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Since news reports emerged on 12 January of an historic ceasefire agreed between the Burmese government and the opposition Karen National Union, rumours have circulated of disagreement in the ranks of the Karen army, which has been battling the central government for more than six decades. Members of the group have criticised the leadership for acting too quickly and falling for Naypyidaw’s tricks, while KNU General Secretary Zipporah Sein told the New York Times that no ceasefire had in fact been agreed.
DVB spoke to David Tharkabaw, vice president of the KNU, says the motives behind the government’s wish to broker truces with ethnic armies rests solely on developing the resource-rich border regions, and warns that minority groups face a new threat.
The KNU President Saw Tamla Baw recently urged Karen people to “keep fighting”. What does he mean?
This is very initial stage in the ceasefire process. And in the whole peace process it is also a very minor and very small initial step and we still have to struggle on politically. There are many steps we have to take reach our final goal of establishing a real democracy, and what we want is a federal system. So now because of the ceasefire the fight will mainly be political.
What level of self-determination will you be seeking from the Burmese government?
Self determination means for us to be able to decide our own destiny within a federal structure and system – that means not total independence. [To do this] we need to change the 2008 constitution which is not democratic, not federal – it is very unitary. We have the state governments – or so-called state governments – but it’s strictly controlled by the federal government. Just like in all our constitutions since independence it is very strictly controlled by the central government and dominated by the Burmese ethnic majority. Even policemen are appointed by the federal government. The state government doesn’t have the power to hire and fire anyone in the service of the government.
Has the government indicated that this is something they are willing to do?
This is of course something that we will have to hold a national convention on to discuss.
How important is it for the KNU that a nationwide ceasefire is negotiated?
The first in our 11 demands is for the military to cease military activities in the whole country, especially military activities against ethnic forces. They’ve said that they accept that in principle.
Are you optimistic about the future of the ceasefire?
We have to try. We are not optimistic or [pessimistic]. We have to get a durable ceasefire, only then can we advance through political dialogue. Political dialogue is for durable peace.
Why do you think the government’s motives are?
On the government’s side so far they are pushing for development. We see it as a trick – a treacherous offer, because development will corrupt our people and environment by bringing in international companies to make our people labourers. Development must be managed by state governments rather than the central government, even in a federal system.
Do you have any specific concerns about government-led development projects?
Yes sure, the Hatgyi dam and the industrial zone [that went ahead] without a proper survey. And of course businesspeople have a way of cheating also. They said that they are only surveying but I’m sure they’ve already started building the road. So that affects our security, not only destroying the environment, security and the livelihoods of the local populations very seriously.
Will progress on these issues form one of your conditions in the ceasefire talks?
We won’t go into such details, but we will say that in the division of power the state market must get a large economy. We cannot do it in this process of the ceasefire [yet] – that would destroy the ceasefire. Development should only come when we have durable peace. As [the minister for industry] Aung Thung said it will take about three years to have eternal peace.
So do you think it too early for sanctions to be eased?
Sanctions should be maintained, because the changes taking place are still cosmetic. Thein Sein looks like he is a good cop evidently to please the international community and trying to convince us that he is really trying to effect real change. But of course there are barriers that we cannot overcome. According to some reliable sources, barriers are set up by the so-called hard liners who still want to maintain a military dictatorship. The government still is a semi-dictatorship. Thein Sein doesn’t have total control over the military; the military is only a department or a ministry in the government.
Will the April by-elections be an important step in the democratic process?
No, only 25 or 25 seats [sic] are available. But anyhow the freedom or lack of it will show.
So what else needs to happen?
People say we have to empower Thein Sein. We have to give him a chance to succeed with his program.
What conditions need to be satisfied in order for sanctions to be lifted?
They must release all political prisoners, they must have total freedom of the press – international media must be allowed to do its job. There must be guarantees for future elections to be free and the people to be free, and in voting be able to follow their free will. We have a semi-military dictatorship or a mafia democracy. The USDP [ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party] is still acting like a mafia.
What are the next steps for the KNU?
The next step is to make the ceasefire durable. We must get the regime to stop military offensives against the Kachin people. They are dying but the military under-estimated the Kachins. Now the dead and wounded are close to 20,000 already in Kachin state. There must be political dialogue through the UNFC [United Nationalities Federation Council – alliance of ethnic armies].
The Karen Women’s Organisation has called for more women to be included in the ceasefire process. What actions are you taking on this?
That idea started in the UN, saying that in war women suffer the most, especially in a civil war. So women should present their own views regarding the ceasefire. So the KNU agreed to that – we will try to get women to participate in the process. We have a selection to form advisory groups and to participate in the formulation of programs step by step.
Is everybody happy with the ceasefire?
Some are criticising that we are going too fast. For example, the [Karen] Women’s Organisation and people from inside [the KNU] also, because there was no proper discussion and the government used a high-pressure campaign – you know people from what I saw they listened to a lecture by the minister for two hours and then they asked a few questions. No heated discussion or debate over the terms and conditions. The government said they accept our demands in principle. But in principle means “we are not willing to consider that now. We may be able to do that later.” But ceasefire is important for them. That is the sense that I get. After 60 years of armed struggle how could a ceasefire start without much discussion? The ceasefire is fragile. We have to get terms and conditions agreed.
Should the government be held to account for the human rights abuses it committed in the past?
There must be a process of reconciliation of admitting the crimes they committed. The government should be responsible for paying, for example, compensation to the victims on a large scale and the government must make sure that such things do not happen again. I am not speaking of indictment – taking them to court – but outside the court there can be a process. There are many experts regarding that. There must be compensation at least to the victims.
Have conditions improved in Karen state since the ceasefire?
It’s only been a few weeks – we are still keeping a eye on the situation. There are a few cases [of human rights violations].
Are you worried that the Thai government might start repatriating Karen refugees?
Thailand so far is very sensible. Of course we were worried – before the election the Democratic Party was in power and they were saying that they wanted to push back [refugees], whether there was peace or not. We were quite worried. And [former Thai PM] Thaksin also tried that once – they pressured us to get [a ceasefire] agreement with the regime when it was still the military. And of course a split occurred within us – one brigadier made a ceasefire – they called themselves the KNU-KNLA Peace Council because of Thai pressure. But now there is no pressure, virtually no pressure. They have of course expressed a desire for peace.