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A long festering war between the central government and the ethnic states has torn and divided Burma for over 60 years.
Can the current peace process, launched by President Thein Sein in 2011, bring about a lasting peace?
Last year the government signed a ceasefire with Karen rebels – ending one of the world’s longest civil wars. But the ceasefire is tentative and Karen locals say the people are yet to benefit.
“It’s already been a year, but we haven’t seen any concrete thing that we can say is real peace,” said Paul Sein Twa, Executive Director at the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network.
And in northern Burma ceasefires are being ignored.
“In the Shan state, SSA-North signed a ceasefire in December 2011, but fighting continues to date,” said coordinator of the Kachin Peace Network, Khon Ja. “So that means the ceasefire agreement is nothing – it is just a piece of paper without implementation strategy.”
Norway, the European Union and others have donated millions of dollars to support the peace process and to fund the state-backed Myanmar Peace Centre.
“The ceasefire is only step one,” said Norwegian deputy Foreign Minister Larsen Torgeir. “A ceasefire is only a ceasefire. Then the important part is the political process which is just beginning.”
Many ethnic groups see a contradiction between government policy and local realities. But they feel the peace process has been highly successful in boosting the government’s image abroad and getting economic sanctions lifted.
“Nobody accepts the armed struggle now,” said president’s office minister Aung Min. “And we’re trying to solve the political problems through political dialogue. This is the initial step. We will have these meetings in Shan, Karen and other states to pave the way for peace.”
The government’s chief peace negotiator hasn’t actually made any concrete steps towards withdrawing army battalions from ethnic states.
In fact, when President Thein Sein visited Europe – the Burmese army in Kachin state took no notice of calls for ceasefire and peace.
“On the 18th in the evening, the ceasefire was announced but on the morning of the 19th, there was mortar shooting in the Laiza area”, said Khon Ja. “And also helicopter gunships and even fighter jets coming and shooting in the whole area.”
Despite talks between the military and the Kachin Independence Organisation, no meaningful ceasefire agreement has been signed.
“It’s really frightening and the trust is lost by the Kachin civil society, especially for people living in that specific area”, Khon Ja continued. “So that means the president’s announcement of ceasefire is not really trustworthy.”
With or without ceasefire agreements, civilians in conflict zones are still living in fear of the Burmese army.
In Karen state, the army seems to be preparing for a renewed war.
“What we see in the area is that instead of relocating or reducing their army, they are reinforcing and fortifying their camps, said Paul Sein Twa.
There is little trust between the ethnic nationalities and the government. But if peace agreements aren’t upheld, a sustainable peace will be hard to achieve.
Big investment projects are also standing in the way of the peace process. The ethnic states are rich in natural gas, gold, timber, jade and rubies – yet the local people are among the poorest in Burma.
Khon Ja pointed to the fact that the conflict areas with the highest density of fighting are closely linked to where the investment sites are.
“The people lost their land and property and some of them lost their lives. So it means these investments aren’t really supporting the people or the country, but supporting cronies, investors and a handful of people in government.”
To move forward Paul Sein Twa says transparency is the key.
“So definitely the economic projects need to be reviewed. They have to bring those projects on the table transparently.”
Khon Ja also said: “These foreign investment projects are not supporting the peace process but fuelling existing conflicts.”
The attempt to build a huge dam in Kachin state, which was opposed by the Kachin people, sparked renewed fighting which prompted President Thein Sein to suspend the project.
“We need foreign investment and a national economic strategy but some projects are really dangerous, such as mega-dams,” said Khon Ja.
In February 2013 the Deputy Minister of Power Myint Zaw told the parliament that six hydropower dams had been approved for the Salween River, without any meaningful consultation.
“We have only read this project has been approved by the government, without any public discussion”, said Paul Sein Twa.
A government advisor told DVB that the current government had inherited signed agreements and contracts from the previous regime that Burma had to honour.
“But these projects are not just government projects, these are the people’s projects that belong to the whole nation. There is need for a review”, said Paul Sein Twa.
A Chinese backed copper mine in the Latpadaung mountain range has been met with fierce public opposition. Despite ongoing protests, the project has restarted.
“There is no space for the voice of civil society, said Khon Ja.
But if the government pushes ahead with big projects, opposed by the local people, it could derail the peace talks.
President Thein Sein has called for a nationwide ceasefire conference in November with the armed ethnic groups. The ethnic leaders are united in pushing the government to accept a federal union. The Karen, Shan and Kachin say a lasting peace can only be possible with full rights for ethnic nationalities.
Peace now depends on an enlightened response from the central government. Are they ready to share power in the spirit of the landmark Panglong Agreement, which paved the way for the Union of Burma?
This is a historic opportunity for peace based on a Panglong 2.