As progress continues in negotiating the cessation of hostilities, the challenge of transforming ceasefires into a substantive peace process is becoming more apparent in Burma. While various issues addressing military affairs, political processes and the protection of human rights have been agreed, these principles still need to be translated into practices which can be monitored. The apparent lack of an overall plan for merging different agreements into a common process of national reconciliation remains a concern.
Nonetheless, the Government of Myanmar’s peace initiative is welcome and deserving of support. Since suspending the formation of Border Guard Forces in September, the Government has been able to restore ceasefire agreements with the United Wa State Army (UWSA), National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA/Mongla), Shan State Army-North (SSA-N) and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA). Dialogue has also resumed in regards to ending protracted armed conflicts, with the Government reaching initial agreements with the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S), Chin National Front (CNF) and Karen National Union (KNU).
The New Mon State Party (NMSP) and the Karenni National Progress Party (KNPP) are continuing separate negotiations with the Government this week. Tragically, after 17 years of trying to promote constitutional and political reform within the government’s framework, the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) have lost faith in ceasefires as a mechanism for political change. The resumption of armed conflict in Kachin State last year and the refusal of the Myanmar Armed Forces to follow the President’s recent order to halt hostilities could still derail other peace processes.
Preliminary reports from Karen and Shan States suggest that fighting has decreased significantly since the KNU and SSA-S agreements were negotiated, but that skirmishes are have not completely stopped. Small gains in humanitarian access into Karen State have been reported from Rangoon during the past few months but most of the political and bureaucratic obstacles remain rigid. Human rights abuses, including restrictions on civilian movement in contested areas, continue and it will take time before the rule of law can begin to be restored and impunity challenged.
The uncertainty of the peace process has inevitably inspired hope as well as arousing suspicion amongst displaced persons along the border. Thailand’s National Security Council has reassured UNHCR that international standards will be respected and any potential repatriation of refugees will be voluntary. One of the challenges ahead for TBBC is to consult refugees about their fears and expectations, while building preparedness for their eventual return and rehabilitation in safety and with dignity.
TBBC has been struggling to raise adequate funding to maintain basic support for refugees and IDPs in recent years and is emphasising to Donors the importance of sustaining services during this critical period. The considerations of large numbers of refugees and IDPs are important if there is to be genuine reconciliation and orderly return, and their skills learned in community management and service delivery will be important assets when return and reconstruction become a reality.