Peace Negotiations, An Oxymoron While Conflict Continues

Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is greeted by supporters during a visit to an immigration center in the migrant workers community outside of Bangkok on May 31, in Mahachai, Thailand.

Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is greeted by supporters during a visit to an immigration center in the migrant workers community outside of Bangkok on May 31, in Mahachai, Thailand.

A new peace negotiating team, led by Burmese Railways Minister Aung Min, arrived at Mai Ja Yang, the second largest town under Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in Kachin state, at 3 pm today, according to Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) officials.

The meeting, the first between the KIO and government peace negotiating team in two-months, is intended to be a discussion rather than political negotiations, said a high ranking KIO officer in Mai Ja Yang.The previous meeting with government peace negotiating team led by U Aung Thaung, in Ruili (or Shweli), in China’s southwest Yunnan province, failed to achieve any lasting results. The government wants to sign a ceasefire with the KIO before they will discuss political solutions to the conflict, which started on June 9, after they ended a 17-year ceasefire. There are an estimated 75,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), most living in KIO-controlled territories.

Moreover, Naypyidaw’s leading peace negotiator is scheduled to hold informal talks with a senior member of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) on Friday amid ongoing fighting between Kachin and government troops in northern Burma.

Although government and KIA officials say they are hopeful they can reach an agreement, there have been reports in recent days that the conflict has spread to the well-known jade mining center of Hpakant. The escalation of the conflict comes less than a month after the formation on May 3 of a new government peace-negotiating team led by President Thein Sein. The new lineup consists of a working committee and a central committee that includes Thein Sein and Burma’s military chief, Vice Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing.

Meanwhile, Aung San Suu Kyi has embarked on her first international trip since 1988.  She feared that if she ever left Burma’s military government would never let her return home. She put up with 15 years of house arrest rather than risk becoming an exiled irrelevance. Suu Kyi is currently in Thailand to attend a World Economic Forum summit on Friday. Around 2.5 million impoverished Burmese have fled their country to Thailand in search of jobs. Next month she will travel to Europe, collecting while there the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to her in 1991.

Burma

The issue over Burma’s sanctions has been a hot topic of debate since Aung San Suu Kyi’s arrival in parliament.

Many human rights groups are urging the West to move slowly as it re-engages with Burma, saying the country’s partial return to democracy is not cause for celebration. Burma’s elected rulers today are the same men who just two years ago led a military government condemned as tyrannical by much of the world for jailing more than 2,000 political prisoners, conducting brutal counterinsurgency wars against ethnic minorities and failing to hand over power to a democratically elected government.

On Monday, the biggest rollback yet will take place, when the European Union is expected to temporarily lift most sanctions against Burma. The United States is under pressure to follow suit. Norway last Sunday decided to remove all limits on foreign aid, financing and visas.

“We’re doing this to send a positive signal to those behind the reforms of the last year,” Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere told reporters. “The changes we’ve seen in the country during this period are more than anyone could expect.”
However, uneasiness over a continuing offensive by Burma’s military against ethnic Kachin rebels in the north is a major concern of those urging a lifting of sanctions. This past week, the U.S.-based activist organization United to End Genocide released a report as part of a corporate responsibility project warning that rushing to invest with Burma might only make the country’s problems worse.

President, Tom Andrews, said “There is no evidence of reform for many desperate people in Burma. In Kachin state, the ethnic minorities saw bullets, not ballots, on election day. Tens of thousands of people have already been displaced, and now the Burmese army is actively increasing its troop presence.”

I think it’s important to create incentives for further reform and democratic progress.

“Only Time Will Tell in Burma”

Suu Kyi joins parliament

Suu Kyi joins parliament

To follow up on last week’s parliamentary stalemate, Suu Kyi and National League for Democracy party chose to compromise for now, jointly reciting the oath in the capital, Nay Pyi Taw, as the ruling party and the army looked on. The NLD had refused to take its seats in the assembly last week because they opposed wording in the oath that obliges legislators to “safeguard” the constitution. The party, which has vowed to amend the document because it enshrines military power, wanted the phrasing changed to “respect.” But it is a new era for Burma as Aung San Suu Kyi took a historic oath yesterday to join the parliamentary system.

Although President Thein Sein’s government has been widely praised for instituting sweeping reforms over the last several months, including releasing hundreds of political prisoners, signing cease-fires with rebels, easing press censorship and holding the April 1 by-election that allowed Suu Kyi’s party to enter parliament, there is much more to be done.  More than half a million refugees remain abroad, hundreds of political prisoners are still behind bars and fierce fighting continues with ethnic Kachin insurgents in the north.

