CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Recent heavy armed conflicts in ethnic regions have exposed the shortcomings of a peace process that critics say looks increasingly likely to sideline fundamental issues in favor of pushing through the token signing of a nationwide ceasefire deal.
The fighting last month, which has forced dozens of local residents to flee their homes even as peace talks between ethnic leaders and government officials were being held in Rangoon, were further proof of what hundreds of thousands of displaced people in Burma have long known: that civilians often bear the brunt of the country’s decades-long civil war.
Although combatants in the conflict zones informed their leaders and government peace negotiators about deadly clashes between ethnic Karen rebels and the government army in Karen and Mon states, the senior leadership on both sides appears unwilling—or unable—to effectively put a stop to the fighting.
The latest clashes have taken place as the government tries to secure a nationwide ceasefire agreement—while only agreeing to discuss matters such as a code of conduct, troop repositioning, demining and border demarcation at a later date.
Observers have warned peace negotiators that without implementing and consolidating the ceasefire process on the ground, the government and ethnic rebels will likely only repeat past mistakes, and any agreement will break down—as has been recently evident in Mon and Karen states.
Fighting in the two states recently broke out between the Burma Army and the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA), a Karen rebel group that has already signed a ceasefire agreement with the government.
The hostilities occurred in part due to the absence of a code of conduct between the two sides and attendant uncertainty over troop movements and border demarcation.
The collateral damage resulting from this failure is inflicted on the civilian populations in conflict areas, with some forced to flee for their lives. The fighting has also impacted their livelihoods. Some have lost their properties and, hiding for their safety, fear a return to work. Schools and clinics were also shut down in conflict-affected areas.
During a trip to Karen State earlier this year, I took a truck with villagers from Mae Tha Waw village to Hpa-an, the state capital. In the middle of our journey, we suddenly heard from local residents that the route was blocked by troops from the Border Guard Force (BGF), a government-backed Karen militia.
Our driver, an ethnic Karen man named Pha Bout, seemed afraid to continue the journey. However, he managed to take us on an alternative, rougher route.
It was later learned that the BGF had blocked the route in retaliation for being attacked by DKBA troops, who seized some of their weapons. They threatened to fire upon any vehicles carrying DKBA soldiers.
Pha Bout, who operates a transport business from Mae Tha Waw village to Myaing Gyi Nyu in Hlaing Bwe Township, said that he had experienced threats at gunpoint several times and was fed up with the situation.
“We are civilians. Whoever [DKBA or BGF] asks or forces us to give them a ride or carry their weapons and supplies, we have to do so. I dare not refuse because they have guns. Sometimes they even force me to stay with them several days just in case they need my car for urgent stuff,” Pha Bout said.
“But when you carry DKBA soldiers, the BGF think we are sided with the DKBA. And when you carry BGF soldiers, the DKBA think the same. We are the victims,” he added.
On one occasion, he experienced a frightening incident in which he thought he would die.
“Five BGF soldiers spotted me [and] pointing their rifles [fixed with bayonets] ordered me to get out of the car. They acted like pirates. They then interrogated me for hours. They finally let me go after they found no weapons or military supplies. They warned that they would blow up my car if I carry DKBA soldiers next time,” Pha Bout said.
Other villagers who had traveled the same route joined the conversation.
“We villagers are victims. I have been on the run, hiding [from] hostilities since I was a little girl,” said one middle-aged Karen woman. “In an accident, gunfire was exchanged in our village. I could see shells landing and bullets were flying around the village while I was running [for safety].”
The woman said the ethnic Karen people were accustomed to experiencing hostilities, but she expressed her desire for civilians to live in peace and safety.
“Sometimes, I want to let them [ethnic rebels and the Burma Army] fight until one group totally beats the others. I can be shot dead while running [for my life]. But, it doesn’t matter. If one becomes champion, then there is no group to keep resisting … so no more war,” said the woman.
“If they don’t completely beat one another, there is always the possibility of conflicts. And we always have to stay in fear,” she added.
Recent fighting in Karen and Mon states forced dozens of villagers to flee their homes and even cross into neighboring Thailand for safety. Some who hide in the jungle in Mon State are still too afraid of returning home, or to their fields to cultivate crops.
Observers said one cause of the ongoing armed conflict was the lack of a military code of conduct, an issue that is now being sidelined by the government peacemaking delegation in talks.
“We still have the code of conduct issue to discuss, but they [the government] proposed not to discuss this issue first because this issue could delay a peace agreement,” said Nai Hong Sar, head of the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT), a working committee that combines 16 ethnic armed groups.
On Sept. 9, clashes broke out between the government army and the Karen National Union (KNU), the largest Karen armed group, whose leaders maintain good ties with the government. One Burmese soldier died. Government troops clashed with KNU troops again on Sept. 27, killing one KNU soldier in Kyaukgyi Township, Pegu Division, which is under KNU control.
All these incidents transpired as government troops patrolled in KNU-controlled areas without informing the rebel armed group in advance, evidence of the lack of coordination and communication between opposing troops on the ground.
Naw K’nyaw Paw, secretary of the Karen Women Organization (KWO), said that a code of conduct should be prioritized.
“What we worry about the most is the lack of a code of conduct [in the peace process]. We support ceasefires. But we think a code of conduct should be prioritized as we think it will prevent tension and conflicts,” said K’nyaw Paw.
“As there is no such mechanism, clashes can happen easily. And finally, civilians are the victims and they don’t even know who to blame. So, we think the government should seriously think about it,” she added.
Ethnic observers said that a nationwide ceasefire agreement, without implementing mechanisms to consolidate the ceasefire process, would be more like a piece of signed paper than a peace that protects civilians from harm, fear and abuses.
“They [government and ethnic groups] signed several bilateral agreements alreadym, but none of these included a code of conduct,” said K’nyaw Paw. “The KNU proposed it, but the government asked them to work on a better one. They are negotiating for words and terms but they still can’t move forward [with it].”