When the delegation of Elders, a group formed of former world leaders and Nobel Peace laureates, led by former US President Jimmy Carter visited Myanmar [Burma] for three days in September, Kachins had high expectations of making their voices heard, as the stated purpose of the visit was “to listen and give support to all those committed to a peaceful political transition in Myanmar”.
Kachin hopes fell flat however, after Khon Ja and May Sabe Phyu of the Kachin Peace Network met with President Carter and the other two Elders, former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari and former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland.
The perception the peace activists had was that the Elders were anything but attentive to what they had to say. Khon Ja said it was “a big challenge” trying to explain their concerns, as the Elders seemed predisposed to the narrative provided to them in their earlier meetings with government officials and the Myanmar Peace Center. President Carter was dismissive of their role as civil society representatives and kept urging them to persuade the KIO to participate in the upcoming nationwide ceasefire agreement, as if they were part of the KIO.
It would seem President Carter needs to be acquainted with the lessons learned from the 1994 peace accord signed by the KIO under pressure from the then military government and other stakeholders. The KIO leadership buckled under intense pressure from these quarters and other extenuating circumstances like the collapse of the Burma Communist Party, and the decision to agree to a ceasefire was made without seeking a Kachin consensus. There is reason to believe that the decision was not entirely unanimous even among the KIO leadership.
The Kachins have suffered mightily from the mistake of entering into a 17-year ceasefire without first insisting for guarantees for a specific time frame for political dialogue from the government, and a commitment to undertake certain crucial steps in the implementing and monitoring phases of the ceasefire.
The argument that ceasefires will lead to reconciliation and political reform does not hold water with the Kachins anymore. Past experience has taught them that applying leverage for guaranteed rights comes before, not after, a ceasefire agreement.
After the 1994 ceasefire, Kachins saw their state militarized with the Burma army dramatically increasing its presence from 24 battalions in 1994 to over 60 in 2011, the year the ceasefire broke down. The Burma army, its cronies, and Chinese enterprises have exploited Kachin natural resources to such a degree that there is now widespread environmental devastation throughout the Kachin area. Opportunities for livelihood and social advancement dwindled, and Kachins found themselves relegated to second-class citizen status in the land of their forefathers.
Kachin trust in the government is now at an all-time low. Questions about the need to sign a new ceasefire abound as clashes and heavy army deployment continue, even as peace negotiations take place between the KIO and the government. Other ethnic groups that have signed ceasefire agreements with State- and Union-level delegations also doubt the sincerity of the government due to the clashes with the Burma army that continue even after the signing of these agreements.
Instead of viewing Kachins recalcitrant for not falling in line with the government’s grandiose plan of a nationwide ceasefire signing ceremony, which chief peace negotiator U Aung Min says will be graced by his “dear friends” Bill and Hilary Clinton, Tony Blair and the likes, it is more important to try to understand why Kachins are wary of ceasefire agreements that fail to lead to genuine and lasting political transition.
Kachin leaders and civil society groups therefore, are pressing the KIO to hold off signing any agreement with the government without first setting these conditions:
- The withdrawal of Burma army troops and removal of extended frontline posts as a gesture of the government’s genuine desire for a ceasefire and national reconciliation.
- Guarantees of political dialogue within a specific timeframe.
- Agreement that not all outcomes of the political dialogue need to be ratified by parliament, that some can be legitimized through a referendum of the Kachin public.
- Specified codes of military conduct and arrangements for joint international and local monitoring of the ceasefire.
- Mediation role of civil society groups.
- Assistance for internally displaced people, or IDPs, to go beyond provision of basic humanitarian needs, and include rights education to ensure that IDPs are properly represented and consulted on all social and political issues that affect their lives.
Understandably, President Carter is eager to have the little matter of ethnic discontent swept away under the nationwide ceasefire mat, paving the way for the bigger picture of the Carter Center’s engagement in the 2015 elections and the national census taking process as international observers.
However the cautionary tale here is that peace cannot endure without political reform, that if ethnic concerns are not properly addressed—nationwide ceasefires or not—discontent will continue to boil, and the possibility of new disenfranchised groups taking up arms, renewing the cycle of violence and suffering all over again remains very strong.
Pangmu Shayi is a political analyst at the Kachinland News