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Karen leaders have warned of renewed war in Burma’s border regions unless the government begins to pursue politically meaningful negotiations with ethnic groups, during their 62nd annual Martyrs’ Day celebrations in Kawthoolei on Sunday.
Marking their first open Martyrs’ Day at their rebel headquarters near the Thai border, the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) insisted that durable peace remains a distant prospect for the conflict-torn region.
“On the political level, there is no Karen state in the constitution. It is a unitary state, not federal. So the future is not good,” Chairperson of the DKBA’s political wing, the Klohtoobaw Karen Organization (KKO), Mahn Robert Bazan told DVB in an interview. “We want genuine peace. Unless they solve the national problems, there will be war here.”
DKBA leader General Saw Ler Pwe (also known as Na Ka Mwe) told DVB that the government must take concrete steps to address ethnic grievances, including equality and self-determination, or discussions will stall.
“The DKBA will not agree to a peace deal until we believe that it is genuine,” he said. “We need to wait and see.”
Addressing a packed crowd of soldiers and villagers, a KKO representative read out a statement by Karen National Union (KNU) President Saw Tamla Baw slating the government’s peace efforts, in a symbolic display of solidarity with the fellow rebel group.
“The government is engaged only in superficial and apparent activities of peace building with emphasis only on business matters, and without any political essence,” said Saw Tamla Baw. “There is no dispute that the peace aspired to by the Karen people and the one the government in power wants to give are as different as heaven and earth.”
Both the DKBA and KNU have signed tentative ceasefire agreements with the government in the past year, but relations remain volatile as clashes between rebel and government forces continue. The exploitation of the state’s vast natural resources and the controversial 2008 constitution are key sticking points.
The KNU also issued a call for ethnic unity to mark the death of their first national leader Saw Ba U Gyi, as part of ongoing efforts to reconcile the two rebel factions.
“I would like to urge the entire Karen people to work together with the KNU, so that there can be no mistake in every phase of the political dialogue,” said President Saw Tamla Baw.
It follows a deal signed in March, where the two groups agreed to coordinate with each other before negotiating with the government.
The DKBA split from the Christian-led KNU over religious divisions in 1994 to join forces with the military regime, but a faction led by General Saw Ler Pwe took up arms against the government again in 2010 after refusing to transform into a Naypyidaw-controlled Border Guard Force. The DKBA has since sought to repair its relationship with the KNU, including changing its name from “Buddhist” to “benevolent” army to downplay religious differences.
“The next step of the process will be to cooperate with the KNU by building up trust and honesty,” said Saw Ler Pwe. “This conflict is not about religion, it is about equality.”
While refugees have been returning to the areas surrounding Kawthoolei, which were razed by Burmese troops in 2010, many Karen are skeptical that the ceasefire will last.
“I think they are playing a game with us,” said 41-year Nawah, who works on the Thai border. “They won’t give Karen people a true peace deal.”
The KNU is set to hold their next round of negotiations with the government at the end of this month, but it is unlikely to deliver substantial progress.
“We will not have political talks at this meeting. We will just talk about a code of conduct to regulate their troops,” Vice-Chairman David Tharkabaw told the Irrawaddy last week. “They should stop activities, especially rights abuses. If they violate the code of conduct, we will withdraw our ceasefire agreement.”
The DKBA is yet to set a date for their next round of talks with the government.