A brief report from a Burma visit 13-21 February 2012

13. Mar 2012

Mikael Gravers, Aarhus University

The situation:

On the surface there is a more relaxed mood in Rangoon when I visited Burma. However, all agree that the old totalitarian system is still working. People are still arrested during the night. Thus, we are cautioned that the situation could change rapidly again after the by-elections.

There is a struggle in the government and the parliament between hardliners and reformists. The reformist are the President U Thain Sein and the Speaker of the parliament Thura Shwe Man. Recently they proposed to appoint village head men and other local officials by elections. This was rejected by the lower house. Headmen and other officials are appointed by the military. Thus, it is part of the social security for retired officers.

The president has not been able to stop the fighting in Kachin State. The army is not under government control according to the constitution. Arrests of individuals who criticize the army continues. The leader of the “Saffron Revolution” 2007, U Gambira, who was released recently, is in confrontation with the State Sangha Council who has warned him that he will end up in court accused of illegally entering his monastery, defaming the Sangha elders, and assisting the monk Ashin Pyinna Thiha who was evicted for making a political speech in the office of the National League Democracy (NLD), and for meeting Hilary Clinton. Monks are not allowed to act politically. Thus, freedom is still limited. U Gambira, who was dis-robed by soldiers and sentenced 63 years in jail in 2007, entered his monastery last month. The Maggi  monastery had been sealed by the army after the raid in 2007. U Gambira found all the destruction and blood left from the violent raid. He is now accused of illegally breaking into the monastery.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD have been hackled during their election campaign by the USDP (Union Solidarity Development Party – the ruling party). USDP promised new roads to the voters and tried to impose a ban on the NLD using stadiums for their rallies. She is often prevented from using stadiums for her rallies. In villages near the capital Naypyitaw, officials told villagers that their electricity supply would be cut if they attended an NLD rally with Daw Suu Kyi However, Daw Suu Kyi draws huge crowds on her tour. NLD may take more than half of the 48 seats in the by-elections provided there is no fraud.

Thein Sein focus on the education of the young, and Rangoon University will be reopened in the near future. He said that the young ethnics should replace weapons with computers. One blogger ironically wrote the president and asked for a laptop. The mood is relaxed and cautiously optimistic, although the opposition is rather skeptical about the real intentions of the government. They say that relative freedom is about having the sanctions lifted and otherwise let the army stay in control behind the parliament.

Many international NGOs are ready to let big money flow into development projects and humanitarian aid. This can corrupt more than benefit those who are in need if it is not well prepared and sustainable. There is an over idealized view of the conditions. The old system is still in place and working – or rather not working unless ordered from the top. Bureaucrats are officers – they dare not act without clear orders from the absolute top. And since messages from the top are now blurred for and against, they do nothing! The frame laws are not resulting in specific laws on for example censorships,  the use of ethnic languages in education, investments and financial regulations. There is no rule of law yet.

The Karen:

The focus in following is mainly on the situation in the Karen State as related to the overall political changes. It is based on a very brief visit and the analysis is very preliminary:

The main stakeholders in the conflict(s)are:

The ceasefire in Hpa-an in January 2012 between Aung Min and the KNU delegation is obviously only an initial step towards a more realistic agreement. The impression from a two hour discussion with David Tharckabaw (Vice-President, KNU) before we came to Burma is that the KNU leadership is suspecting a Burmese trap. Tharckabaw and the hardliners of KNU seems to have rejected the agreement and there is a deep split within the KNU. Tharckabaw talked about the Karen being cheated so often by ‘ Bamah’ (ethnic Burmans). He also rejected the ‘developmentalism’ of the government. Development in their version, he said, means to take the resources from the Karen State and not real development for the Karen population. He claimed this ‘developmentalism’ is supported by Germany and other EU countries. He also blamed Harn Yawnghwe and the Ethnic Nationalities Council (ENC) of supporting this line.[2] This indicates that there is a split among the pan-ethnic organizations, although they seem to agree on a federal constitution. Tharckabaw is in the leadership of United Nationalities Federal Council, another pan-ethnic organization of the armed ethic groups. He dislikes ENC and Harn. But he seems to support Daw Suu Kyi’s strategy: ‘She won’t betray the trust of her people’.

