.

The 2 1/2-hour meeting on Sunday of leaders of the Karen National Union with Suu Kyi also followed an agreement the group reached on Friday with the military-backed but elected government to firm up a ceasefire they made in January.

“These meetings will definitely support our efforts to achieve national reconciliation, and these meetings will help bring about a genuine democratic nation,” Suu Kyi told reporters after Sunday’s meeting.

The meetings with President Thein Sein and Suu Kyi were virtually unprecedented for the KNU, which has mostly been engaged in an armed struggle for greater autonomy from Burma’s government since the country obtained independence from Britain in 1948.

The KNU has been the most durable of the dozen or so major ethnic groups at odds with the government, and despite having much of its military force crippled by government offensives in the 1990s, remains the best known internationally.

Most of its leadership is based along the border with Thailand, and the group’s opportunities to engage with the rest of Burma have also been limited by its long-standing status as an illegal organization there.

The KNU’s peace mission began shortly after Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party completed its own journey out of the political wilderness by winning 43 parliamentary seats in April 1 by-elections, giving it a voice in parliament for the first time, albeit as a vastly outnumbered minority. It had won a 1990 general election but was denied power when the military refused to let parliament convene, sending the country into a two-decade political deadlock.

The NLD agreed to rejoin electoral politics when Thein Sein, prime minister under the former ruling junta, initiated a series of political reforms after taking office a year ago following a 2010 general election. Thein Sein is seeking ceasefires with the country’s ethnic rebel groups as part of the reforms.

Suu Kyi’s movement is loosely allied with most of the ethnic minority groups, who, like her party, also faced repression under the previous military regime.

The KNU delegation met with Thein Sein for about half an hour Saturday in the capital, Naypyidaw, and reported a favorable impression, though it wouldn’t reveal details.

“The president showed a lot of eagerness to bring peace to the country and is making all efforts to bring about peace,” said KNU’s general secretary, Naw Zipporah Sein.

She said the issue of the KNU being deemed an illegal organization was also raised. Immigration Minister Khin Yi had said Friday that the KNU’s status as an unlawful association would be changed at an appropriate time, and that it had been imposed under different circumstances.

Naw Zipporah Sein said the KNU discussed the peace process with Suu Kyi, and that they agreed on the importance of a genuine and lasting peace with all of the country’s ethnic minorities.

Preliminary ceasefire pacts have been reached in recent months between the government and groups representing the Mon, Shan, Chin, Wa and Kokang minorities.

Most of the groups, however, insist that a political settlement giving them more autonomy is necessary to ensure enduring peace. One group, the Kachin in northern Burma, is actively engaged in sporadic though bitter fighting with the government.