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Politicians and analysts hailing the recent seven-point agreement between the Burmese government and the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) as a major breakthrough have demonstrated their lack of understanding of Burma’s affairs and the root causes that led to the conflict.
It has been two years now since the Burmese government broke a 17-year ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). Since then, the government’s troops have launched major military offensives targeting the Kachin people and committed serious human rights abuses. It broke my heart to see the on-going attacks against my people, especially when the perception of many outsiders is that Burma is now a “free” country.
I travelled back to Kachin state last year with my colleagues from the Kachin National Organisation. We went to see the situation for ourselves and tried to learn how we could help those who have fled in the wake of the Burmese army’s assaults on their villages. We saw how the situation was for tens of thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs). Children were sick and people were struggling to survive as President Thein Sein continues to prevent humanitarian organisations from delivering aid to the IDPs living in the KIO-controlled areas.
But as well as being horrified by the suffering we saw and the stories of human rights abuses we heard, we were also encouraged by the Kachin leadership’s response to the crisis and the overwhelming support provided by the Kachin communities across the globe during this difficult time.
Despite a significant increase in human rights violations in Kachin state, western governments have ignored realities on the ground in Burma and rewarded the former pariah nation by lifting almost all sanctions targeting the government, which leaves the international community little leverage in the future if the reforms stall.
The agreement signed at the end of May between the Burmese government and the KIO does give some cause for hope, but not much. The agreement is not a ceasefire. We have had many deals in the past that promised peace, but they were broken.
It’s also important to ask why the Burmese government violated the 17-year truce in the first place? And why did they continue to commit human rights violations in Kachin state and other ethnic regions in clear violation of international law?
In order to understand the complexities of Burma, it’s important to remember the country’s history. The central government’s failure to accept Burma as a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country, and in turn deny ethnic people the right to have a say over their own affairs, is the root cause of these decades-long conflicts.
In fact, Prime Minister U Nu’s plan to institute Buddhism as the state’s sole religion in Burma in 1961 was one of the main triggers that pushed the Kachin to take up arms and resist Burmanisation.
The failure by both the central government and the international community to address the root causes of conflict has lead to decades of war, several humanitarian crises and devastating poverty in Burma.
If durable peace is to take root in the country, there must be fundamental change in Burma’s system of governance. Any agreement between President Thein Sein’s military-backed government and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi alone will not solve the problems that ethnic people face.
Ethnic political organisations should be involved in all levels of any political process in Burma. The conversation in parliament concerning potential constitutional amendments has largely excluded key ethnic voices.
As long as ethnic people are denied their equal rights, many legitimate questions and demands will remain. We need equal rights to protect our people and to live with dignity. Until this is accomplished, ethnic people will have to fight for their rights and will continue to require international support, in much the same way that Aung San Suu Kyi relied on global solidarity only a few years ago.
Goon Tawng is the chairperson of the Kachin National Organisation-UK
-The opinions and views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect DVB’s editorial policy.