Last week's meeting in Pa'an Town between representatives of the Government of Myanmar and the Karen National Union (KNU) resulted in a preliminary ceasefire between the parties and an agreement to negotiate further. These developments indicate that an unprecedented opportunity exists to bring lasting peace and improved human rights conditions to local people in eastern Burma.
Ceasefires, however, do not automatically create lasting peace, and even peace does not guarantee improved human rights conditions. If the present opportunity is to be realised, negotiations must continue and must not only address the military and political issues identified by both sides, but also develop a concrete ceasefire monitoring framework that expands opportunities for addressing the human rights abuses we believe will continue even where armed conflict subsides.
Before the latest round of negotiations, staff members from our organisation came together to discuss a post-ceasefire future for eastern Burma. We considered how a ceasefire might result in improved human rights conditions, and what recommendations we would make to ensure that it did. We gathered input from our colleagues abroad, those at our Thailand office, and those in Bago, Mon and Karen states – who are themselves villagers working to document abuses and support their communities' struggles for human rights.
These discussions yielded a clear consensus: an end to armed conflict should significantly reduce human rights abuses that have long been a part of 'counter-insurgency' strategy employed by Burma's state armed forces, the Tatmadaw. In the last year, this has included attacks on civilians, deliberate destruction of crops and food supplies, forced relocation and movement restrictions, and forced labour in support of military operations.
If the preliminary agreement can end armed hostilities, we hope that the Tatmadaw opts to cease such practices. But in order for this to last, both sides must implement the ceasefire in good faith and come to see the other side not as an enemy, but as a partner in a common future. Without such a change in relationship, even if a ceasefire halts armed conflict, mutual distrust can be expected to result in serious abuses: the laying of landmines, threats to local organisations providing humanitarian and development assistance, and accusations of civilians' allegiance to the KNU and their subsequent arrest, detention and even torture or killing.
In the worst-case scenario, a ceasefire that does not truly transform the relationship between the Tatmadaw and the KNU could instead create a lull in fighting that presages renewed conflict. This is what we saw after the KNU and State Peace and Development Council reached a 'gentleman's agreement' to stop fighting in December 2003: while fighting paused, the Tatmadaw expanded networks of military camps and roads that literally cleared the way for the largest offensive in a decade, which ran continuously through the end of 2008.
However, viewing the current human rights situation only through the narrow lens of conflict-related abuse distorts the reality of the situation faced by ethnic villagers in rural eastern Burma, and understates the range of serious abuses that restrict or destroy their ability to support themselves, their families and their communities.
Abuses also stem from the presence of large numbers of soldiers, and natural resource extraction, development and state-building endeavours in rural ethnic areas. In other parts of the world, these projects are not inherently negative. But in eastern Burma, they are undertaken in a climate where state officials, soldiers and private entities know that they will not be held accountable if they pursue their objectives with violence, threats of violence or disregard for their consequences for rural communities.
Exciting developments have occurred inside Burma in the last year, and initial steps toward reform have been taken. These reforms have not, however, addressed key root causes of ongoing abuse; existing legal and governance structures fail to ensure accountability for perpetrators of human rights abuses or prevent the unilateral imposition of natural resource extraction and development projects.
While there have been recent victories for communities threatened by high-profile projects such as the Myitsone Dam in Kachin State and the Tavoy coal-fired power plant in Tenasserim Division, decisions to halt these projects were made unilaterally, voluntarily and on an ad hoc basis; nothing obligates state officials to listen to external input or to make similar decisions elsewhere, particularly with regards to projects that receive less publicity but are nonetheless equally destructive.
Over the last year villagers gathering testimony in eastern Burma documented serious non-conflict abuses. These included sexual violence, forced labour, arbitrary taxation and extortion, violence or threats of violence or other forms of coercion to enforce orders, as well as land confiscation, forced relocation, and the pursuit of natural resource extraction, development and state-building projects with destructive impacts on villagers' communities and livelihoods.
Political, governance and legal reform that addresses the root causes of these abuses will have to be wide ranging. Systems must be developed to encourage state, military and private entities not to perpetrate abuse in a post-ceasefire environment, and to hold them accountable when abuse does occur. And mechanisms must be developed to guarantee that natural resource extraction, state-building and development projects are implemented with local input, consent, and compensation.
