Reforms in Myanmar are not yet irreversible and landmark peace talks to end one of the world’s longest civil wars still have a long road ahead, representatives from the Karen ethnic rebels’ peace negotiating team have said.
Foreign governments and observers have praised Myanmar’s year-old military-backed government for its reforms. Two weeks ago, the European Union suspended most Myanmar sanctions and the United States is being urged to do likewise.
The peace negotiating team from the Karen National Union (KNU) has sounded a more sobering note, however, and took the international community to task for displaying “excitement beyond measure.”
“The current reform process is not yet irreversible,” Naw May Oo Mutraw, spokesperson for the KNU peace negotiation team, told journalists in Bangkok on Thursday evening.
“The Burmese government has so much to prove in our opinion, because they are the ones who have time and again proved to us that they can be ruthless beyond measure,” she said.
“And now they want to change and they deserve the benefit of the doubt, just as much as we reserve the right to suspect.”
The KNU and its military wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), based in eastern Kayah and Kayin States, have fought successive governments for greater autonomy since 1949, the year after Myanmar gained independence from Britain.
The Burmese army has been accused of committing human rights abuses against the Karen and other minorities, from rape and forced labour to torture and murder.
The conflict has driven hundreds of thousands of people from their villages and across the border to Thailand. Rights groups say the abuses continue.
Burmese citizens have been looking forward to positive changes after having suffered so much, said Mutraw.
Yet, “the international community displays its excitement beyond measure, I think, individual governments as well as groups, including the United Nations,” she said, adding the KNU were dismayed when UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, during his visit to Myanmar this week, spoke about lifting sanctions completely.
“I think the international community will have to cool down a bit and put themselves in the shoes of the Burmese people,” she said. “It’s very natural for the Burmese people to be doubtful.”
The KNU as well as other ethnic groups need support from the international community to monitor the peace negotiations and ceasefire agreements, to ensure they are not violated, she added.
“It is very important for the international community to keep watching and keep monitoring,” she said.
A “GENUINE FEDERAL UNION”
Myanmar’s government started its latest round of talks with the KNU in April. Among the KNU’s demands are ensuring that a truce agreed earlier holds, confidence-building measures, an ending of forced labour and extortion, the immediate release of political prisoners, rehabilitation of affected people and redistribution of land.
It is also asking for a “genuine federal union” where all member states and citizens are protected by the law.
“We don’t mean it only for the Karen people or the Shan people. You should not enjoy particular rights because you’re a Karen and you should not be deprived of particular rights because you’re Burman,” Mutraw said.
“We don’t demand independence. We are realistic,” she added.
“We want to exist as a people with dignity… and pursue progress in life and we don’t want to fight if we don’t have to.”
Peace talks have been held between the KNU and successive Myanmar governments but no lasting agreement has been reached. But the war could finally end this time, Mutraw told AlertNet.
“Previous governments were not willing to talk politics. They were very clear – ‘You lay down arms, you come back and you get business concessions. End of discussion,’” she said.
“But this government is more open. With KNU, they were willing to discuss the code of conduct (for soldiers from both sides) which was never the case before,” she added.
“And if we could pass this stage, this government is open to talk about political dialogue.”