With the recent release of high profile political prisoners, and the agreement in principle of a ceasefire with the Karen National Union (KNU), there is no doubt that major developments are happening in Burma.
The question is how genuine are these steps, and how far is the military-backed government willing to go forward for peace?
International pressure does work. Burmese governments frequently raise the relaxation of sanctions as a reward for steps they are taking. When it became clear that the international community would not relax sanctions while conflict in ethnic areas was increasing, the government started talking about ceasefires.
As an ethnic Karen woman forced to flee my home at just 14 when the Burmese Army attacked our village, many people expect me to be very excited about a potential ceasefire agreement with the KNU. The agreement does give me some hope, but I am also feeling very cautious.
There are good reasons for this. The recent negotiations were the sixth time the KNU had met with the central governments in the past sixty-three years, sometimes they were democratic governments, sometimes dictatorships. Always though, the demands were the same. The KNU had to surrender, or as the government called it, return to the legal fold. Everything had to be on their terms, there was no compromise.
Having a ceasefire doesn’t solve the political problem that caused the conflict.
The KNU is accountable to the Karen people, leaders could not be bought off with promises of gifts and business ventures. They were willing to compromise for the sake of peace, but insisted that there also be dialogue for solving political problems that are the root cause of the conflict. So far, no government in Burma—civilian, military, or the current mixed civilian/military government—have been willing to seriously discuss these political problems. They just see ethnic groups as a conflict problem, so if there is a ceasefire the problem is solved. The danger is, that seems to be how many governments around the world also look at the problem.
If the ceasefire with the Karen is successful, it could be a positive step towards nationwide ceasefire and national reconciliation. But will the Burmese Army respect the ceasefire, when they have broken others in the past? Will they stop soldiers committing human rights abuses—raping, looting and killing, as they do in other places where there are ceasefires?
We must also not forget that while the government is in talks about ceasefires with the Karen, Chin, and the Shan, the Burmese Army is launching offensives against the Kachin and targeting civilians in those attacks, committing horrific human rights abuses.
A ceasefire without a political solution is like a pressing pause button, not a stop button. It doesn’t stop the human rights abuses committed by the Burmese Army, or grant rights and autonomy for the Karen and other ethnic nationalities in Burma.
The international community is in danger of making a big mistake in Burma. They talk about certain benchmarks needing to be met before sanctions are lifted—an end to conflict, for example. But just having a ceasefire doesn’t solve the political problem that caused the conflict. The problem remains. The same mistake is made with political prisoners. There is pressure to release all political prisoners, but even if this happens— it is possible around a thousand remain in jail—the unjust laws under which they were all jailed will still be in place.
Human rights abuses in Burma are a symptom of an undemocratic political system. That political system remains unchanged. The military and military-backed government haven’t given up any powers.
People such as myself who have been forced to flee from our homeland because of attacks by the Burmese Army won’t be able to return home safely until there is a political settlement. That political settlement is a real benchmark for judging if there is real change in my country.