Mikael Gravers, Aarhus University
On the surface there is a more relaxed mood in Rangoon when I visited Burma. However, all agree that the old totalitarian system is still working. People are still arrested during the night. Thus, we are cautioned that the situation could change rapidly again after the by-elections.
There is a struggle in the government and the parliament between hardliners and reformists. The reformist are the President U Thain Sein and the Speaker of the parliament Thura Shwe Man. Recently they proposed to appoint village head men and other local officials by elections. This was rejected by the lower house. Headmen and other officials are appointed by the military. Thus, it is part of the social security for retired officers.
The president has not been able to stop the fighting in Kachin State. The army is not under government control according to the constitution. Arrests of individuals who criticize the army continues. The leader of the “Saffron Revolution” 2007, U Gambira, who was released recently, is in confrontation with the State Sangha Council who has warned him that he will end up in court accused of illegally entering his monastery, defaming the Sangha elders, and assisting the monk Ashin Pyinna Thiha who was evicted for making a political speech in the office of the National League Democracy (NLD), and for meeting Hilary Clinton. Monks are not allowed to act politically. Thus, freedom is still limited. U Gambira, who was dis-robed by soldiers and sentenced 63 years in jail in 2007, entered his monastery last month. The Maggi monastery had been sealed by the army after the raid in 2007. U Gambira found all the destruction and blood left from the violent raid. He is now accused of illegally breaking into the monastery.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD have been hackled during their election campaign by the USDP (Union Solidarity Development Party – the ruling party). USDP promised new roads to the voters and tried to impose a ban on the NLD using stadiums for their rallies. She is often prevented from using stadiums for her rallies. In villages near the capital Naypyitaw, officials told villagers that their electricity supply would be cut if they attended an NLD rally with Daw Suu Kyi However, Daw Suu Kyi draws huge crowds on her tour. NLD may take more than half of the 48 seats in the by-elections provided there is no fraud.
Thein Sein focus on the education of the young, and Rangoon University will be reopened in the near future. He said that the young ethnics should replace weapons with computers. One blogger ironically wrote the president and asked for a laptop. The mood is relaxed and cautiously optimistic, although the opposition is rather skeptical about the real intentions of the government. They say that relative freedom is about having the sanctions lifted and otherwise let the army stay in control behind the parliament.
Many international NGOs are ready to let big money flow into development projects and humanitarian aid. This can corrupt more than benefit those who are in need if it is not well prepared and sustainable. There is an over idealized view of the conditions. The old system is still in place and working – or rather not working unless ordered from the top. Bureaucrats are officers – they dare not act without clear orders from the absolute top. And since messages from the top are now blurred for and against, they do nothing! The frame laws are not resulting in specific laws on for example censorships, the use of ethnic languages in education, investments and financial regulations. There is no rule of law yet.
The focus in following is mainly on the situation in the Karen State as related to the overall political changes. It is based on a very brief visit and the analysis is very preliminary:
The main stakeholders in the conflict(s)are:
- Tatmadaw, Karen National Union and its Karen National Liberation Army (KNU/KNLA), Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), Border Guard Force (BGF), The Phloung-Sgaw Democratic Party (Karen State), Karen Peace Council (Timothy Laklem), Padoh Aung San and his Peace Force, plus minor groups of armed persons as well as the government represented by Aung Min (railway minister), Aung Thaung head of Union Solidarity Development Party (the ruling military party) and the final peace negotiations, and Saw Min, PM Karen State.
The ceasefire in Hpa-an in January 2012 between Aung Min and the KNU delegation is obviously only an initial step towards a more realistic agreement. The impression from a two hour discussion with David Tharckabaw (Vice-President, KNU) before we came to Burma is that the KNU leadership is suspecting a Burmese trap. Tharckabaw and the hardliners of KNU seems to have rejected the agreement and there is a deep split within the KNU. Tharckabaw talked about the Karen being cheated so often by ‘ Bamah’ (ethnic Burmans). He also rejected the ‘developmentalism’ of the government. Development in their version, he said, means to take the resources from the Karen State and not real development for the Karen population. He claimed this ‘developmentalism’ is supported by Germany and other EU countries. He also blamed Harn Yawnghwe and the Ethnic Nationalities Council (ENC) of supporting this line. This indicates that there is a split among the pan-ethnic organizations, although they seem to agree on a federal constitution. Tharckabaw is in the leadership of United Nationalities Federal Council, another pan-ethnic organization of the armed ethic groups. He dislikes ENC and Harn. But he seems to support Daw Suu Kyi’s strategy: ‘She won’t betray the trust of her people’.
