Report by Trust Patron David Alton from Maesot, Thailand, 8th Sept 2015
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 and a Patron of the Epiphany Trust, which supports Karen village schools (please see our Burma projects for more details).