CHIANG MAI, 9 January 2012 (IRIN) - Karen leaders are cautiously optimistic about the possibility of peace after more than 60 years of fighting Burmese security forces as they prepare for meetings with the government on 10 January.
A Karen "peace committee" - formed in November - has arranged a two-day meeting in the state's Pa Ang District for what is hoped will lead to a permanent end to the armed conflict that began in 1949 and has left the civilian population devastated by decades of instability.
"The talks are the very first step in negotiations for a ceasefire," Karen National Union (KNU) vice-president Saw David Thakabaw told IRIN.
"We have to begin with a ceasefire and then proceed to negotiations, with political dialogue taking place later."
The Karen, a largely Christian community in eastern and southern Myanmar, have effectively been at war with Myanmar's central government since the country gained independence from the UK.
The KNU seeks a genuine federal system giving Myanmar's individual ethnic states greater autonomy.
In 2011, the KNU joined an umbrella alliance of ethnic parties and groups - including the Mon, Shan, Karenni, Chin, and Kachin people - to form the United Nationalities Federal Council in an effort to bring unified strength to the negotiating table.
"It's been very difficult in the past. We've met five times already with the successive regimes in power and now it will be the sixth time. We hope this time will be different because of the changes in the geo-political situation," said Saw David Thakabaw.
The news comes as Myanmar's nominally civilian government appears more open to international dialogue following the visit of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last November and UK foreign minister William Hague in January.
"We think now is an ideal time to open talks to reform the political problems during the negotiations," explained KNU general-secretary Zipporah Sein. "But we will not sign a ceasefire for peace unless there is a guarantee that it will lead to political dialogue and long-lasting peace.
"One of the main problems is the security for the civilian population because many of them are still living in IDP [internally displaced persons] areas and they cannot go back to their villages.
"Despite the talks, the Burmese are still sending supplies and troops into the area and we are afraid that they will use their military power against us again," said Zipporah Sein.
According to the Thai Burmese Border Consortium (TBBC) [ http://burmacampaign.org.uk/images/uploads/TBBC-Displacement-and-Poverty-in-South-East-Burma.pdf ], an umbrella group of NGOs working along the border to supply aid to 10 refugee camps - at least 112,000 people were forced to leave their homes in southeast Myanmar between August 2010 and July 2011.
These rates are the highest in a decade, underlining the escalation in fighting since the 2010 elections [ http://www.irinnews.org/report.aspx?reportid=90984 ].
And while many of the displaced have returned home, others have moved to refugee camps; about 20,000 live in makeshift camps inside Karen state, the TBBC [ http://www.tbbc.org/resources/resources.htm ] reported.
"The education of the Karen and other ethnic groups has been destroyed over the years so we need the right to an education for our next generation, especially to learn our culture, our history and our language," said Saw Mort, spokesperson for the Karen Student Network Group.
Karen Women's Organization spokesperson Knaw Paw stressed the need for women's issues to be addressed in the peace process but said that initially, what was most important was basic human rights for civilians caught up in the conflict.
"The people in the camps listen to the radio and they know about what's happening in the capital but I think the majority of them are still struggling with their hardships and just trying to carry on with their lives and survive," Knaw Paw says.