Burma signs ceasefire with Karen rebels

The government of Burma signed a ceasefire agreement Jan. 12 with ethnic Karen rebels who have been fighting for regional autonomy since independence from Britain in 1948. Representatives from the two sides met in the Karen town of Hpa-an (Kayin state). Negotiations on a formal peace deal are to follow, although Karen National Union leaders were cautious—especially on their principal demand of a federative government for Burma. The KNU’s vice-chairman, David Thakabaw, noted that talks have broken down over this demand before, telling the Democratic Voice of Burma opposition news service: “Our past experience dealing with the government has always been tricky. They’re not very honest—they say good words but today is just like before.” But the KNU’s Brig-Gen. “Johnny” expressed some optimism: ”This time they didn’t ask us to give up our arms, they just want to work for equal rights for ethnic groups This time we trust them.”

The Karen refused to join a ceasefire process in the 1990s that saw many of Burma’s ethnic-based rebel armies agree to truces, often in exchange for business concessions from the government. These included the Kachin Independence Army in Burma’s north, but that deal broke down in June last year. Fighting has since engulfed large parts of northern Kachin state—and reportedly continues despite an order last month by President Thein Sein for an end to military operations. (See map.)

Karen leaders accuse the Burmese army of genocide in its attacks on civilian villages in the impoverished and inaccessible hill country along the Thai border. The Karen have been one of the strongest of the many ethnic groups fighting for self-rule in Burma, at one time boasting an army of 14,000 and controlling much territory along the border. But they steadily lost ground in the face of army offenses in recent years. Large numbers of Karen villagers have fled their homes, with some 100,000 still living in rudimentary camps on the Thai side of the border, in one of the world’s least reported refugee crises. (Sydney Morning Herald, Jan. 13; Democratic Voice of Burma, BBC News, NYT, Jan. 12)

See our last post on Burma.