Even in the best case of credible scenarios, such reform will occur via a long and fraught process – with the outcome far from guaranteed. What is guaranteed, however, is that any reform process will reach rural ethnic areas last, where civilian governance is weak or nonexistent and where military and private entities will have an interest in disregarding reforms that challenge their interests. In the short term, the end of armed conflict risks opening space for expanded militarization, resource extraction and externally-imposed development on a breath-taking scale. In the current environment, the expansion of such projects risks consequences more disastrous than war.
The ongoing negotiations between the Myanmar Government and the KNU offer a one-time chance to deflect a post-ceasefire future that is potentially disastrous for human rights. Because any ceasefire agreement needs to be accepted by the principal armed actors, and because continued peace will present strong economic and development incentives, there will be significant constituencies supportive of its maintenance. If its terms include tools that address the potential for renewed conflict and new human rights abuses, a ceasefire agreement itself may function as a stand-in for reforms that are a long way away from being relevant for communities in eastern Burma.
Any ceasefire agreement adopted must include provisions that clearly define a monitoring process; this is necessary to deter violations and, where violations do occur, to enable quick action to ensure that they do not trigger renewed conflict. The terms should firstly define who will conduct monitoring and how it will be undertaken. For monitoring to be effective, it should be conducted by independent third parties, including international monitors agreed upon by both sides.
Crucially, ceasefire monitoring provisions must also explicitly enable community participation in monitoring. Monitoring at the local level would empower communities to promote peace and human rights, while also augmenting international efforts. The success of local ceasefire monitoring efforts in countries such as the Philippines, and our experiences training villagers to monitor human rights conditions in their own communities, prove that such efforts are possible, and worthwhile.
For local monitoring to be safe and viable, the terms of the ceasefire must specify that no restrictions be placed on community members and local organisations that wish to conduct monitoring. It should also articulate transparent and accessible procedures for lodging complaints of ceasefire violations. Both parties must agree on a mechanism that can address such complaints and hold violators accountable without endangering the overall peace process. Absent such a mechanism, parties may fear that a complaint or investigation could unravel the entire agreement, leaving violations unaddressed. This could fuel grievances or engender misunderstandings that ultimately lead to renewed armed conflict.
The terms of the ceasefire must, for this reason, specifically define the types of conduct that constitute violations of the ceasefire. If these provisions articulate clear requirements regarding the treatment of civilians, then the text of the agreement itself could help address the root causes of abuses in eastern Burma by offering communities an unprecedented and invaluable tool for engaging soldiers and addressing their human rights concerns. KHRG frequently speaks with villagers who describe negotiating with local state and military authorities to reduce or avoid abusive demands. Such attempts are fraught with risks and do not always work, particularly in the case of large projects implemented outside the control of local authorities, but they show that rural communities have the confidence and capacity to claim their rights.
A ceasefire agreement could provide a solid foundation for villagers' engagement with local authorities that typically occurs only on the basis of local relationships and the moral force of individuals, and in the face of grave risks of violence and other abuse. Prohibitions on abuses such as arbitrary detention, ill-treatment, torture or summary execution could help reduce the risks inherent in attempting to negotiate with armed actors. Provisions regarding pursuit of natural resource extraction and development in rural ethnic areas, meanwhile, could address concerns for areas that reforms in Naypyidaw will be slow to reach.
Explicit provisions in the ceasefire agreement could have unique power in civilians' negotiations with armed actors when compared to other domestic laws, because soldiers and lower-ranking officers would have an interest in avoiding actions that might undermine the overall agreement. Respect by both parties for rules regarding treatment of civilians could also encourage the development of new, and better, norms of conduct for armed actors vis-à-vis civilians. Backed by robust ceasefire monitoring mechanism, such provisions would have added power because violations of the agreement might also carry a credible threat of penalties, which are wholly lacking from current military and civilian justice systems.
A ceasefire that defines appropriate conduct and includes a mechanism for monitoring and addressing violations will not be a substitute for sorely-needed systemic reforms. But, if transparent and publicly available, it would offer local communities a powerful tool to wield in their daily struggles to claim human rights. This could alter the course of post-ceasefire history for rural ethnic communities in eastern Burma. Absent such an agreement, the current ceasefire risks creating conditions for a rapid increase in non-conflict human rights abuses, well before any reforms in Naypyidaw are able to prevent them.