RANGOON — Burmese civil society groups say public involvement remains too limited in the peace process to end decades of civil war between the military and ethnic armed groups.
At a forum of about 120 civil society leaders in Rangoon on Wednesday, prominent activist Ko Ko Gyi, of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society said civilians were the main victims in armed conflicts and therefore needed to be more included in negotiations.
“People generally do not know when ceasefire processes start or what both sides discussed and agreed, and they also do not have any rights to discuss or give suggestions. But if the ceasefire breaks, people know immediately and they need to run,” he said. Since 2011 alone, more than 100,000 people have been displaced by fighting in northern Burma.
“Although people are not participating in the peace process, they are involved in civil wars.”
Sai Oo, from the Tai (Shan) Youth Network, said ethnic people and the military both wanted to end the bloodshed. “Why does civil war continue, even though both sides want peace? I want to urge an end to the war from here on out,” he said.
After Burma achieved independence from the British in 1948, ethnic armed groups around the country waged wars against the central government for greater autonomy and basic rights. President Thein Sein’s administration has signed bilateral ceasefire agreements with all but two ethnic armed groups, but fighting continues in Kachin and Shan states in the country’s north.
Peace negotiations have brought together leaders of the government and ethnic armed groups, but civilians have lacked representation. Women, in particular, say their voices have been excluded from ongoing discussions.
Ko Ko Gyi said that if civil society leaders were given a platform to participate in peace talks, they would also need assurances that they would not face legal trouble. Some activists who have become involved in the peace process in the past, particularly by communicating with ethnic rebels, have been imprisoned for violating the Article 17-1 of the Unlawful Association Act.
“Everyone involved in the peace process would need a guarantee for their security,” Ko Ko Gyi said.
Jaw Gun, an ethnic Kachin activist from the Shalom Foundation, said government departments were discouraging or even prohibiting public involvement in the peace process.
“People need to be able to participate in all elements of the peace process,” he said.
May Sabe Phyu, a senior coordinator for the Gender Equality Network (GEN), added, “If the public can’t participate in peace process, we can’t say the process is for the people. We cannot accept the discussions and the agreements without public involvement.”