A Cease-Fire in Burma: Is One of the World’s Oldest Insurgencies About to End?

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Soe Zeya Tun / Reuters

General Mutu Saipo from the Karen National Union signs the cease-fire agreement in Hpa-an, capital of the Karen state in eastern Burma, on Jan. 12, 2012

One of the world’s longest civil conflicts may finally be over. On Jan. 12, a “peace delegation” from the quasi-civilian government of Burma signed a cease-fire agreement with ethnic Karen rebels who have been waging battle for more than six decades on the country’s eastern front. Since taking over from the ruling military junta last year, the new Burmese regime has also signed peace treaties with other ethnic armies, including those representing factions of the Wa, Chin and Shan groups.

The cease-fires, along with overtures toward a democratic opposition led by Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, have surprised Burma watchers who feared the new government was little more than a civilian fig leaf for a military regime. Indeed, the 2010 elections that ushered in the new leadership, helmed by retired general Thein Sein, were hardly free and fair. Many senior government positions are reserved for members of the military, which wrested power from a civilian government in a 1962 coup. Burma is still desperately poor, and income inequalities are only growing as members of the elite profit from the country’s rich natural resources.

Nevertheless, Burma today is a changed place. The landmark cease-fire with the armed wing of the Karen National Union (KNU) — along with a state-television report on Thursday that 651 prisoners will be released from Burma’s jails on Jan. 13, with hopes rising that many, if not all of them, will be political prisoners — underscores the rapid pace of reform. Earlier this week, Suu Kyi announced formally that she would be running for a parliamentary seat in elections set for April, a remarkable turnaround for a woman who spent most of the previous two decades under house arrest. Her National League for Democracy, which was ordered to be dissolved after boycotting the flawed 2010 polls, has since been allowed to reregister as a political party.

The nation known today as Burma — or Myanmar, as its leaders prefer it to be called — is a British colonial creation. Imperial lines on a map hemmed in a patchwork of ethnicities, from the majority Bamar, who dominate the country’s current leadership, to the Shan, the Kachin, the Karen and the Chin, to name just a few groups. Up to 40% of the country’s population is composed of ethnic minorities.

Fear of repression by the Bamar-dominated Burmese army has led hundreds of thousands of Karen to flee their homes over the years. Ethnic conflict has led to Burma’s high number of internally displaced people, numbering at least half a million citizens. More than 100,000 Karen are believed to live in refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border. Human-rights groups have documented the use of forced labor and rape by the Burmese military against the Karen. Land mines litter Burma’s eastern jungles.

Even as the KNU and the Burmese government were hammering out their cease-fire deal, firefights were still flaring in and around northern Kachin state, where the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) is battling the Burmese military. The KIA is the only major ethnic army not to have signed a peace deal in recent months with the regime. (Ethnic Mon rebels have held out too, but their armed force is believed to be smaller.) Yet it’s not as if such deals necessarily herald a lasting peace. In 1994, the KIA signed a cease-fire with the Burmese, only to begin fighting again last year. The KNU too has entered half a dozen peace talks with the Burmese since 1949. None have stuck. Hopefully this historic cease-fire, with the imprimatur of a new regime, will be different.