To add to the complexity of the situation, the Karen Peace Council (KPC) under former KNU General Htein Maung and Dr. Timothy Laklem signed a peace agreement in Naypyitaw (7th. February) with minister Aung Thaung and the Union-level peace negotiating team. He arranged a meeting with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi 10th. February to the deep frustration of the KNU and many Karen in Rangoon, because he posed as the front representative of the Karen. Aung Thaung thus undermined the efforts of Aung Min who negotiated with the KNU. It is also a clear sign that The NLD and Daw Suu Kyi need much more information about the ethnic situation, its complex political structure and its many actors. Lack of precise information on the ethnic situation can easily generate more mistrust. Many Karen still generalize in their mistrust towards all Bamah. Daw Suu Kyi again referred to ‘The Spirit of Panglong’ during her tour in the Kachin State. This creates hope – but Panglong was a weak and incomplete agreement and there is a need for a specific political program.
The day after we left – 22nd. of February -, DKBA under commanders Saw Lah Pwe and Po Bi near Mying Gyi Ngu were attacked by the BGF – probably the group commanded by Thong Hlaing. BGF took some of DKBA’s position and weapons. This group infringes upon the supporters of U Thuzana and does not respect the monk. They drink, eat meat harass his followers and take taxes along U Thuzana’s new highway built with donations from large Thai food companies. U Thuzana had managed to establish some sort of a civil administration via his monks and lay followers. This structure could be dismantled by the BGF and the army if there is no general agreement between all groups.
In Hpa-an, the Phloung-Sgaw Democratic party left an impression of being a serious and concerned player. They have submitted questions from a Karen delegation (Kawkareik) to the local Hlutaw (parliament) about landmines and their removal. The party has a mentor (founder?), the monk Ashin Pyinya Thami, (Taungkalae) who is Mon-Chinese. He has been able to obtain large donations for a college, although it is not yet completed. He delivered a strong criticism of the generals, the NLD – “she wants to ‘burmanize’ the ethnic groups”. “She is like her father.” U Thuzana was dismissed: “he only collects money (and built zedis) for himself – proud of himself”- (It sounds as jealousy). “The 2007 monks demonstrations was a Bahma trick”, he said. Pyianya Thami is said to have direct line to Than Shwe’s wife who has supported him. In my analysis, he is a charismatic empire builder, but not a reliable political player.
Further, the Hpa-an Karen Student Association represents an important democratic segment. The town is however totally dominated by the 22nd. light infantry division and the BGF, although most of the mentioned groups including the NLD have a presence in Hpa-an.
Land confiscation is a huge problem in the Karen State (as elsewhere). The Karen complained that they also lost their commons for grazing animals, collecting firewood and leafs for thatching. This is probably the most urgent problem to deal with. A law is badly needed. Most of the confiscated land is now huge rubber plantations.
The ceasefire agreement between KNU delegation and Aung Min in Hpa-an was rejected by the KNU leadership. A new meeting took place in Chiang Mai, 2nd March. Both sides agreed to meet in April. Significantly, the government delegation included business people. This underlines the KNU fear that ceasefire is mostly about quick economic deals more than genuine peace and reconciliation.
The PM of the Karen State Hlutaw, Saw Min (a former officer), seems to be very conservative and a military man. He is seen as one who supports the BFG.
For a future peace to be established, an initial reduction of the army as well as a repositioning of all armed groups within a few scheduled and monitored areas is necessary!
- Lack of trust is a main problem, I believe, in all camps. It is without meaning if the government only negotiates with the KNU – all groups should come to the table and the agreement must be detailed – especially in relation to monitoring and conflict resolution if or rather when future disagreements erupt. In the situation, a neutral facilitator could be an idea if all agree on the selected persons/organization.
- Trust and reconciliation work together. There should be a forum where the various Karen groups, their leaders/commanders could meet regularly with government representatives and local army officers and exchange information, share news and have informal discussions. This is a way of establishing mutual knowledge, recognition and trust. It takes time – long time!
- Soldiers need a livelihood after a peace. But to offer money in order to persuade them to give up their weapons is to ignore the core political reasons to take up arms in the first place. Here is a huge task for NGOs to reintegrate thousands of fighters( this is closely related to de-mining programs).
- The NLD need a detailed political assessment and project for the ethnic case. It could be an idea to have an All Burma Conference, round table, with all political parties, the government and all ethnic groups/organizations. It is a huge task to organize such a meeting. But the complexity needs to be addressed.
 KNU is the main Karen organization, largely Christian dominated; DKBA the Buddhist Karen in the Karen State, followers of the monk U Thuzana; DKBA broke away from the KNU in 1994 but they work together now. BGF is the part of DKBA who joined the army in 2010. The other minor groups are small and are splinter groups follwing one leading person.
 ENC is a pan-ethnic organization working for a federate state in Burma. Harn Yawnghwe is the head of the Burma office in the EU. He supported the National Democratic Front party who broke out of the NLA and joined the elctions in 2010. Thus he is not popular with the NLD or the KNU.
 He is a hardliner and said to be the organizer of the violent attack on Daw Suu Kyi in 2004. He will have the final word in future peace agreements, as far as we understand.
