THE Burmese military regime is successfully negotiating separate peace settlements with a string of insurgent groups that have long opposed Rangoon's rule, thereby strengthening the armed forces' ability to dictate the path and pace of political development in this beleaguered country.
Left marginalized by this ``peace offensive'' is the pro-democracy movement that includes the student groups and the opposition party representatives who won elections held in 1990. After the government nullified those elections, these groups fled to the jungle along the Thai-Burmese border, settling in the headquarters of the ethnic Karen people, where they formed a broad front with the Karen and other ethnic rebel armies. This alliance is known as the Democratic Alliance of Burma (DAB).
Over the last few years, the military State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) has reached cease-fire agreements with several of the original ethnic rebel DAB members - many of whom have been fighting Rangoon for decades in an effort to win greater autonomy.
The most important accord came this past October, when the Kachin - with 6,000 fighters, the largest fighting force - reached an accord with SLORC.
That has left only the rebel armies of the Mon, the Karenni, and the Karen as the real muscle of the DAB.
Of these, the Karen are the most significant with about 4,000 troops. The Karen have been at war the longest - since March 1948, just two months after Burma gained independence from Britain - and are considered SLORC's most intractable adversaries.
SLORC insists on separate talks with each ethnic army and has formally rejected collective talks with the DAB, or with the Karen National Union (KNU) as a representative of the DAB.
But the Karen leadership, pressured by the Thais to talk with the SLORC, insists it will not abandon its allies. ``Even if the KNU is forced to negotiate separately, it will be for all the people [opposed to SLORC's rule],'' says Karen leader Gen. Bo Mya.
The DAB is currently convened in Manerplaw so that the KNU can explain their negotiating position to the rest of the Alliance.
At the same time, Karen representatives are having preliminary discussions with the SLORC, but the two sides are talking at cross-purposes. ``We are going to settle the nationalities issue first...,'' says Col. Thein Swe, the Burmese military attache in Bangkok. ``After that the democratic process will follow.''
But, counters Em Marta, a spokesman for the KNU, ``There will be no peace in Burma without solving the democracy problem at the same time as the issue of the ethnic nationalities.''
``The problem [with the cease-fires] in the long run ... is that they are not solving any political issues,'' says Bertil Lintner, a Burma expert.
Under the terms of other cease-fire agreements, the ethnic armies have not been required to turn in their weapons as this would have been considered a ``deal breaker.'' But, with the absence of SLORC as the unifying enemy, the agreements have led to the rapid disintegration of the rebel movements.
The SLORC hopes to draw the weakened ethnic rebels into their carefully controlled political process - the National Convention is set to reopen in Rangoon Jan. 17 - that is drafting guidelines for a new constitution. Many Karen feel that they are in a corner, with dangers awaiting them if they either refrain or talk with the SLORC. ``If we don't support ... Rangoon, we understand that they will start an [military] offensive,'' General Mya explains. Local military analysts say there is concern about how well the Karen could withstand another major offensive from the recently strengthened Burmese Army.
Additional pressure is widely believed to come from Thailand, which has a policy of ``constructive engagement'' with Burma.
Many see Bangkok drawing closer to Rangoon because of the vast reservoir of natural resources Burma still has, but that Thailand overexploited.
Thailand is also the essential lifeline for the Karen.
``Since the beginning of 1993, we have come under increasing pressure from some Thai sources,'' reads a Dec. 3 letter, signed by Karen leader Mya and his Karenni and Mon counterparts, sent to the Thai palace.
Thai officials say they are doing what they can to facilitate peace in Burma but vehemently deny they are pressuring the Karen.
``They [Karen] will try to avoid it [a settlement] as long as they can - they have seen what has happened to all the other groups,'' predicts Mr. Lintner.
``Thailand is the key,'' says Dr. Marta. ``If they see us as being too stubborn and blocking an agreement, then I would say we are in real danger.''