Karen and other Ethnic Leaders Set to Sign a Comprehensive Ceasefire
In 1949 one of the world’s longest running wars began when fighting broke out between the Burmese military regime and the people of the Karen State. Over the decades which have followed there has been phenomenal suffering inflicted on the Karen – 110,000 of whom live in refugee camps along the Burma-Thai border. This week Karen leaders and leaders from other ethnic minorities are set to sign a historic comprehensive peace agreement – although many say they are “hoping for the best but preparing for the worst; preparing for peace but remaining ready for war.”
In 1998 I first visited the Karen State, travelling illegally with members of the Karen National Union (KNU). Among those I met was the highly decorated, and now deceased General Bo Mya. He was a holder of the Burma Star. In a subsequent debate in Parliament I quoted Lady Mountbatten of Burma, who told me that in her father’s view the Karen “were our loyalist allies and had become our forgotten allies.”
I particularly remembered my meeting with General Bo Mya today when I called on his widow, Naw La Poe, and met some of his children and grandchildren. If they have a future based on peace and justice it will be because of the bravery and endurance of men and women like their grandparents.
Travelling today into the Karen State to visit Pk Law Gaw, a Karen village school, supported by the English charity, Epiphany Trust, I was struck by the huge challenges still facing the Karen people – but also by the hopefulness among the children who want to become teachers, doctors, nurses, engineers, farmers and a host of other things and whose expectations may now be realised.
As I looked at the Karen refugee camp of Un Pieum, which is home to around 16,000 people – and at the village which is home to the children at Pk Law Gaw – it was clear to me that there is a unique moment available for change. Yet, Yangon would be making a fatal error if it assumed that the Karen have forgotten the price which they have paid.
In the village school there is a picture of General Bo Mya, alongside a picture of the first president of the KNU, Saw Ba U Gyi – who was murdered in an ambush in 1950. Having studied in Rangoon he went to England to study law and was called to the English Bar in 1927.
His four principles sit alongside his picture: 1, Surrender is out of the question; 2, the Karen land must be recognised by the whole world; 3, we will retain our arms; and 4, we shall decide our own political destiny. In 2015 it is possible for those objectives to be achieved inside a devolved federal Burma – which many of us hope will one day be led by Aung San Su Kyi – but which can only be achieved if ethnic rights and human rights are honoured.
During a meeting last night with Saw Aung Win Shwe, the head of the Foreign Affairs Central Committee of the Karen Central Union, he said that while significant progress had been made imaginative policies were needed if the peace process is to be durable. These might include the creation of a National Guard in the Karen (and other) States into which demobilised combatants could be assimilated. And when will we see the provision of a Karen University so that its students no longer have to give up education at 14 or 16 or, as in a few precious cases, use the internet from their refugee camps to undertake distance learning courses?
The Karen may need to enter a formal Reservation in the peace agreement insisting that the peace is conditional on making progress on such matters and protecting their right to resume hostilities if Yangon fails to honour its promises. Whilst handing over their weapons may be out of the question, putting them beyond use, guaranteed by a third party, as in the case of Northern Ireland, may not be. But Yangon must act with sincerity if it wishes to create the elusive national harmony which is says that it craves. To achieve this, and the fair implementation of the peace agreement, will there be an international commission to oversee the process and to report on violations?
There are also many other issues to resolve – including the restitution of land, resettlement of refugees, the clearance of anti-personnel landmines and other ordnance, and development priorities to be resolved. The devil will be in the detail.
In meetings with NGOs such as the Karen Human Rights Group and Partners it became clear to me that there is apprehension that the process will be driven by the old formula of “divide and rule” or by vested interest but one of their number also said “everyone is listening with hope.” The Burmese military should take note.
David Alton is honorary President of the charity Karen Aid (http://www.karenaid.org.uk/ ) and a Patron of the Epiphany Trust, which supports Karen village schools ( http://www.epiphany.org.uk/projects/burma/ ).
Question in Parliament: 15 Sep 2015 : Column 1742
Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, during a visit last week to the Karen refugee camps and the Karen State, I was reminded by many Karen people of the statement by Lord Mountbatten of Burma that the Karen were our bravest and most loyal allies during the Second World War. Some 110,000 of them are in the refugee camps to this day, from a war that began in 1949. Will the Minister tell us whether we are now close to signing a permanent ceasefire and whether Her Majesty’s Government are able to help with the permanent decommissioning of weapons throughout the Karen State, the restitution of land and the resolution of the other remaining outstanding issues? Will she call for those in the camps to be given the chance to vote in the forthcoming elections?
Foreign Office Minister of State: Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, we have made it clear that the franchise should be an inclusive process. However, to try to answer one other question key to the points made by the noble Lord, in welcoming the continuing peace process we are under no illusion how difficult it is. We have committed £3 million in flexible funding to support that peace process. That is to address intercommunal violence through the Peace Support Fund. It is only through such practical work that we can lead by example.
Baroness Anelay of St Johns, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, has provided the following answer to your written parliamentary question (HL2310):
Lord Alton of Liverpool To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the answer by Baroness Anelay of St Johns on 15 September (HL Deb, col 1741), what assistance they have given to the Karen and other ethnic minorities in Burma in overcoming obstacles to a comprehensive national ceasefire, particularly in regard to (1) the placing of weapons beyond use, (2) the restitution of land, and (3) the extension of the franchise to Burmese refugees living in refugee camps on the border between Burma and Thailand. (HL2310)
Tabled on: 17 September 2015
Baroness Anelay of St Johns:
We welcome the continuing talks between the Burmese government and ethnic armed groups to agree a National Ceasefire Agreement. Throughout the negotiations the UK has funded specialists to provide expert advice in support of the peacemaking dialogue in Burma to both sides of the conflict. This includes support to the National Ceasefire Coordination Team, the ethnic groups’ negotiation team of which Karen groups are a part. We are also a member of the Peace Donor Support Group which is directly supporting work to move from ceasefire agreements to political dialogue with all of Burma’s ethnic groups.
The signing of a ceasefire would only be the start of a wider peace process. The next stage, as envisaged by the draft National Ceasefire Agreement, is a National Political Dialogue. It is at this stage that issues such as decommissioning of weapons, land restitution and resettlement of internally displaced people will be discussed. To date we have not been asked to assist with any of these issues, and we would only do so with the consent of both sides. However, as I highlighted in the debate to which the noble Lord refers, the UK has earmarked £3million in flexible funding to support such activities in support of the continuing peace process through the multi-donor Peace Support Fund, with the potential to increase this to £5million.
We have raised with the Burmese authorities the issue of extending voting to internally displaced people. Most recently our Ambassador lobbied the head of the Union Election Commission on the inclusion of internally displaced people in Burma on the voter lists.
Date and time of answer: 24 Sep 2015 at 16:44.