 U Thuzana is a highly respected Karen monk who uses large donations (from Burma and Thailand) to built not only pagodas but schools clinics and roads in the Karen state
Ang San Suu Kyi was released. And there was an election. And that’s about as concrete as this post is going to get – of course there are more to be said, but as is always the case with Burma and her elusive leadership, there are no answers to be found in Rangoon.
As always, details are sketchy, indecipherable and insufficient and what is really the situation for the average Burmese citizen is unclear. Getting more concrete than just stating the two above things is not an easy task.
The best way to get answers is to piece tidbits together yourself. Here is one:
On the Thai side of the border between Burma and Thailand there are several refugee camps and they have been there for decades. A majority of the people living in those camps are the ethnic Karen, who has rebelled against the Burmese leadership since the 70s. They came in 1984, when the Burmese military launched a major offensive and around 10,000 people were driven out of Burma and into Thailand. There was never a clear resolution to that conflict and thus, the refugees remained in Thailand.
By 1995, the camps had grown into housing around 115,000 people and because of the student uprising in 1988 that landed Ang San Suu Kyi under house arrest, the camps were not only populated by Karen, but now also by political refugees.
The junta had by then taken control of the border areas and clashes were not uncommon. The military started a process of carrying out an extensive relocation plan which affected around half a million people – in 2007, hundreds of thousands were unaccounted for, having fled to unknown whereabouts, and the population in the camps were now about 150,000.
So the fact that the recent election on Nov 7 resulted in fighting between Burmese military and Karen-rebels in that area is not surprising. Just weeks before the election Thai authorities had made it clear that it was their intention to return the refugees after the election, but – again – no clear plan was articulated and it was not certain how the refugees would be received once they got back. Later on, the Thai Foreign Minister declared that Thailand was NOT going to start repatriating the refugees immediately after the election, but rather when Thai authorities deem Burma safe for them to return to.
No wonder people reacted. When the election came, the Burmese soldiers came with it and people ran.
They were caught in between the Thai soldiers on one side whose orders were to get them to run the other way and the Burmese military on the other side, whose orders no one has any clear idea of. That explains the contradictory reports that came out of the area just after the election where people were first running from and then returning to Burma.
Today, the situation has stabilized again, which is a nastily neutral way of saying that the refugees are back in the camps – there is nothing stable about living in a refugee camp, not even if that camp has been there for decades.
What the future holds for them is impossible to foresee as the information coming from both Thailand and Burma is wildly changing every few days. So they sit there and they wait.
And what are they waiting for? Possibly they are not waiting for anything.
Possibly they are just waiting.
The Lady is free. She speaks to her people and what comes out of her mouth is the definition of grace and dignity – listen to some of her words here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-11752918
Should anyone ever have doubted why Ang San Suu Kyi is the iconic symbol of hope in Burma, she put that to rest when she spoke to the thousands of followers, who had been awaiting her release outside her house this weekend. Having been placed under house arrest for almost 20 years, her first speech was in the “I have a Dream”-league and her ability to chose her words and focus on the Burmese people rather than the injustices she has endured herself raises hope for the future. She is not a martyr and she does not wish to be.
Her case, however, is so symbolic and so political it is difficult not to dwell on it. The main unanswered question concerning her release is obvious: Why?
When asked by a BBC-reporter ” Do you think there is a reason that the ruling generals have allowed you out now?” she herself replied: “I don’t think so…do you think there is a reason?”.
And this is very important. Because, the reporter – and many others with him – think there is a reason she was freed just days after the much criticized election. Very rarely do things like this happen in Burma without there being some sort of agenda behind it.
But Burma’s generals are not generous with information and so, we as the onlookers are left to ponder and guess about their motives. And we do, what else can we do? Within the answer to the Why Now-question lays an explanation to something, we really want to know: What is it that Burma’s generals want for their country? Her release is part of that answer, and it affects all of us.
But Ang San Suu Kyi did something very clever in her speech. While all of us were trying to figure the above out, she made a less controversial, but way more valid point: She wants to know what the Burmese people expect of her.
And by doing so, she reversed the question from “what is on the junta’s mind by releasing her, where are they going with this?” to “what are the Burmese people’s wish for the country now and how can she help?”
So what if the elusive Tan Schwe and his generals are not an easy bunch to deal with? If they refuse, forbid and punish as they please? We can condemn that all we want – but we can also listen to The Lady and put our focus on the democratic powers that lay within the people instead of fuming.
What really matters now is to create a situation where it does not capsize the democratic process if she were to be arrested again.
What really matters now is to hold on to the momentum her release and the election combined have given to Burma and her way towards democracy.
What really matters now is getting Ang San Suu Kyi down from the pedestal she is on and into the role of an opposition politician, just like all the other brave and fearless Burmese democrats working for the same cause as her. She just told us that’s what she wants. We should listen.