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7 – 13 May: New Peace Committee Offers Little Hope to Ethnic People

May 14, 2012

Last week, the Thein Sein government formed its new union-level peace committee comprised of a central committee and a working committee. Although the formation of the committee looks very encouraging to investors and gives another reason for Western countries to further lift sanctions, it gives little hope to the people of Kachin State who have lost both their homes and their faith in the President after he unsuccessfully and repeatedly ordered the Burma Army to halt offensives in Kachin State.

As with most of the reforms announced, much secrecy surrounds the new peace committee. There is little transparency regarding the process of its establishment and mandate. Apart from names of the central committee members, disclosed by an unofficial source, there is no other official information available about the central and working committees. The central committee headed by President Thein Sein and the 52-member working committee includes the Vice-Presidents, heads of States and Divisions, Members of Parliament, Ministers and the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces.

Formation of this new committee raises many questions about how and when it is going to resolve or at least cool down the heat of gunfire in Kachin State. A simple glance at a few of the key players in the committee will tell us enough: Thura Shwe Mann was rewarded honorific title “Thura” in 1989 for his involvement in offensives against the very same ethnic armed groups with whom he is now going to talk “peace”. Commander-in-Chief Deputy Senior General Min Aung Hlaing as the head of the Burma Army was the one who for months refused to execute President Thein Sein’s order to put an end to attacks in Kachin State. No matter how loudly the former generals claim they have changed, ethnic leaders, who have for many decades experienced the insincerity of successive military regimes, will not trust them easily and risk losing everything they have worked to protect such as their ethnic communities, identity, culture, land, religion, natural resources and more. President Thein Sein’s solution to the conflict is “more economic zones, more factories, more roads” but less of the things that ethnic people value such as equality, human rights and cultural values.

In a statement released last Thursday, the United Nationalities Federal Council, the 13-member ethnic political alliance whose members include Kachin Independence Organization as well as Karen National Union and Chin National Front who currently are in negotiations with Thein Sein’s government, stated, “The objective of Bamah Tatmadaw’s offensives in Northern Shan State and Kachin State with excessive military force is to protect foreign investments’ mega business projects.” The alliance group has also responded to Thein Sein’s invitation for them to set up political parties and contest in elections by qualifying it as unfair negotiation.

Another illustration of the government’s economic interest was raised by the Karen National Union, which questioned the presence of business groups during the ceasefire negotiations.

Currently, there are as many as 70,000 displaced people who are living in temporary camps in desperate need of new shelter for the coming rainy season. Besides, whether this peace committee is able or willing to address the political issues at the root of ethnic armed conflicts remains highly uncertain. Both the Burma Army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) have suffered high casualties and tension is at its highest point. The last ceasefire negotiation attempts with the KIA couldn’t produce any agreement and there is little sign of talks taking place in near future.

To further illustrate, recently Zahkung Ting Ying, longtime leader of the New Democratic Army-Kachin, which was absorbed into Border Guard Force, has predicted that government forces will completely “wipeout” the KIA. The non-stop offensives in Kachin State reaffirm ethnic leaders’ doubts.

The situation in Kachin State sadly hasn’t been able to convince the West to not reward the regime by lifting sanctions so quickly. Everyone seems eager not to be too late for their share of development deals with Burma’s lucrative resource reserves. With a lack of the rule of law, infrastructure and effective policies to protect the people, domestic businesses and the environment, Burma risks its economy falling into the hands of rich companies and corporations who know best how to make cash out of chaos. In this scenario, the whole of Burma stands to lose, not just the ethnic regions.

Thein Sein’s government will have to do a lot more to prove it shares the concerns and values of the ethnic people and that it is committed to solving the country’s longstanding political issues. Fighting in Kachin State and Northern Shan State has to stop immediately, government aid programs must be initiated and NGOs must be allowed access to conflict zones immediately. The international community must speak out more on the Burma Army’s ongoing attacks against ethnic communities and the essential need to fulfill the political aspirations of ethnic nationalities for equality when they hold talks with Thein Sein’s government in order to prove their support for national reconciliation and the protection of human rights in Burma.

News Highlights

Union Election Commission’s investigation team says NLD complaint over the use of wax ballot paper in April 1 by-elections is groundless and that legal action against the complainant should be taken and gives approval for the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy to register as a new party

Inside Burma

NLD to hold its first national conference in the last week of December; Daw Aung San Suu Kyi pledges to help remove ban on formation of Student Union and is issued a passport for the first time in 24 years

Burma Army Northern Regional Military Command, Brig-Gen Zeyar Aung, tells people in Pangwa, Kachin State, not to worry about the Kachin Independence Army because his troops will wipe them out; heavy fighting continues and intensifies this month and 70,000 Kachin refugees are in desperate need for better shelter as the monsoon starts

Chin National Front reaches a new agreement with the government defining the terms of the 9 point preliminary ceasefire agreement signed in January

The Karen National Union set to open a new liaison branch office at Three Pagoda Pass and questions the role of business groups involved as advisors in the peace talks

According to senior military chiefs, Burma Army personnel suspected of using forced labour will be prosecuted under civilian law

The Democratic Karen Buddhist Army led by General Saw Lah Bwe closes down Thai-Burma border checkpoints in eastern Karen State as tensions increase between the group and the Thai authorities

Phyo Wai Aung, an engineer who was arrested for his alleged involvement in bombings in April 2010, is sentenced to death by a special closed court after denial of his right to defense and fair trial

Burma’s censorship board warns news journals that they face disciplinary action if they publish reports of the recent resignation of Vice-president Tin Aung Myint Oo

Zay Kabar, a company accused of illegally confiscating more than 800 acres of land in Shwenanthar, Mingaladon Township, continues clearing the land despite being told to stop by local authorities

Farmers in Pyin Oo Lwin township, Mandalay Division whose land was confiscated a year ago by the Bureau of Air Defence and High-Tech Concrete Co. Ltd prepare to file lawsuit for 44 million kyat compensation

Thailand’s largest construction company, Italian-Thai Development Co. Ltd, asks the Karen National Union to survey local people near the Tavoy industrial zone to determine appropriate rates of compensation for a road project

Regional

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak makes a landmark visit to Burma for summit talks with President Thein Sein

International

Switzerland lifts all sanctions on Burma expect arms embargo

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard visits Burma to discuss international efforts to promote development

Burma MPs delegation, led by Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann, visit the EU Parliament in Brussels  

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This post is in: Weekly Highlights