But as Suu Kyi believes, “only time will tell…I have always been cautiously optimistic about developments. In politics, you also have to be cautiously optimistic.”

Suu Kyi’s rise to public office marks a major reversal for not only the country but for a woman who became one of the world’s most prominent prisoners of conscience, held under house arrest for much of the last two decades. So there is much to celebrate about as she and her party debut in parliament this week.

Political Stalemate in Burma

A “technical problem” regarding the parliamentary oath has created a political stalemate in Burma. Aung San Suu Kyi and members of her political party are refusing to take their seats in parliament over the oath’s wording, from “safeguard” to “respect,” a move that risks unraveling the fragile and unprecedented detente between the opposition and the military-backed government.

They have vowed to amending the wording of the 2008 constitution because it was drafted under military rule and ensures the army inordinate power. Suu Kyi said she hoped the “problem will be smoothed over without too much difficulty before too long, and that we’ll be able to serve our country not just outside parliament — as we have been doing for the last 20 odd years — but also from within the national assembly.”

However, the dispute over the oath could spiral into a major setback before the National League for Democracy (NLD) party even enter parliament.

“It’s a very high-risk strategy for political gains that are not quite clear,” says Richard Horsey, a former United Nations official in Myanmar. “It’s wasting precious time that could be spent on actual policy making.”

I don’t know if it’s worth it to debate over constitutional semantics when Burmese are concerned with lack of jobs, healthcare and educational opportunities.

Washing Away the Sins of the Past in Burma

BURMA

Locals get sprayed with water while celebrating Thingyan, Burma's New Year water festival, in Rangoon on 14 April 2011. (Reuters)

Locals get sprayed with water while celebrating Thingyan, Burma's New Year water festival, in Rangoon on 14 April 2011. (Reuters)

April 17th marks the first day of the Burmese New Year, known as “Thingyan

With the recent political landscape, the Burmese version of the festival is also changing. Over the past few years Thingyan has grown wilder. Observers have noted that the water festival, increasingly marked by binge drinking, revealing clothing, and street fights, has been the only outlet for the people to vent their frustrations after decades of military rule.

The most notable sign is that the government has removed a 23-year-long ban on Thangyat chanting, rhymed couplets that are sung to the beat of a traditional drum on festive occasions. Thangyat chants are the heart and soul of the New Year Festival. The performance criticizes and makes fun of the foibles of society, a sort of verbal version of cleansing by water.

“It’s been over 30 years – Thingyan and Thangyat are the two things that cannot be separated because Thingyan is for the people and it should be free for all and should not be monopolised by any individual or a group. This also applies to Thangyat to an extent,” says Sue Hngat.

Also, Aung San Suu Kyi is expected to make her first trip overseas in 24 years. Officials with her National League for Democracy party say the Nobel Peace Laureate will travel to Norway in June overcoming the fear she once had of not being able to return to Burma.

Gradual Process for Burma

Burmese women walk on a platform at the train station in Myitkyina, northern Kachin state (Soe Than Win/AFP/Getty Images)

Burmese women walk on a platform at the train station in Myitkyina, northern Kachin state (Soe Than Win/AFP/Getty Images)

There has been some encouraging progress regarding developments in the Kachin State in Burma. The government has granted unrestricted aid deliveries to most of north Kachin State, where tens of thousands have been displaced by a military offensive. This comes after months of negotiations, Ashok Nigam, the U.N. Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Burma, said the agencies have been given permission that should allow sustained access to most of Kachin.

Matthew Gray, with the French aid group Solidarites International, said his organization provides sanitation supplies and water purification tablets to about 4,000 people. But, he said, food is running out fast and rainy season is coming so shelter may be a problem.

In addition, the leaders of Burma’s most enduring ethnic rebel group, the Karen National Union (KNU) have met with the president and Aung San Suu Kyi. The KNU has established its Liaison Office in Kyaukkyi, Toungoo District, Bago Region, Burma, on Tuesday. The regional level peacemaking group and the KNU peacemaking group held peace talks at the hotel Wednesday.

Aung San Suu Kyi proved a positive view on meeting with the KNU. She said, “When the NLD was running for the election we explained a national peace building process needed three things – a ‘rule of law’, ‘a national peace’ and an ‘amendment of the constitution’, all these are related to national reconciliation. Using these three main topics we will work for national reconciliation.”

How Much More Will It Take?

