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13 Mar, 2012

Burma’s Karen People Caution Investors: Wait Until Peace Deals Cemented

Imtiaz Muqbil

Bangkok – Representatives of Myanmar’s Karen ethnic group, whose state is located right on the strategic transportation border contact point with Thailand, are cautioning investors and developers not to rush in until a proper political dialogue takes hold and yields a long-lasting peace agreement. Stressing that the current ceasefire agreed in the Karen regions only amounted to “pressing the pause button, not the stop button,” the Karen representatives told a press conference in Bangkok on March 5, “Conflict can happen at any time. These changes are only tackling the symptoms of the problems and not the root cause.”

The opening up of resource-rich Burma is already seeing a new “gold rush” as investors flock in to buy land and forge partnerships with local groups for mega-projects, special economic zones and infrastructure, and get concessions for exploitation of mineral and forestry resources. All of this will place tremendous pressure on land ownership, and raise the risk of Burma’s dictators forging new partnerships with foreign developers, all in the name of poverty-alleviation and economic progress.

Making up about 7% of Burma’s total population of 56 million, the Karen dominate one of the country’s most strategically located states. Right next door, the Thai border town of Mae Sot is the entry point for a critical section of the Asian Highway that will run through Burma to the city of Moreh, on the Indian side of the border to the North.

Between 27 February to 1 March, the Karen National Unity Committee organised a conference in Kawtholei, Karen State. It was attended by 167 Karen participants, including community and religious leaders, as well as representatives from women, youth and other Karen ethnic organizations from inside Burma and around the world.

On March 5, a group of Karen representatives called a media conference at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand to announce the results. They said that while the opening up of Burma is holding out the promise of both increased democracy and economic progress, they cautioned that only the first steps have been taken, and there is a long way to go. Their message, directed at international business groups as well as the European Union and United States, was designed to ensure that the Burmese military rulers remain true to their word in staying the course towards change.

Signalling a lingering suspicion about whether the Burmese military leopard was indeed changing its spots, Mr. Saw Kenneth Moe, Vice-Chairperson of the Karen National Fellowship-Korea said, “What does the Burmese government want from the ceasefire? Basically, they want a ceasefire and then economic development. They want to legalise military rule in civilian guise and lift economic sanctions get the political pressure removed and gain international legitimacy. But the real question is how genuine the government will be with ceasefire talks.

“For the Karen, we want a genuine and lasting ceasefire that leads to a political dialogue that can solve problems at home and create a long lasting peace. We have not yet reached this stage yet. We want the international community to continue their support to see this happen. If genuine support is continued we can have genuine peace.”

Mr. Moe and his colleague Ms Zoya Phan said international businesses and investors are already moving into some of the Karen areas. While welcoming economic development, they said investors would be better off waiting until there is genuine and real peace.

“We would like to see economic development benefitting the local people in our area. (But) local companies don’t want to suffer because of business cronies or government business people.” They said that in order to ensure planned and orderly development, an economic policy was being sorted out in cooperation with experts and civil society groups. Long-standing displacements and dislocations of local people had complicated land ownership, but efforts are being made to sort this out.

The Karen representatives said that hundreds of political prisoners remained in jail, while two repressive laws (described by their infamous numbers 17/1 and 17/2) which consider the KNU and other representative bodies of the indigenous groups as being illegal are still in place. This means that even if prisoners are released, they can be re-arrested under the same laws. They also chided the Burmese government for continuing its military operations in many areas, even though a ceasefire is supposed to be in effect.

In spite of painting a bleak picture of drugs & gambling syndicates, forced displacements of people to make way for dams, mega-projects and special economic zones, they held out hope for a better future and the continuation of the positive changes initiated by the military government.

“Today is very, very important for all people in Burma and the Karen people in particular. We have been suffering for so long after a series of dictatorships. We want peace and a democratic Burma which guarantees peace, but we have not yet reached this stage yet.”

“Humanitarian aid also been long provided and we appreciate this but as long as a dictatorship is in power in whatever form there will also be refugees, internally displaced and poor people in our homeland.” Expressing concern about the cutback in aid for the many refugees in camps along the border with Thailand, China, Bangladesh and India, they said it had already led to a deterioration in the camp conditions as well as reduced food rations and portions.

The Karens also had a message for the Thai government to craft a foreign policy based on human rights and democracy, not just economic development and business. “We want to raise awareness (in Thailand) about what is going on. Many of us live in Thailand as migrant workers or illegals. When we travel in Thailand, it is clear that not many people know why these refugees are here and why they can’t go home. And there are many challenges we face.”

They said they were training more and more young people to be aware of their rights and get involved in the change process. “If we have the opportunities, the skills and training and lessons can be shared,” they said.

They cited their fellow indigenous peoples, the Kachins, who have had a ceasefire with the Burmese government for 17 years, but no proper political solution. Whenever the Kachins wanted to reach a permanent solution, they were told to wait for a civilian government. “And now look at their situation. Some of the Kachin leaders have become richer but the local people have become poorer and lost their lands due to confiscation and other human rights violations including forced labour, rape and shooting.”

