Thursday, December 1, 2011

ICG Ethnic Conflicts Report: Thein Sein’s ‘Bold Peace Initiative’ Gives Hope


Shan State Army-South chief Lt-Gen Yawdserk, center-left, shakes hands with Burmese Minister for Railways Aung Min (Photo:
The Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) released a report on Thursday called “Myanmar: A New Peace Initiative,” which describes Burma’s devastating 60-year-long civil war with the country’s ethnic armed groups as the biggest challenge facing the new government and says that President Thein Sein has moved decisively to build momentum behind a new peace initiative.

“A lasting solution to the problem requires going beyond just stopping the wars,” said Jim Della-Giacoma, the ICG’s South East Asia project director. “Multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-religious Myanmar [Burma] can only achieve genuine national unity and reconciliation by embracing its diversity.”

The ICG report said, “President Thein Sein has recognized the importance of the ethnic situation and pledged to make it a national priority. Myanmar now has an opportunity to comprehensively resolve these conflicts. The President has opened a dialogue with all armed groups and dropped key preconditions, such as the scheme to convert their armies into border guards. He has also offered an unprecedented national conference to seek political solutions to ethnic divisions.”

La Nan, the spokesperson for the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), whose armed wing, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), is currently involved in fighting with government troops, said that a temporary ceasefire does not make sense and the important thing is for the government to begin a political dialogue with the different ethnic groups.

“We believe that the civil war is happening because of political reasons and therefore the government needs to solve it by political means,” La Nan told The Irrawaddy on Thursday.

“If there is an understanding after a political dialogue between the government and the ethnic groups, they [the government] won’t need to impose a ceasefire as a special issue. The guns will automatically be silent,” he said.

The KIO signed a cease fire agreement with the previous Burmese regime in 1994 and the current clashes erupted in June, breaking the ceasefire.

The government has recently engaged in peace talks with some ethnic armed groups such as the KIA, the Shan State Army (SSA) and the Karen National Union (KNU), but has simultaneously undertaken offensive military action against each of these ethnic armed groups.

The ICG report says that Thein Sein’s outreach to ethnic armed groups “has convinced some of the major ethnic groups to sign peace agreements and others to agree to verbal ceasefires, with written agreements to be signed in the coming weeks.”

The United Wa State Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, who have worked together in the past and who had not been involved in any recent clashes with Burmese government troops, signed a new temporary ceasefire agreement in order to relax government trade blockades on their territories.

In addition, Brigade 5 of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), which had broken off from the DKBA, an ethnic militia which has long been a government proxy and is the only significant ethnic armed group to join the border guard force, also signed a ceasefire agreement with the government.

However, other than the DKBA, none of the other ethnic armed groups that have been involved in serious clashes with government troops—such as the KIA, SSA and Karen National Union—have signed a new ceasefire agreement, and according to sources inside the groups there is no indication that new agreements are imminent.

For example, an SSA officer said that their meeting with the government’s delegation in November was informal and no agreement was reached and they don’t expect any formal ceasefire in the near future.

In addition, the ICG report said that Thein Sein has offered “an unprecedented national conference to seek political solutions to ethnic divisions.” However, according to sources among each of the ethnic armed groups currently in discussions with the government, Thein Sein’s representatives have insisted that the government negotiate separately with each group and has not made any effort to date to organize such a conference.

The ICG report also said that President Thein Sein has moved remarkably quickly to implement reforms by taking actions such as releasing a significant number of political prisoners, cutting back on media censorship, signing a new law allowing workers to form labor unions and creating the conditions for Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) to join the political process.

But Toe Kyaw Hlaing, a former political prisoner who is currently assisting current political prisoners in Burma, said that many prisoners of conscience remain behind bars and the number released by Thein Sein was very small.

“Releasing the political prisoners is a big step in the forming of a democratic country.
The NLD’s participating in the country’s current political field is also important for both the government and the citizens, but we have to monitor how much of a mandate they will gain,”

Maung Zarni, a Burmese research fellow on Burma at the London School of Economics and Political Science and the founder of the Free Burma Coalition, said that the ICG is known to promote the Burmese government agenda.

“For the Burma analysis on which ICG’s advocacy for Burma rests is grounded in faulty assumptions about the Burmese military’s ‘ruling class’ and its collective psyche, coupled with unfounded speculation about the prospects for even incremental change arising from recent political changes,” he wrote in an article posted at the Himal South Asian.
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