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Ceasefire and Political Dialogue, Highest Hurdles Ahead for Thein Sein’s Government

By Burma Partnership  •  January 23, 2012

Thein Sein’s government has been applauded for some recent reforms, including last week’s release of 299 political prisoners. However, one of the biggest hurdles remaining for the regime will be dealing with the ongoing armed conflict in Eastern Burma and the political concerns of the country’s ethnic nationalities.

President Thein Sein has issued two separate orders to halt offensives against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the most recent of the two coming the day before the regime’s delegation led by Aung Thaung was set to meet with the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO). According to Minister of Immigration and Population, Khin Yi, this most recent order covered the entire country. However, the Burma Army continued launching attacks against the KIA, including on the second day of the ceasefire talks between the regime and the KIO, resulting in a premature end of the negotiations. The Burma Army’s ongoing attacks continue to raise serious questions about Thein Sein’s decision-making power within the regime.

During its meeting with the regime’s delegation, the KIO asserted that laying down arms will not be enough and that the regime must also engage in political dialogue to address the underlying issues of ethnic equality and self-determination. The Karen National Union (KNU) similarly stated, “the underlying political conflict must be solved by political means, beginning with earnest dialogue.” While many have reported that the KNU signed a ceasefire on 12 January, the organization’s headquarters assert that they only signed a preliminary agreement to continue working towards a ceasefire. The regime’s delegation, led by Railways Minister Aung Min, did however agree in principle to the eleven points laid out by the KNU.

Both the KIO and the KNU have raised concerns about the transparency of the regime’s current efforts to obtain ceasefire agreements. Locally, there has been little public information about the peace processes, or about the officials involved. Interestingly, it has not been the same regime officials involved in negotiations with all ethnic groups. Railways Minister Aung Min has led the delegation for talks with the KNU, the Chin National Front, and the Shan State Army – South, while USDP leading member Aung Thaung led those with the KIO, the United Wa State Army and the Mongla. The involvement of many different players and the lack of clear mandates have caused a considerable amount of confusion and have further undermined these dialogue processes.

Ahead of his current trip to Burma, US Senator John McCain said, “We should all applaud what has happened in Burma, but there are many cases in history where we got a little bit too optimistic and found out that it isn’t quite what we hoped it would be.” This is precisely such a case. The US, the EU and the international community must be cautious not to get too optimistic, especially in regards to the upcoming by-elections. The regime has no reason to manipulate the April polls since even if the NLD wins all of the 48 open seats, the regime will still maintain its majority in Parliament. While many will likely congratulate the regime for allowing opposition members into the Parliament, it will have in effect succeeded in gagging their opponents. Therefore, the by-elections must not be seen as a meaningful benchmark for the lifting of sanctions or other rewards.

Ethnic nationality leaders, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and numerous recently released political prisoners are among those who have unequivocally stated that the most important issue now for Burma are sustained peace and political dialogue to address the root causes of the conflicts with all of the country’s ethnic nationalities.

The US, the EU and the international community must maintain pressure on the regime to undertake more transparent and meaningful ceasefire negotiations and political dialogue, backed up by actual ceasing of attacks and withdrawal of troops from ethnic areas. Because of Thein Sein’s eagerness to have sanctions lifted, they are the most powerful remaining incentive for his government to take the next crucial steps in Burma’s democratic transition. They must not be lifted until the regime has properly addressed the political concerns of Burma’s ethnic nationalities and stopped human rights abuses committed by Burma Army troops, thereby paving the way for peace and national reconciliation.

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