After a six-decade war between the government of Myanmar (Burma) and one of the country's ethnic minority militias, a historic peace is in reach after ceasefire talks today.
The deal would mark the end of one of the world's longest wars – the Myanmar Army and the Karen ethnic minority’s army have fought since 1949 – and is being taken as another signal that the Myanmar government may be sincere about reforming its old authoritarian ways. But members of the Karen ethnic minority aren't celebrating just yet.
General-Secretary of the Karen National Union (KNU) Army, Zipporah Sein, says that “we are happy to hear that the government wants to make an agreement,” but says that the deal being discussed in the Burmese town Pa'an has yet to be finalized.
Earlier today, government representative Aung Min told journalists that “a cease-fire agreement has been signed,” and photographs emerged in wire reports of beaming delegates on both sides shaking hands across a table, the Burmese in green uniform and the Karen in traditional dress.
But General-Secretary Zipporah Sein says that the KNU wants Myanmar's Army to halt fighting in other ethnic areas of Myanmar – not just in areas where the KNU is active – before the deal is final. “The government delegation agreed in principle to this," she stresses.
She has reason to be cautious. Hundreds of thousands of Karen and other Burmese have fled into Thailand in recent decades, where there are currently around 140,000 refugees, mostly Karen, in nine bamboo-hut camps dotting the Thailand-Myanmar border.
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Several militias representing other ethnic minorities have signed ceasefires with the government, but since June 9, the national Army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), a 10,000-strong militia in Myanmar's northern Kachin state, have fought some heavy battles, with an estimated 50,000 civilians fleeing their homes.
A December order by President Thein Sein for the Myanmar Army to unilaterally cease fire in Kachin state has went unheeded, it appears, with fighting continuing almost daily in an area close to southwest China.
The ethnic minorities
In order for peace to be lasting, former refugee Zoya Phan, whose father was a former head of the KNU and assassinated in Thailand in 2008, says that a deal “should guarantee rights and autonomy for the Karen and bring peace for all the people in Burma.”
Myanmar's last census was in 1983 and of its estimated 50- to 60-million population, it lists 135 ethnic groups. The ethnic Burmans form the largest group, at perhaps 65 percent of the total, with other significant groups including the Shan, Karen, Rakhine, and Kachin, all with strongholds along Myanmar borderlands with Thailand, China, and India.
In the past, Myanmar’s military has said that local autonomy for Myanmar’s minorities would result in the break-up of the country and used that as justification for its iron-fisted rule of the country and scorched earth tactics in the hills and jungles where ethnic minorities have their strongholds. The US regards some of the ethnic militias as mired in the drug trade – particularly heroin and methamphetamines – peddled from the Golden Triangle area of Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos.
Myanmar’s military elites have long viewed the Karen – who number an estimated 7 million-strong and are comprised of Buddhists, Christians, animists, and Muslims – as collaborators with British colonialists in Burma, and later as separatists bent on carving-off an independent Karen state.
However Myanmar’s new nominally-civilian government has undertaken a number of reforms, such as freeing political prisoners and suspending controversial dams and power plants in ethnic minority regions, where in the past the Army forcibly-cleared populations to make way for pipelines.
“A real peace would be welcome, of course," says a Karen medical worker who regularly crosses the Thailand-Myanmar border, and is worried that she could be detained for speaking openly on this. "But Karen people are already confused. Will the army stick to the deal, will they stop abuses in villages?”