To add to the complexity of the situation, the Karen Peace Council (KPC) under former KNU General Htein Maung and Dr. Timothy Laklem signed a peace agreement in Naypyitaw (7th. February) with minister Aung Thaung and the Union-level peace negotiating team.[3] He arranged a meeting with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi 10th. February to the deep frustration of the KNU and many Karen in Rangoon, because he posed as the front representative of the Karen. Aung Thaung thus undermined the efforts of Aung Min who negotiated with the KNU. It is also a clear sign that The NLD and Daw Suu Kyi need much more information about the ethnic situation, its complex political structure and its many actors. Lack of precise information on the ethnic situation can easily generate more mistrust. Many Karen still generalize in their mistrust towards all Bamah. Daw  Suu Kyi again referred to ‘The Spirit of Panglong’ during her tour in the Kachin State. This creates hope – but Panglong was a weak and incomplete agreement and there is a need for a specific political program.

The day after we left – 22nd. of February -, DKBA under commanders Saw Lah Pwe and Po Bi near Mying Gyi Ngu were attacked by the BGF – probably the group  commanded by Thong Hlaing. BGF took some of DKBA’s position and weapons. This group infringes upon the supporters of U Thuzana and does not respect the monk.[4] They drink, eat meat harass his followers and take taxes along U Thuzana’s new highway built with donations from large Thai food companies. U Thuzana had managed to establish some sort of a civil administration via his monks and lay followers. This structure could be dismantled by the BGF and the army if there is no general agreement between all groups.

In Hpa-an, the Phloung-Sgaw Democratic party left an impression of being a serious and concerned player. They have submitted questions from a Karen delegation (Kawkareik) to the local Hlutaw (parliament) about landmines and their removal. The party has a mentor (founder?), the monk Ashin Pyinya Thami, (Taungkalae) who is Mon-Chinese. He has been able to obtain large donations for a college, although it is not yet completed. He delivered a strong criticism of the generals, the NLD – “she wants to ‘burmanize’ the ethnic groups”. “She is like her father.” U Thuzana was dismissed: “he only collects money (and built zedis) for himself – proud of himself”- (It sounds as jealousy). “The 2007 monks demonstrations was a Bahma trick”, he said. Pyianya Thami is said to have direct line to Than Shwe’s wife who has supported him. In my analysis, he is a charismatic empire builder, but not a reliable political player.

Further, the Hpa-an Karen Student Association represents an important democratic segment. The town is however totally dominated by the 22nd. light infantry division and the BGF, although most of the mentioned groups including the NLD have a presence in Hpa-an.

Land confiscation is a huge problem in the Karen State (as elsewhere). The Karen complained that they also lost their commons for grazing animals, collecting firewood and leafs for thatching. This is probably the most urgent problem to deal with. A law is badly needed. Most of the confiscated land is now huge rubber plantations.

The ceasefire agreement between KNU delegation and Aung Min in Hpa-an was rejected by the KNU leadership. A new meeting took place in Chiang Mai, 2nd March. Both sides agreed to meet in April. Significantly, the government delegation included business people. This underlines the KNU fear that ceasefire is mostly about quick economic deals more than genuine peace and reconciliation.

The PM of the Karen State Hlutaw, Saw Min (a former officer), seems to be very conservative and a military man. He is seen as one who supports the BFG.

For a future peace to be established, an initial reduction of the army as well as a repositioning of all armed groups within a few scheduled and monitored areas is necessary!

Concluding remarks:

[1] KNU is the main Karen organization, largely Christian dominated; DKBA the Buddhist Karen in the Karen State, followers of the  monk U Thuzana; DKBA broke away from the KNU in 1994 but they work together now. BGF is the part of DKBA who joined the army in 2010. The other minor groups are small and are splinter groups follwing one leading person.

[2] ENC is a pan-ethnic organization working for a federate state in Burma. Harn Yawnghwe is the head of the Burma office in the EU. He supported the National Democratic Front party who broke out of the NLA and joined the elctions in 2010. Thus he is not popular with the NLD or the KNU.

[3] He is a hardliner and said to be the organizer of the violent attack on Daw Suu Kyi in 2004. He will have the final word in future peace agreements, as far as we understand.

[4] U Thuzana is a highly respected Karen monk who uses large donations (from Burma and Thailand) to built not only pagodas but schools clinics and roads in the Karen state