PAPUN DISTRICT, Karen State — Land disputes and a history of false promises mean that ethnic Karen leaders and human rights groups are questioning the government’s sincerity when it talks of a “permanent peace” with the rebels.
Sitting in the shade of a bamboo hut at a Karen National Union (KNU) base on the bank of the Salween River, Lt-Col Maw Wah said the current position of the Burmese government differs only cosmetically in many ways from previous calls for the rebels to “surrender.”
Under the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League, he said, the government called for surrender, as they did under the Burma Socialist Programme Party. Little changed when, under the State Law and Order Restoration Council, the KNU was ordered to hand over its arms. The State Peace and Development Council changed the language slightly, calling for the Karen to “exchange its arms for peace.”
Now the government speaks of a “permanent peace” with the ethnic Karen rebels. There is no talk of surrender, but Maw Wah thinks the government’s goal is the same.
“This time, they don’t fight us using military means. They want a ceasefire, to open liaison offices, plan for development projects and businesses. But it is their attempt to defeat us in a soft way,” Maw Wah said.
The KNU, which has been fighting the central government for almost 65 years, signed a peace accord with the government on Jan. 12, 2012. But the facts on the ground have not significantly improved since the agreement was signed, according to Maw Wah, who said the state has failed to meet its pledges, such as the removal of government troops from KNU areas.
Instead troops have been busy rebuilding army bases and re-supplying its forces in Karen State, Maw Wah said.
Some observers believe the government is trying to seduce rebel leaders with the perks of investment projects in Karen State in the hope they will disarm.
Aung Min, the top negotiator in the peace process between the rebels and the government, has said in the past that if the government can enrich ethnic leaders they will lose interest in the fighting.
But the issue of investment in Karen State is one of the motivating factors behind a continued struggle.
Land confiscations and evictions are likely to increase as investment in Karen State grows.
Civilians in Karen State report a lack of consultation prior to commercial projects being undertaken in their villages, according to a report released last week by the Karen Human Rights Group. Many claim their land has been expropriated to make way for construction projects, mines, farms and dams.
A report released on Friday by the Farmland Investigation Commission also reported on Friday that it had received 565 complaints between late July 2012 and January across the country alleging the military had forcibly confiscated almost 100,000 hectares of land in that period.
The KNU leadership has been accused of siding with the government in development and business issues and of a lack of transparency in its affairs.
Poe Tha Mya, a military medic who served with the KNU’s military wing, the Karen National Liberation Army, said: “I think they [the KNU leaders] will try their best. But the plan of our enemy [the government] is very clever and systematic.
“If you are not carefully aware of it, you will be in their pocket.”
He added that the government seemed to be attempting to buy time to encourage the ethnic armed groups to cooperate with their investment plan for the region.
“They [the government] has already said that there can be only one armed force in a nation,” said Poe Tha Mya, adding that he agreed with the principle, but only if the government is democratic and fair.
Saw Daw Lay Mu, a leading KNU central committee member, said that there are a lot of pending issues—including a “code of conduct”—that need to be discussed by the KNU and the government peace delegation.
“The situation is uncertain. We are now only under the agreement of the ceasefire. They [government peace delegates] have to submit the code of conduct to the higher officials and we will keep discussing it again after they approve it. So far, things are uncertain as we haven’t discussed about it in detail,” Daw Lay Mu said.