The Karens said they wanted both the economic sanctions and political pressure to be maintained by the U.S. and the EU until security can be guaranteed.

Asked how they planned to maintain unity and avoid being played off against each other, the Karens said that was one reason why the unity conference had been held in the first place – to keep the groups united, and support each other in attaining self determination and democracy. “In the past most of the Karens were united along religious lines – as Buddhists, Christians, but now we are only focussing on being Karen. We are united as Karen.”

As a final word, they said, “A ceasefire can be part of the solution. By itself, it cannot bring peace. Only political dialogue can bring peace. We want a genuine dialogue including with leaders of all ethnic nationalities.”

Karen People Worldwide Call for Genuine Peace and a Federal Union of Burma

Statement Released by the Karen Worldwide – 5 March 2012

Representatives from Karen organizations worldwide today call for genuine peace throughout Burma and for national reconciliation towards the establishment of a federal union. They also appealed to the international community, especially the European Union and the United States, to maintain pressure on the Burmese Government until there is tangible political change for the Karen and for all the people of Burma.

Today’s appeals were the result of a four-day conference organized by the Karen National Unity Committee from 27 February to 1 March in Kawtholei, Karen State. The conference was attended by 167 Karen participants, including community and religious leaders, as well as representatives from women, youth and other Karen ethnic organizations from inside Burma and around the world.

“We welcome the peace initiative of the Karen National Union (KNU),” said K’nyaw Paw, Executive Member of Karen Women’s Organization and Presidium Board Member of Women’s League of Burma.

“We are collectively calling on the Burmese Government to genuinely commit to a ceasefire with the KNU, stop military operation in Karen areas, start political negotiation, and guarantee ethnic rights for the Karen people and for all the people of Burma.”

Participants of the conference also expressed their support for the KNU in working with other ethnic and democratic alliances including United Nationalities Federal Council for the establishment of a federal democratic Burma.

“We acknowledge that there have been some political changes in the central parts of Burma,” said Zoya Phan, Chair of the European Karen Network and Advisor of the Karen Community Association UK.

“However, the situation in Karen areas has not improved and the rights and protection of the Karen have not been guaranteed. These are critical issues that must be addressed in order to achieve lasting peace in our communities, and for there to be significant political reforms in Burma.”

“As Karen overseas, we pledged to do all we can to support the ceasefire negotiations between the KNU and the Burmese Government,” said Saw Kenneth Moe, Vice-Chairperson of the Karen National Fellowship-Korea. “Karen people around the world have pledged to work in unity and we hope the international community will stand with us by pressuring the Burmese Government to work sincerely for peace and national reconciliation in our country. International governments could also play a concrete role as observers to make sure the process is transparent.”

The conference also stressed that development projects, many of which are already underway in Karen areas, must take into account the local people’s rights to participation in decision-making, right to land ownership and well being of future generations. The Burmese Government’s economic policies must be based on the long-term benefit of the people, especially local communities.

Statement From Karen Worldwide Conference

A Karen Worldwide Conference was held on 27 February to 1 March 2012 regarding the current political situation in Burma and the future of Karen people. A total of 167 participants comprised of Karen communities, religious leaders, and representatives from women, youth and other Karen ethnic organizations, from both inside Burma and overseas, attended the conference.

The following decisions were made by consensus in the conference:

1. We welcome the Karen National Union (KNU)’s four-step roadmap regarding the on-going peace talks with the Burmese Government.

2. We, Karen communities around the world, both inside Burma and overseas, will support the ceasefire and peace talks between the KNU and the Burmese Government as best as we can.

3. A nationwide ceasefire must be implemented. Ceasefire and peace processes must be conducted with transparency and involve third party international observers.

4. Refugees and Internally Displaced People (IDPs) should not be repatriated until genuine peace is achieved. At that point, repatriation must be completed under the observation of the international community.

5. The international community should maintain pressure against the Burmese Government until a genuine peace is achieved.

6. We call for the release of all political prisoners including Mahn Nyein Maung and other KNU and Karen communities members.

7. Development projects must take into account the local people’s rights to participation in decision-making, right to land ownership, and the well being of future generations. The economic policies must be based on the long-term benefit of the people, especially local communities.

8. We recognize the urgent need to fight against drug and gambling, and work together as a national cause.

9. In order to prevent ineffectiveness during the peace negotiation taken by the KNU, there should be good management in political, military, economic and organizing sectors.

10. We will work to promote unity and solidarity among Karen ethnic organizations. Karen people from different communities and organizations around the world will work together to protect and promote our Karen cause.

11. For the purpose of safeguarding the future of Karen nationality, and based on Karen national solidarity, we will hold an inclusive congress with participation of all the Karen people.

12. We will continue to work together and collaborate with other ethnic nationalities to achieve the political aspirations of the Karen people, such as nationality equality and the right to self-determination.

For more information about the conference, pls contact: Zoya Phan, Chair of the European Karen Network and Advisor of the Karen Community Association, UK: +66811002857 &  +447738630139 or Saw Aw Baw Mu, +66806215075