Since 1949 different Karen ethnic armed groups have been fighting against the Myanmar government’s army (Tatmadaw). Arguably it is the world’s longest-running civil war. In 2011, former President Thein Sein opened the door for ethnic groups to negotiate peace with the government. Then, in January 2012, the Myanmar government, led by Railway minister U Aung Min, and the Karen National Union (KNU) met for the first time to have peace talks in Hpa-an. As a result, the KNU signed a preliminary ceasefire agreement with the Myanmar government on January 12th 2012. Further talks between the government and the KNU were held and finally on October 15th 2015, a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) was signed between the government and eight of the fifteen ethnic armed groups originally invited to the negotiation table, including the Karen National Union/Karen National Liberation Army (KNU/KNLA), KNU/KNLA-Peace Council (KNU/KNLA-PC), and the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA Benevolent). While embraced by the United Nations (UN), the decision to sign the NCA was criticised by some members of the Karen armed resistance and Karen civil society groups in southeast Myanmar who felt that the NCA was a superficial agreement that risked undermining a genuine peace process. The current situation is that of a ceasefire; a long lasting peace is yet to be achieved, so the world’s longest running civil war cannot be said to have ended yet.
We have all witnessed, in November 2015, a landslide victory of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party, which further heightened expectations for enduring peace and stability. It must be noted however that the military-drafted Constitution still appoints 25% of the Hluttaw (Parliament) seats to the military and the key security ministries of defense, home affairs, and border affairs are military-controlled. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who now holds the offices of Myanmar State Counsellor, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of the President's Office, met with the NCA Joint Monitoring Committee (JMC) for the first time on April 27th 2016.
More recently, on August 31st 2016, the 21st Century Panglong conference began. The new peace conference strived to include groups that have not yet signed the NCA, but only partially succeeded as the Arakan Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), also known as the Kokang Army, and the Ta'ang National Liberation Army were barred from participation even though they expressed willingness. A non-signatory group that did participate initially, the United Wa State Army (UWSA) reportedly withdrew from the conference because they were only given ‘observer’ status and not an equal status as the other participants. Another major concern on the 21st Century Panglong conference was the lack of women’s participation, a trend which Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) also pointed out in its recently published report ‘Hidden Strengths, Hidden Struggles’.
Locally defined Karen State, which covers most of southeast Myanmar, has felt the continued presence of military actors despite these recent changes in the national framework. KHRG has documented militarisation and its impacts on local communities in Karen areas since 1992. Now, just after the NCA’s first anniversary (October 15th 2016), in this detailed militarisation commentary, KHRG will highlight how the path towards a long lasting peace in Myanmar continues to be threatened by ongoing militarisation and clashes in southeast Myanmar. This commentary is based on reports and information gathered in Karen areas in southeast Myanmar since January 2012 up and until October 2016. The focus of the commentary is on the more recent reports, especially since 2014 and special attention is paid to the incidents which have occurred after the signing of the NCA in October 2015.
‘Militarisation’ in the context of this commentary is taken to mean any activity that villagers perceive as intended for military purposes. This category includes the building of new bases, including land confiscation, by armed groups, the strengthening of existing bases and military training exercises, as well as the ongoing rotation of troops, re-supply of rations, weapons and ammunition, ongoing landmine contamination, unexploded ordnance and remnants of war, and recurring skirmishes between armed actors. The ongoing displacement of communities and the effect militarisation has on their livelihoods is also described.
Conclusion and Recommendations
While the situation of safety and security for communities in southeast Myanmar has noticeably improved after the NCA there are still legitimate concerns by villagers that need to be addressed before a real stable and long term peace can be achieved. Some of the most common recommendations coming directly from the affected communities are displayed below, after which KHRG will give its own recommendations.
“What I want is, as they [the Myanmar government] are the parents/leaders, I want them to order all of the soldiers who are spread out to go back. Order the BGF and Tatmadaw soldiers to go back. If they are called back, the civilians will be able to live peacefully.”
Naw M---, (female, 46), K--- M--- village, Kawkareik Township,
Dooplaya District/south Kayin State, March 2016
“They [the villagers] want the Tatmadaw to remove [their camps]. If the Tatmadaw remove [from the villagers’ area], they [villagers] will be able to return to their village. They [the villagers] want us [village tract leaders] to talk to the Tatmadaw to not disturb them when they work in their working places so that they will be able to have freedom and live peacefully. They report that it will be the best if there is no place [for the Tatmadaw to base in the area].”
Saw S--- (village tract secretary), (male), H--- village, K--- village tract,
Lu Thaw Township, Hpapun District/northeast Kayin State, April 2016
“Regarding the armed groups, if the situation is getting better, I would like them to go back to live in their own place. Please do not live in the village.”
Saw N---, (male, 51), K--- N--- village, K--- N--- village tract,
Kawkareik Township, Dooplaya District/south Kayin State, March 2016
“If the Tatmadaw stay near us, the villagers have to be afraid of them. They [villagers] also have been oppressed. Therefore, they do not trust the Tatmadaw. If they withdraw their camps in the ceasefire period, the villagers might have some trust for the Tatmadaw. Now, they do not trust the Tatmadaw so they reported to us that they want the Tatmadaw’s camps to be withdrawn. […] Therefore, we want the international community to help us and advocate for us so that the Tatmadaw’s camp will be withdrawn.”
Saw B--- (village tract leader), (male, 43), T--- village, H--- village tract,
Lu Thaw Township, Hpapun District/northeast Kayin State, April 2016
The Myanmar government, Tatmadaw, Border Guard Forces, Karen National Union/Karen National Liberation Army, Democratic Karen Benevolent Army, Democratic Karen Buddhist Army and other armed groups in southeast Myanmar should work to make the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) sustainable and work towards a long lasting peace as this is the only way to ensure the most violent human rights abuses will not reoccur.
To ensure a peace process that is stable and long lasting all armed actors, but especially the Tatmadaw and BGF, should begin to demilitarise former conflict areas by removing troops and camps, particularly those positioned close to villages and livelihood areas, and immediately cease the confiscation of land in southeast Myanmar for the purposes of: constructing military facilities, which include camps, barracks, and housing for the families of soldiers; or leasing the confiscated land back to villagers in order to generate income.
To prevent any further armed conflicts, all development actors (local and international businesses and investors, including international financial institutions such as the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank) should conduct environmental, human rights and conflict impact assessments before implementing any mega projects such as constructing dams, highways and mining. These assessments should be carried out independently of the actor’s interests, in consultation with project-affected communities, respecting the international principle of ‘Free, Prior and Informed Consent’, and made publicly available in local languages.
The Myanmar government as well as development actors should ensure fair and adequate compensation is provided to communities affected by past and present land confiscations and avoid confiscating land in the future.
The Myanmar government, Tatmadaw, Border Guard Forces, Karen National Union/Karen National Liberation Army, Democratic Karen Benevolent Army, Democratic Karen Buddhist Army and other armed groups in southeast Myanmar are obligated to ensure that all armed forces under their control observe their responsibilities under domestic and international humanitarian and human rights law and hold military personnel accountable for abuses committed in fair and transparent judicial processes.
The Myanmar government, Tatmadaw, Border Guard Forces, Karen National Union/Karen National Liberation Army, Democratic Karen Benevolent Army, Democratic Karen Buddhist Army and other armed groups in southeast Myanmar should agree to and enforce a comprehensive ban on the new use of landmines and hold meaningful consultations with all relevant actors before starting systematic demining efforts, as demining without consultation in conflict-sensitive areas could lead to further conflict.
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