Sunday, January 29, 2012

Ceasefires will not Bring about Lasting Peace: Burmese Ethnic Leaders

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Photo: Banyar Kong Janoi
Burma’s government has held ceasefire talks with ethnic Kachin rebels to end fighting near the northern border with China.

But officials say the preliminary meeting did not yield any major breakthroughs.

The Kachin Independence Army or K-I-A is one of the country's most powerful and well-armed rebel groups.

Earlier this month the government signed a ceasefire with Karen rebels in the east of the country. It has also held talks within the last two months with the Shan State Army.

But as Banyar Kong Janoi reports many are suspicious about these ceasefires.

61 years old, Law Reh sings about the richest of his homeland -- the Karenni state in eastern part of Burma.

He has spent the last two decades in a refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border because of fighting between an armed group of Karenni National Progressive Party and the government.

Law Reh says he is lucky to be alive after being forced to work as a porter for the Burmese military.

“They used us to clear landmines. I witnessed people being killed and tortured in front of me. One of them was a teacher, who taught Karenni language in our village school. He had his mouth cut out in front us. He finally bleed to death. Around 100 people in our group, including me were going to be shot but then the soliders changed their minds and decided to let us starve. We went with out food for ten days. We some how manage to survive but I was so weak I could not lift my arms. Then we were finally allowed to go home.”

Early this month (January) the Karen National Union and the Burmese government agreed to a ceasefire.

But Law Reh is not convinced that it’s safe enough to leave Thailand and go home.

Hhun Okkar is a spokesman for the United Nationalities Federal Council, an alliance of ethnic armed groups.

He is also suspicious about the recent ceasefire aggrements.

“The ethnic groups have made ceasefire agreements with the military government many times before with past military leaders and now with the President Thein Sein. Although different tactics were used to reach agreements we can see the government’s intention is the same. The government promises to improve economic opporitunites for the ethnic groups but they never aggree to real political power. Now we are expecting that their will be discussions about ethnic political power but we are not sure if it will happen. It’s too early to say the problem has been solved.”

Burma has eight major ethnics groups who make up 40% of Burma's population.

They have been demanding - without success - for greater regional autonomy from the majority Burman-led central government since independence from Britain in 1948.

Khun Oo Reh is the general secretary of the Karenni National Progressive Party.

He says the government needs to understand what ethnic groups are fighting for.

“We have been discriminated against and we have been ignored. The majority Burman ethnic group always wants to control the country. We are not treated fairly. Also we are fighting to protect our ethnic identity. We want self-determination. We want a federal democractic system in Burma.  When Burma gained independence from Britain it was not so that the Burman people could rule but so all ethnic group could have self-determination.  We all have to live and rule together.”

He says it is too early to say whether the nominal civilian government under the leadership of Thein Sein is serious about giving ethnic groups a greater say in how they are governed.

“Throughout history the ruling party in Burma, whether you call it a military dictatorship or the Burmese government, always name us separatist groups. They don’t use the word ‘Federalism’; they only talk about the ‘Union of Burma’. Their slogan is ‘federalism is separatism’. I believe that none of the ethnic groups are demanding an independent state.  What we are fighting for is a real federal democratic system in Burma. There is no guaranteeee for peace unless there is a political solution, ceasefires can be broken at anytime.”

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