June 21, 2005

Beyond Cease-fire

Imagining a National Reconciliation in Burma: Beyond Cease-Fire
by -- Saw Kaw Htoo, Naw May Oo and Saw Kapi

WASHINGTON, Jan. 26, 2004 (AScribe Newswire) -- Following is an editorial by Saw Kaw Htoo and Naw May Oo. The opinions expressed herein are entirely the authors'. This article does not represent the official position of any organization.


The Karen National Union delegation led by General Saw Bo Mya traveled to Rangoon last week for talks with top leaders of the Burmese military regime. The trip marked Gen. Bo Mya's first trip to Burma's capital since the inception of the Karen revolution in 1949, and it could be seen as an obvious gesture toward national reconciliation and finding a political solution with the regime. Of all the ethnic resistance forces that have engaged in cease-fire talks with the military regime, only the KNU flew into Rangoon directly from a foreign capital. Although there was no official media report about the arrival of KNU team, Prime Minister Khin Nyunt reportedly told the KNU delegation that the result of the meetings between the two sides would be announced to the country. The people of Burma, most of whom have endured tremendous sufferings under successive Burmese military regimes for the last half-century, are hoping that the ongoing peace efforts by the KNU and its legendary leader General Bo Mya bear fruit this time.

Since there were no preconditions set for the talks, it was supposed that both sides would discuss quite openly all matters of concern. Although the KNU team's main focus in this round of talks was to formalize a cease-fire deal with the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), it pursued this negotiation process with a long-term goal of gaining the right to self-determination for the Karen people in a future democratic Burma.

In fact, the KNU decided to go ahead with the planned talks amidst continuing human right violations by the SPDC troops in several Karen areas. Several Karen communities have already raised concerns over the regime's continued atrocities in Karen villages, the plight of Karen refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs), and, lately, about Karen political prisoners now in jails throughout Burma. It is easy to realize that peace and national reconciliation, in practice, are more than agreements between leaders from the two sides. The regime must cease its violent practices in Karen areas to prove its readiness to negotiate in good faith. From the KNU point of view, face-to-face meetings with the SPDC give them an opportunity to formally present their concerns, and at the same time to seek other overarching political ends. While both sides agreed that talks are fruitful and progressing, much needs to be done on both sides for negotiating a formal cease-fire agreement; setting up a process of monitoring infringements of the truce; and deciding how to deal with the more than 250,000 internally displaced people in the Karen state.

The delegation came back with an understanding that both sides must start working on their respective concerns before they can come up with a formal signed agreement.

After more than half a century of civil war, the situation is now ripe for resolution. Although the Burmese military regime has managed to weaken the KNU forces considerably in the last decade, the prospect for a complete victory by either side is dim. Currently, a cease-fire agreement is a necessary and important step but not a panacea for solving the deeper political problems. A formal cease-fire agreement should lay the groundwork for a mutually agreeable political settlement. This would include the drawing of military demarcation for the SPDC and KNU troops; the initiation of a national political dialogue that would incorporate all the political stakeholders, including the popular leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and National League for Democracy party, popularly elected in 1990; the drafting of a national constitution; and a nationwide referendum.

The SPDC must convince the people of Burma that it is sincerely following the path to democracy and national reconciliation, which should take place within a reasonable time frame. The regime must also foster a situation that would encourage the NLD to join its proposed resumption of the National Convention. While negotiating with the SPDC, the KNU may want to keep its options open by not discarding completely the proposed resumption of National Convention. What may be more imperative - and feasible - for the KNU and all the opposition groups to do, however, is to convince the SPDC to change the unfair National Convention guidelines and principles that compelled the NLD to walk out in 1996.

As the very first step, a viable ceasefire agreement must be achieved on mutually acceptable terms. Amid many concerns and uncertainties, some relevant examples of recent cease-fire agreements between governments and armed opposition groups and their consequences may offer useful lessons for our own. Recently, the Indian government and a Tamil resistance group agreed to hold talks. And there is also the cease-fire agreement recently signed between the two warring factions in Sudan.

In December 2001, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) expressed their willingness to engage in talks with the then newly-formed Sri Lankan government, the United National Front (UNF), by announcing a unilateral cease-fire. In response to the ceasefire, the UNF government cautiously announced the cessation of hostilities. Naturally, concerns were raised over the Tigers' sincerity about and commitment to a cease-fire agreement. The LTTE responded by extending the unilateral cease-fire until February 2002 to seek a more positive response from the UNF government towards entering into political negotiations. Eventually, both sides agreed to have foreign monitors to oversee the process. After periods of intense clashes and uncomfortable situations, the ceasefire between the LTTE and the UNF Government came into effect. Both parties nevertheless recognized that a final settlement to the ethnic conflict has yet to be implemented.

According to the principles enunciated in the Thimpu talks, Tamils were to be recognized as a nation with a homeland and the right to self-determination. Although the two parties could not agree on the condition upon which LTTE would become a separate state, they were prepared to settle for a viable alternative to a separate Tamil state. With the help of the international community, the parties came up with a solution - a united Sri Lanka in which the Tamil aspirations for regional autonomy would be respected.

The cease-fire in Sri Lanka demonstrates that third party intervention is necessary, whether it be local or international -- and that it should be absolutely up to the two parties in question to decide whether and whom they invite as the third party. In the case of Sri Lanka, both the government and LTTE specifically invited the Norwegian government to mediate, and so it did. Most importantly, Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga's honesty and political courage were vital to resolving the ethnic conflict and war between the government and the LTTE. She has acknowledged that, "international mediation is very often useful in helping the two opposing sides to find new and creative ways in which they can settle their problems in a manner that both sides can gain."

It is instructive to look at the current negotiation between the KNU and SPDC in the light of these examples. While the KNU agreed to relinquish its original demand to hold the talks in Bangkok and go to Rangoon instead, it has proposed that international observers be present at the talks. Unlike the UNF government in Sri Lanka, the SPDC has refused to allow the presence of international observers, let alone international intervention, in the negotiation process. Although both sides agreed to hold talks inside Burma to maintain the country's sovereignty in addressing its own problems, the presence of a third party or international observers could, in fact, enhance the integrity of negotiation process. As a matter of fact, international humanitarian involvement - at least from "like-minded" countries such as Thailand, Japan and Australia - would be necessary, if not essential, to the safe return home of refugees and IDPs. It is in the best interest of the Burmese regime as well as the KNU to invite the international community, both governments and non-governmental organizations, to observe and help, though not necessarily to intervene, in the process.

Against all odds, the KNU has made relentless efforts for peace in sending the high-level delegation led by its Vice Chairman General Bo Mya to Rangoon in the hope that a cease-fire agreement would significantly reduce forced relocation and human rights violations in Karen villages and enable internally displaced people to return to their homes and villages. As a first step in proving its sincerity, the SPDC should demilitarize several Karen areas and create conditions conducive to the Karen refugees' return home and resettlement in their villages.

After all, not only a deep reserve of political will but also a vast amount of political acumen is highly essential from all sides to resolve Burma's decades-long conflicts. Undoubtedly the path towards national reconciliation is complex. It requires all parties to take steps beyond cessation of fighting. Since 1948, a rigidly centralized state followed by military dominance in the government has exacerbated ethnic tensions. For the Karens and other ethnic nationalities of Burma, military-dominated unitary government is an anathema; a genuine national dialogue inclusive of the forces of ethnic nationalities and the NLD led by Aung San Suu Kyi is essential to finding a feasible, acceptable and lasting alternative.


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