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Twin-Track Talks in Burma Raise Peace Hopes

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Thailand seeks to mediate peace talks between Burma's ruling junta and the Karen ethnic group that it's been trying to wipe out for 60 years. Norway, meanwhile, hopes to heal the rift between warring Karen factions.

When we think of the face of the opposition to Burma's ruthless ruling junta, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi usually comes to mind. Now in her fourteenth year of on-again, off-again house arrest, she emerged as a national leader when thousands of protesting students and monks were mowed down by the junta on August 8, 1988. The 8888 Uprising, as it came to be known, was reprised, if on a lesser scale, in 2007 when over 100 civilians and monks were killed during the "Saffron Revolution."

But the SPDC (State Peace and Development Council -- the predictably Orwellian type of name that dictatorships tend to adopt) faces another insurrection in Burma, one with which the West is less familiar. Minority groups have been battling to establish their own states -- not to mention escape ethnic cleansing -- for years. Eventually, cease-fire agreements with the junta were signed by all, except for the Shans and the Karens.

The Karens, the largest such group, inhabit the Burma-Thailand border region, as well as the Irrawaddy delta, the part of Burma hardest hit by Cyclone Nargis. They're waging a war against what they call the three A's -- annihilation, absorption, and assimilation -- in the form of the Karen National Union (KNU) and its armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA).

In fact, just entering its seventh decade, it's the world's longest-running war for independence. However, continually outnumbered by the Burmese army and riven by internal division, it's showing its age. Why hasn't the junta finished them off then? Apparently the Burmese army, plagued by corruption, poor morale, and desertion, can't seem to summon the resources to go in for the kill.

In fact, KNU vice chairman and spokesperson David Thackrabaw told us that the Burmese army is a "paper tiger." He added, "In a way, the struggle is a stalemate. We can see our situation half full or half empty....For the death of one Karen guerilla, 20 SPDC soldiers die....In three years time, SPDC have suffered 6,000 casualties." [Unconfirmed.]

Reduced to fielding an army that compensates for its weaknesses with numbers, it would be natural for the junta to seek a ceasefire. But the last time both sides agreed to stop fighting, in 2004, the junta took advantage of the occasion to reinforce its front lines.

The primary reason the junta seeks ceasefire talks is to pave the way for the entire country to participate in next year's elections. The junta hopes that by making a token attempt at democracy it can convince the West to ease the sanctions it's imposed on Burma and re-open economic relations. But, writes the Karen insurgency's most stalwart chronicler, Daniel Pedersen, "If they cannot bring the country's largest ethnic minority into the fold, their chances of selling legitimacy on the back these elections are slim, to say the least."

Still, the junta already receives assistance in economic development from China, as well as Thailand, not to mention, the KNU alleges, European interests trying to dodge economic sanctions. Even before elections and open economic relations with the West come to pass, ensuring the success of these projects provides plenty of incentive for all parties concerned to neutralize the KNU and KNLA. For example, the junta has begun to construct the first of a number of dams on the untamed Salween River, which slices through Karen territory.

The Salween, with 80 species of endangered fish and animals, was designated a World Heritage Site five years ago. But, from another point of view, it offers the prospect of employment, as well as hydroelectric energy, for the Karens, right? Not exactly.

The first problem that the dam presents, Pedersen tells us, is that "it requires building a road to bring construction in. The roads in themselves are a form of oppression in themselves. Crossing a road in Karen State is a bloody big deal -- you can very easily find yourself shot." They're strictly for the use of the junta, which uses the road roads "to sectionalize areas of Karen State" and service base camps.

As for jobs, sure, they're provided for the Karens -- if you consider this employment: "The SPDC picks a village easily taken and then establishes a base camp," explains Pedersen. "The village head will be told there are so many people required for labor efforts." But the workers aren't paid, nor even fed, and "they are often first forced to build a bamboo compound in which they are locked at night." The point that turning a people into slave labor provides them with little incentive to sign a treaty seems lost on the junta.

As for the dams, they'll not only be of no benefit to the Karens, but to any citizens of Burma. In fact, they're intended to provide electricity to Thailand and China. Worst of all, explains Pedersen, by "signing deals for years in advance," the 12 generals of the junta become "time bandits."

This project, however unsavory, along with other deals such as for deep sea ports, is obviously enough to motivate Thailand to mediate the latest round of ceasefire talks. Besides, Thailand is the current chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the country could use an image makeover after the way it's been treating its own protesters, not to mention the Rohingya boat people.

Worse in a way, Thailand has been averting its gaze as the junta sends the DKBA across the border into Thailand, where it attacks Karen refugees. The DKBA, or Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (its use of "Buddhist" is even more Orwellian than the SPDC's use of "State" and "Peace"), splintered off the KNU and, bought off by the junta, preys on its own people.

When a people turns on its own people, the tendency is to attribute it to ancestral rivalries. But, according to Pedersen, DKBA's members turned on the KNU either to profit from business with the junta or simply to hold on to their livelihoods and keep their families from becoming refugees.

Nevertheless, an attempt is under way to graft the KNU and DKBA back together again. The Karens used to host hunts for important Norwegians, who are now returning the favor and offering to chair peace talks between the warring factions. Even though the DKBA has assassinated key members of the KNU, possibly including its revered general secretary Mahn Sha in February 2008, the KNU is willing to attempt a reconciliation. Should that come to pass, a new improved KNU would hold a stronger hand than it previously has in talks with the junta.

As the world's longest-running insurgency, the Karens may think they've proven that they can outlast the junta. But the junta, in office since 1962, is nearly as enduring. Though once talks begin, it's not hard to understand why the KNU might stick to one of their founding principles and an avowed non-negotiable -- retaining their arms.

Under the circumstances, wouldn't you?