Burma: ethnic issues must not be sidelined
By Saket Kumar
Hkanhpa Sadan, Joint General Secretary of the Kachin National Organisation (KNO), writes from a unique perspective on what recent events in Burma really mean for the Burmese people.
On Friday 13th April, David Cameron became the first British Prime Minister to visit Burma since independence in 1948. He said the UK would argue in favour of suspending – not lifting – all EU sanctions on Burma, except the arms embargo. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi also backed this position. Since the UK has been the only EU member arguing to keep sanctions in place, sanctions are likely to be suspended, probably after the meeting of the EU Foreign Affairs Council on 23rd April 2012.
The day before the PM prepared for his historic visit to Burma, he praised President Thein Sein for his “courage” in introducing political reforms. He stated: “If Burma moves towards democracy then we should respond in kind, and we should not be slow in doing that. But, first I want to go and see for myself on the ground how things are going.”
I am sure that David Cameron saw signs of progress, especially “on the ground” in Yangon and central Burma, which is the main majority Burman populated area of the country. I am from Kachin State, in the north of the country, but for me, my relatives and my friends, change “on the ground” has not yet come. In fact, in recent months the situation has deteriorated dramatically. On 9th June 2011, the Burma Army dissolved the ceasefire agreement and attacked the Kachin Independence Army. Since then, the conflict in the Kachin region has escalated. There have been widespread attacks on ethnic civilians and the displacement of over 70,000 people along the China Burma border. At the same time as so-called reform and real changes are taking place in central Burma, the Burma Army has relentlessly launched attacks against civilians and captured young men to serve as forced porters. Arbitrary shootings, torture, summary executions and targeted sexual assaults against women are prevalent atrocities perpetrated by Burma Army battalions upon arrival in Kachin villages.
The Burmese regime is ready for business with the world. However, to be open for business it needs to have complete control over ethnic regions, which are economically and strategically vital for the military. Many of us in the Kachin region believe they are ‘making peace’ with Aung San Suu Kyi simply to conciliate international critics in order to have economic sanctions removed. We have not yet had any sign that they are motivated by a genuine desire to bring peace, security and economic progress to all of us, equally Recently, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) released a three stage roadmap towards national reconciliation, which should be worthy of careful consideration by all parties. The KIO also sent delegates to meet with representatives from President Thein Sein’s government to discuss the possibilities of political dialogue. The Burmese delegates were said to be surprised that a ‘ceasefire agreement’ request was not on the table. Seventeen years of ceasefire has taught us to be sceptical about their intentions and how such a ceasefire can play into their hands. Ceasefires result in an absence of fighting, but in the Kachin experience this means simply that ethnic areas are further exploited rather than developed if they are not accompanied by proper political dialogue. The KIO believe there will be an automatic ceasefire only once a meaningful, inclusive nationwide dialogue between the regime, the ethnic nationalities and the democracy movement takes place. What we want is a true and lasting peace in which we are equal partners. So far, Thein Sein’s government has proven by its actions that it is not very interested in this.
Everybody wants real progress in Burma and for the international community to recognise and encourage that when it takes place. But it is essential to keep ethnic issues on the agenda. The EU must set up clear term and conditions for the suspension of sanctions, if it goes ahead. In Kachin State we know how ‘suspensions’ can be abused. On 30th September 2011, President Thein Sein’s government ordered the suspension of the controversial £2.3bn Irrawaddy Myitsone Dam project. However, local people say that Chinese companies and workers are still carrying on building the dam, and over 10,000 forcibly relocated local Kachin people are still not allowed to go back to their homes. The EU must insist on key issues such as genuine efforts to listen to ethnic concerns and full and equal participation in political discussions, reinstating the rule of law and drawing up a new constitution that will guarantee the formation of a Federal Democratic Union of Burma. The present changes in Burma are still reversible. The EU must retain its moral authority if it wants to help the ordinary people of Burma, including its non-Burman peoples.