Myanmar’s Karen face further plights

Monday, April 6, 2009

THE announcement on Saturday of the March 30 mass surrender of 159 Karen soldiers and families led by Nay Soe Mya, a son of late Karen rebel leader general Bo Mya, has stirred a mixed reaction from stakeholders and international observers of the Karen rebels’ 60-year fight for independence.

The ethnic Karen’s ongoing fight for autonomy is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain as Myanmar’s military chips away at its remaining hold on the mountainous border region with Thailand, analysts say.

Nay Soe Mya, one of three surviving sons of Bo Mya – who died a legendary warrior in 2006 aged 81 – has joined Htain Maung, a former brigade leader, who was sacked from the Karen army in January 2007 after making an independent peace deal with the government, a Karen guerrilla on the Thai-Myanmar border said.

Htain Maung is believed to have been allocated land for settlement and permitted to carry on a logging trade.

“We consider them traitors who have become defeatist, and corrupt, too. They want money and they have been given (trade) concessions,” the rebel fighter said. Nay Soe Mya is related by marriage to Htain Maung, he added.

The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), as the ruling junta calls itself, is keen to suppress all potential problems ahead of elections designed to produce a “civilian government” controlled by the military early next year. The mass surrender follows an announcement by Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya that he had pledged to Myanmar government leaders that Thailand would help in negotiations for the Karen National Union (KNU) ethnic minority group organisation to join Myanmar’s national reconciliation programme.

During a two-day official visit to Myanmar, Kasit said he had discussed bilateral relations with Myanmar’s Prime Minister Gen Thein Sein and his counterpart Nyan Win.

Kasit said he had told Myanmar leaders that Thailand supported that country’s national reconciliation programme, while he was told that a general election would be held next year.

Only the KNU members have not yet participated in the national reconciliation programme and if persuasion with the ethnic minority group succeeds, the fighting between Myanmar and KNU militaries would be resolved, Kasit said.

The Karen National Union’s deputy chairman, David Takapaw, has welcomed Thailand’s offer to mediate talks between the KNU and the Burmese regime, but said they would have to be held outside Burma.

“We are always ready for peace talks,” he told The Irrawaddy. “But we will not attend any talks in Burma at this time. Talks must be held in another country.”

Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya said he would approach the KNU in the hope of getting talks started. It was in Thailand’s interest for peace to reign in Burma, he said.

Thai army officials recently asked Karen rebel leaders living in the Thai border town of Mae Sot to return to KNU-controlled areas of Karen State. The rebels belong to the KNU’s armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA).

Burmese researcher Aung Thu Nyein said the Thai government’s efforts to help bring about peace talks between the Burmese regime and the KNU would increase pressure on KNU leaders who live in Thailand.

“Thailand needs border stability for trade with the Burmese regime,” he said. “From an economic point of view, this might put more pressure on the KNU leaders to talk to the regime.”

The KNU has engaged in peace talks with the Burmese regime four times since the present regime took power in 1988.

The late chairman of the KNU, Gen Saw Bo Mya, held peace talks with regime leaders in Rangoon in 2005, two years before his death. Contacts have been at a standstill since then.

KNU Deputy Chairman Takapaw said whenever the KNU talked to the regime “they always insist that we give up our arms and return to the ‘legal fold’. But how we can agree to live under a regime that isn’t the official government?”

Takapaw said that if the KNU agreed to talks on Burmese territory the Burmese negotiators would have the upper hand. “Such a meeting wouldn’t be on equal terms,” he said.

The KNU has been in conflict with the Burmese army for nearly 60 years. As such, one commentator accorded it as either currently the world’s longest fight for automony or the most extended exercise in futility. The KNU turned to guerrilla tactics after regime forces overran its headquarters in 1995.

Burmese army offensives have been accompanied by the destruction of Karen villages, displacement of local poeple, the killing of civilians and other serious human rights abuses. More than 100,000 Karen are now in refuge camps on the Thai-Burmese border.

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