By Aung Din
Editor’s Note: Key players will shape Burma in 2013, for better or worse. As a guest contributor to cogitASIA, Aung Din will examine their current role in Burma, and their potential impact in the coming year, in a short blog series, “The People to Watch in 2013.” Part II examines the role of the umbrella ethnic resistance organization, the United Nationalities Federal Council, and its two most impactful members, the Karen National Union and Kachin Independence Organization. The author has requested the use of Burma to refer to the country.
When the Karen National Union (KNU) was under heavy attack in January 1995 and its Manerplaw headquarters was overrun by the Burmese military, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) was enjoying the benefits of a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese military regime – actively pursuing business opportunities and making its leaders wealthy. The KNU was helpless and hopeless as its ethnic allies in the Democratic Alliance of Burma, including the KIO, broke their promise of fighting the regime together.
History repeated itself this January, as the Burmese military attacked the KIO headquarters in Laiza with heavy artillery and air strikes, while newly elected KNU leaders enjoyed red-carpet treatment as they were hosted by President Thein Sein and Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing in Naypyidaw, Burma’s capital. Most members of the new coalition of ethnic resistance armies known as the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), including the KNU, are now busy enjoying improved relations with the Burmese government and expanding business opportunities. Many are also fighting within their individual groups.
The UNFC is a coalition of 11 ethnic armed resistance groups, including the KIO and the KNU. After its annual meeting in Chiang Mai on January 10, the UNFC issued a statement that its members would not accept any talks or agreements with the government individually, and that the UNFC is the sole negotiating body speaking on behalf of the 11 groups. The organization said that “war against any ethnic nationality is tantamount to war against all of them,” in an effort to pressures the Burmese government to end its attacks against the KIO and conduct political dialogue with the UNFC as a whole. However, whether the member organizations will abide by this statement over the long term remains in doubt.
A second meeting between the Burmese government and the UNFC, with KIO leaders present, was held on February 20 in Thailand, and the government agreed to initiate political talks with the ethnic groups collectively. Following the meeting, the UNFC issued a joint statement and agreed to meet again in two months. Meanwhile, the Burmese government will hold talks with the KIO in an effort to resolve the conflict in Kachin State in the second week of March. Whether these talks will be able to end the conflict remains to be seen.
UNFC members know well that Burma’s military regime long followed a policy of divide and rule when dealing with ethnic minorities. And it always worked. Ethnic resistance armies were divided among and within groups, even without any outside pressure. Since 1948, countless coalitions of ethnic armies were established to fight the Burmese military together, but they often fought each other and collapsed.
However, the ethnic armies still hold leverage. Although most of them have agreed to ceasefires with the government, they do not accept completely President Thein Sein’s proposal for making peace. The Burmese government asked them to dismantle their armies, form political parties, and contest elections, and then work to amend the constitution once they have gained seats in the parliament. That said, all ethnic groups want to have a mutually acceptable political solution that will guarantee their rights before abolishing their armies and joining parliament. They stand firm on this demand despite their limited unity.
These ethnic armies will not be diminished by military action by the government or incomplete peace agreements. They will undoubtedly continue to survive. Their troops will not join the Burmese army nor surrender their weapons. They may weaken, have fewer troops, and lose many of their positions, but they can still wage guerrilla warfare and disturb peace and stability in the country for many years.
A mutually acceptable political solution, developed from meaningful dialogue between the Burmese government and these ethnic armies, and an amendment to the constitution to guarantee their rights is the only means to fully end the decades-old civil wars in Burma. Only a political solution that includes fair revenue sharing of the vast resources in their border areas will diminish these ethnic armies forever and improve the rights and opportunities of ethnic minorities and the country as a whole.
Mr. Aung Din is a democracy and human rights activist and former political prisoner.