Women gather at a dried-up water-point in Jamam, South Sudan (AFP/Hannah Mcneish)

Women gather at a dried-up water-point in Jamam, South Sudan (AFP/Hannah Mcneish)

SUDAN & SOUTH SUDAN

“They attacked us for three days, from Tuesday until Thursday evening. They burned down five villages, looted more than 20 and destroyed water wells and pumps” displaced witness from North Darfur said to Radio Dabanga.

More than 7,000 people have fled their homes in North Darfur after government forces and militants reportedly burned down their villages last week. In an area in the center of the Darfur region, Jebel Marra, the Sudanese army has continuously been bombing the villages of Nari, Jerri, Sinjo, Amra Rashid, Kaya, Fatah and Amar Jadid. This has forced more than 30,000 to flee to nearby areas, trying to find shelter in the harsh mountainous terrain where there is no water.

In addition, fighting along the border between the two nations, and aerial bombardment by the Sudanese Armed Forces into the territory of South Sudan have intensified. U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon pleaded with Sudan and South Sudan on Wednesday to withdraw troops from the disputed Abyei region amid. Sudanese fleeing from Abyei, are now nearly destitute after missing harvests and exhausting the scant resources of local communities in the newly-independent, impoverished south.

There is some hopeful news. President Obama on Tuesday provided $26 million to tackle the urgent and developing refugee crisis brought on by violence in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states.

“We continue to call upon the government of Sudan to allow full and unfettered access for international humanitarian agencies to South Kordofan and Blue Nile to provide emergency assistance to those in need.” President Obama

The situation is ongoing though and extremely dire, there are 30,000 refugees stranded just in the dusty border town of Yida, between Sudan and South Sudan. How many more lives on the line, how many more pictures of wounded, starving children need to be viewed, how many more devastating and heartbreaking stories are going to be published before there is an end to the humanitarian crisis?

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO

“We are very concerned about the worsening humanitarian situation in South Kivu, especially in the northern part of the province, in Shabunda, Walungu and Kalehe territories,” Laetitia Courtois, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) sub-delegation in Bukavu.

The fighting is intensifying in the DRC and the civilian population is suffering and paying the highest price. The ICRC has evacuated 53 civilian field casualties, including 18 children, from areas in which fighting was taking place and arranged for them to be treated in hospitals in Bukavu. Tens of thousands of people recently fled their homes in North Kivu Province, following attacks by armed groups and ensuing military operations by the national army. At the end of March, a large proportion of the population in the outskirts of Beni, North Kivu, fled their homes following the killing, raping and looting of villagers by armed men. UNHCR reported 33 attacks in north-eastern DRC.

Regrettably, the unstable security environment is just the beginning.  If civilians aren’t killed by armed groups, they die from limited access to health care.

“For the wounded, the ability to obtain care quickly often makes the difference between life and death.” – Courtois.

How do we stop so many gruesome civilian casualities? One man living in Congo, is taking matters into his own hands. Freddy Mwenengabo has gone on a hunger strike since March 4 to urge the Canadian government to address the human rights issues in Congo. He said he is willing to die for the cause because it will be one more death added to the millions who have already died. This is a drastic plea for change but the media and government have taken notice. It makes me wonder, do we have starve ourselves, see celebrities get arrested, and go to great lengths just to grab enough attention to push for change?

BURMA

Aung San Suu Kyi wins the elections (BBC News)

Aung San Suu Kyi wins the elections (BBC News)

Sunday wasn’t just April Fool’s Day but a historic day for Burma’s democracy as it held elections after decades. Although official results have yet to be released, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi led the National League for Democracy (NLD) to victory in a milestone by-election.

The US has declared that it is ready to relax sanctions on Burma, easing a ban on American companies investing in or offering financial services to the country.

“This election is an important step in Burma’s democratic transformation, and we hope it is an indication that the government of Burma intends to continue along the path of greater openness, transparency and reform,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.

Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton said the US was ready to allow private US aid groups to pursue non-profit activities on projects such as democracy building, health and education, and to give select Burmese officials and politicians permission to visit the US. Washington wants Burma to free all political prisoners, lift restrictions on those who have already been released, seek national reconciliation, and to end military ties to North Korea. I cannot help to think that the ease of sanctions is either a blessing or curse. Just because Burma is on the road to democracy, doesn’t mean the West can push for its demands on how the country should be run.  It is not easy to build a new country after half a century of authoritarian rule, and we should monitor Burma’s developments and embrace progress without overstepping our ‘big brother’ role.

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