On Jan. 12 the Karen National Union (KNU) will hold further talks about agreeing a ceasefire. Karen communities worldwide will be holding traditional Karen peace ceremonies, calling on the military-backed government to not just agree to a ceasefire, but also agree to genuine dialogue that leads to a political solution to the conflict.
After more than 60 years of conflict, you would expect the hundreds of thousands of Karen people worldwide who were forced to flee their homeland to be very hopeful and excited about the talks, and perhaps even discussing returning. But that isn’t the impression I get from the Karen people around the world I have spoken to. Instead, many people are very skeptical.
There are many reasons for this. First, we know from experience in the past 60 years that governments often talk peace while waging war. There have been five previous occasions when official ceasefire talks took place, and every time the government effectively just demanded surrender.
There have also been many occasions when the government have made unofficial approaches, although often these are more about trying to divide and rule, and split the KNU and the Karen people. So we know from experience we cannot trust them.
Another reason for concern is that while the international community has got very excited about changes happening in Burma, even praising President Thein Sein, for many ethnic people life under Thein Sein has got much worse. His army has stepped up attacks against us. Three ceasefires were broken by him.
Maybe a few more websites are now available in Burma. Maybe they can print pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi in newspapers, and hold a film festival. But balance that against what has been happening out of sight in ethnic states.
In the past year the number of people forced to flee their homes because of attacks and human rights abuses doubled from an annual average of around 70,000 to almost 150,000. The use of rape, by the Burmese army, even against children, has increased. Unarmed villagers are executed, schools are mortar-bombed, and aid is blocked to those internally displaced.
The military-backed government says it wants to talk peace but its actions don’t match its words. They should stop attacking Karen villages, stop executing unarmed villagers, and free all political prisoners. They recently jailed Mahn Nyein Maung, a senior KNU leader. They should be releasing political prisoners, not jailing more.
Given these facts, people should understand why we are skeptical that Thein Sein is a great reformer.
We remember that it was Thein Sein who chaired the National Convention, refusing every proposal by ethnic representatives which would have guaranteed rights and protection for ethnic people. We remember that he served in Shan State as regional commander, and that his soldiers raped, killed and looted. The UN even said he gave the order to commit human rights abuses.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague recently visited Burma and said the government must be judged on its actions, not its words. If he really meant this, he would still be pushing for a UN Commission of Inquiry into war crimes and crimes against humanity. That is the reality of Thein Sein’s actions.
As Karen refugees we know it is not safe to return to our homeland without a political solution that ensures there will be peace and where our rights and culture will be protected. We have seen how human rights abuses have continued in other areas of Burma where there are ceasefires, and how the dictatorship used the ceasefires to extend its control and try to weaken the ethnic political parties which defended the people. A ceasefire alone tackles the symptoms, not the causes. There must also be political dialogue for a permanent political solution.
This is perhaps the greatest concern for many Karen worldwide. A ceasefire without a political solution just leaves uncertainty and insecurity, and eventually more instability.
All Karen want peace, but not peace at the price of surrender that leaves us defenceless against human rights abuses and oppression.
There must be a political solution which guarantees ethnic rights and protects ethnic culture. There must be a political solution where the people of Burma can live peacefully side by side, different but equal. So far, that isn’t what Thein Sein is offering.
Nant Bwa Bwa Phan is a board member of the European Karen Network.