A Landmark Ceasefire

Karen children c. Benoit Mahe

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To follow Aditi Gupta‘s recent post concerning the treatment of ethnic minorities in Burma, Alistair Walker examines the ceasefire between the Karen separatist movement and the Myanmar Government that took place last week. Alistair is studying an MA in Interactive Journalism at City University.

At first, I was sceptical. Then I was incredulous. Finally, I was hopeful. One of the world’s longest-running sectarian conflicts came to at the very least an entente on a perfectly normal Thursday last week. At best, the bitter civil war between the Karen people and the Myanmar Government has now reached (whisper it quietly and hope) an end.

The Karen separatist movement in Burma, or Myanmar as it is officially known, has been a struggle that has continued unabated and unended since at least 1968.That makes it one year older than the Provisional IRA’s entry into the Northern Irish Troubles and only slightly younger than the Maoist-Naxalite insurgency in India. Their aim is and has always been to establish a separate Karen country sandwiched between Burma and Thailand, with hundreds of thousands of civilians, militants, and soldiers alike dying in the process.

Burma/Myanmar is, unfortunately, one of those countries that should probably never have been made into a nation-state, but rather a loose patchwork collection of peoples, territories, religions and cultures haphazardly slapped together by the British Empire in its insatiable appetite for territory. Even the name assigned to the region by the British – Burma – was a clumsy choice, based on a transliteration of the name of the main ethnic group, the Burman, into English. After the rapid break-up of Britain’s imperial holdings in South-East Asia, Burma became the epitome of disorderly de-imperialisation in a region not known for easy transitions to independence.

Again, the country’s very name became a symbol of all that was most chaotic about the country – Myanmar, adopted in the 1980s by the military dictatorship that ended Burma’s brief democratic experience, is a transliteration of Burma back into the language spoken by the Burman people. Which is all very well until you consider the sheer diversity of ethnic and cultural groups – 135 according to the Government’s own official classifications – many of whom feel short-changed that the name of their country still marks it as a nation of, and for, the Burman.

The most vocal of these has been the Karen National Liberation Army, the militant wing of the Karen National Union, who agreed to a ceasefire last week. For some, the ceasefire  was all but inevitable; a flurry of liberalisations, all carefully controlled by the military of course, have taken place over the last couple of years. Hundreds of political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, the A-Lister of the pro-democracy movement in Burma, were released; ceasefires were negotiated between the KNLA’s peer organisations, the Karenni Army and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army; even the Government’s tight economic control seems to be loosening.

The obvious question is why.

The value of the US’ understated, softly-softly diplomatic approach to Burma has been a huge boon to Burma’s humanitarian and democratic future. The tactful and sensitive negotiations of Senator John Kerry, who heads up the US Senates’ Committee on Foreign Relations, and of Secretary of State Hilary Clinton were Realpolitik at its finest. Ironically, John Yettaw, the American tourist who illegally swam to Aung San Suu Kyi’s island home cum prison in 2009 and sparked a major diplomatic incident, may have done more to draw America’s interest in Burma than any US Government official ever had.

But that isn’t the story here. The real story is what the peoples of Burma did for themselves. Despite Burma’s famously atrocious healthcare – the country has one of the worst rates for HIV and Aids-related deaths, only 2% of GDP is spent on healthcare and there is only one hospital bed available per 2,000 people – it can boast a well-educated populace, with 90% literacy rate in over-14s. Under the political tutelage of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her late father, a hero of Burmese independence, the peoples of Burma have remained admirably aware of the crippling problems facing their country and, in large part, have been willing to make a lot of noise until the government agreed to reasonable reform.

Karen dissidents and refugees have successfully lobbied for Thailand, Burma’s all-important trading partner and neighbour, to quietly exert political and economic pressure on the Burmese Junta. The Burmese Government made a short-sighted decision to close down its border with Thailand, who have accepted Karen refugees in their droves, for ten days in July. Official government estimates put the damage to the Burmese economy at around £1.75m a day. A change had gotta come.

Then there’s the KNLA themselves. Traditionally hard-line separatists, the KNLA have grown increasingly moderate in reaction to the Junta’s liberalisations. Rumours sparked in November that a ceasefire was being broached when KNLA representatives met the Government’s railway minister U Aung Min, but both sides played it down, saying they were just mooting the idea. On Thursday, though, the KNLA threw the ultimate curveball; they were willing to drop separatism as a major pillar of their programme, as long as the Government could work on its human rights record, particularly forced labour for the Karen, and work towards “sustainable peace”.

So whisper it quietly and hope that the fifty year civil war ended on a perfectly normal Thursday.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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