Guest Column

The Economic Forces at Work Behind the Karen Ceasefire

By Saw Kapi 11 April 2012

On April 6, the Karen National Union (KNU) completed its second round of negotiations with the Burmese government and signed a follow-up agreement detailing how the first stage of the ceasefire deal will be implemented.

On the surface, delegates from both sides smiled and remained positive about the talks. During his meeting with KNU General Secretary Zipporah Sein and her team in Naypyidaw on April 7, President Thein Sein reportedly revealed his change of attitude towards the KNU. It appears as though there is a complete and sudden change of heart among the ex-generals who run the nominally civilian government. Peace is imminent and better times await the Burmese, or so one feels.

And yet, a closer look at key participants in the process sheds a different light.

First, in addition to the chief negotiator, Railways Minister Aung Min, key members of the Burmese delegation include the minister of energy, heavy industry and electricity. This has led many ordinary Karens to think that the government is more interested in dam and deep-sea port projects than lasting peace and a credible process of national reconciliation. The concern now is that the government will freely continue its mega-development projects in the Karen area while Karen armed resistance is effectively neutralized by the ceasefire agreement.

Second, the government’s strategy is to outsource part of the negotiation process to a trusted local NGO called Myanmar Egress, led by army-bred businessmen and Burmese academics close to the regime.

Initially established as one of the few registered local non-governmental organizations, Egress’ stated objective is to help build peace in Burma. It has inserted itself into the ceasefire process in a de facto mediator role between the Burmese government and KNU for some months. Some of its most prominent managers typically accompany Aung Min on his trips to meet with the KNU. Though their mandate is not entirely clear, or officially clarified—whether they are mediators or negotiators—their presence and, at times, vocal involvement in negotiations with the KNU is clearly discernible. In fact, Egress’ fixed presence in these negotiations has contributed to a widespread perception in Karen communities both within and outside Burma that commercial motives lurk beneath Naypyidaw’s sudden enthusiasm for ceasefires.

Third, the Burmese government’s outsourcing of the ceasefire process to commercial elements has a rather significant dimension, namely the involvement of local business tycoons who have a keen interest in multi-billion-dollar development projects in KNU-controlled territory. Ngwe Soe, the managing director of the Dawei Princess Company, is a case in point. Dawei Princess has invested heavily in the Thai-financed deep-sea port project in Tavoy (or Dawei) and has been very active as a conduit of information for Aung Min in his communications with the KNU. This behind-the-scenes involvement of close business associates of the regime who are poised to profit from a ceasefire has made many in the KNU delegation uneasy about the negotiation process.

Be that as it may, the ceasefire agreement has already been signed. Both sides have committed themselves to implementing six of the eleven points in the agreement, including the realization of a nationwide ceasefire, guaranteeing that civilians will be free from intimidation, and the establishment of a peace-process monitoring mechanism.

However, the fragility—and reversibility—of the new ceasefire process can’t be overemphasized. The fact that the government’s written ceasefire agreement with the Kachin Independence Organization broke down last June after 14 years also gives us good reason to be cautious. The key to national reconciliation is achieving a political settlement—ceasefires and promises of economic development are not enough. Tough political negotiations have yet to begin.

Fundamental differences between the two sides still remain, in terms of steps to be taken towards national reconciliation. The KNU’s national vision for conflict resolution in Burma involves a ceasefire and the withdrawal of government troops from its territory; negotiations aimed at reaching a political settlement outside of Parliament, where it has zero representation; and ecologically sustainable development. The Burmese government, on the other hand, is pushing ahead with its own road map, which consists of reaching a ceasefire first, followed by development without political resolution, and then possible participation in the political process through election and Parliament. In light of this difference in the two sides’ approaches, one should anticipate a tough road ahead in the next stages of negotiations.

If the fragile ceasefire process is to result in lasting peace for the Karens and the Burmese alike, President Thein Sein and his reformist deputies need to seriously consider not only making Egress’ mediation role impartial but also minimizing the large-scale commercial interests of businessmen who have been involved in the ceasefire negotiations. Failure to do so could seriously derail the current peace process, which would also be a major setback to achieving lasting, sustainable prosperity. For without lasting peace, economic development will remain a distant dream.

Saw Kapi, a former political activist and an ethnic Karen, is a university administrator currently working as the Director of Admissions and Records at California State University, Bakersfield. The opinions expressed in this guest commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Irrawaddy.