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Unity Must Prevail

By Burma Partnership  •  September 9, 2014

26 April 2012 By Zaw Zaw Hlaing DVBAfter its organizational conference held on a Thailand-Burma border area, disagreements between the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) and the Karen National Union (KNU) has led to the KNU suspending its’ membership of the UNFC, a setback for the peace process. While this strikes a blow into the government engineered narrative that the peace process is making substantial progress, it is particularly worrying for the ethnic communities that have been suffering from this conflict for decades.

Ostensibly, disagreements over organizational structure have caused this rift, although there are also disagreements within the KNU leadership itself over its position in the UNFC, leading to fears of a split within what has traditionally been the most prominent ethnic armed group. Previous Burma regimes have used divide and rule tactics to weaken armed resistance and to sabotage ethnic unity and it is imperative that this does not happen now. As ethnic leaders squabble over leadership structures, surely much to the delight of the leaders of the Burma Army, it is the most vulnerable populations who feel the pressures, while the government manages to convince elements of the international community that a peace settlement is just around the corner. It is crucial that whatever reason for the KNU’s withdrawal from the UNFC, they must put the ethnic communities at the forefront of their decision making.

This upheaval is of particular concern for the approximately 130,000 refugees who live in camps along the Thailand-Burmese border, the majority of whom are ethnically Karen. Refugee communities are already feeling the pressure to return given the recent political events in Thailand. Since the military government came into power in Thailand on 22 May, confusion has reigned over the futures of people in the camps. Contradictory statements regarding their return to Burma, as well as top-level meetings between the two militaries, the results of which lack transparency, is giving the impression that organized return is imminent. A verification headcount undertaken by the Thai Army, and tightened restrictions of movement for refugees is creating a tense scenario in the camps. Furthermore, reductions of rations, health and education services by key donors is adding more pressure and making conditions in the camps unbearable so that they feel that they will have no choice but to return to Burma soon.

Yet for these refugees, many of the conditions that forced them to flee Burma in the first place are still in existence. The Burma Army has increased its presence in Karen areas, taking advantage of the ceasefire by refortifying their bases and resupplying troop positions. Comprehensive landmine clearance has yet to commence, while unscrupulous private interests, often in conjunction with the Burma Army and its proxy forces, are grabbing land on an endemic scale, disempowering local people and negatively affecting their livelihood opportunities. It is evident therefore that it is not time to organize return of refugees, especially one organized by military actors. As Naw Dah Eh Kler, chairperson of the Karen Women’s Organization stated in a Bangkok Post article recently, “We plead with the Thai government to follow international standards for returning them, ensuring that the refugee’s rights are not violated.” A premature return certainly has the potential for their rights to indeed be violated.

Thus, with pressure on ethnic armed groups to sign a nationwide ceasefire accord and pressure on the refugee communities to return while the preconditions necessary to ensure the return will be safe and dignified not yet established, unity among ethnic armed groups is crucial. Furthermore, it is imperative that the voices of the communities that are affected by the conflict, particularly refugees and the voices of women that have thus far been largely excluded from the peace process, are included in talks. The Burma government must not further enflame tensions between ethnic groups as it did so skillfully in the past. The international community must also support not just the Burma government’s peace agenda, as it does through the Myanmar Peace Center, but also ethnic efforts, particularly those from civil society. The peace process is going to be a long haul, knowing that armed conflict between the central Burman dominated government and ethnic armed groups has existed for over 60 years. Therefore it is vital that the Burma government prioritizes self-determination, ethnic equality, and the protection of the human rights of ethnic minorities in its peace agenda.

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