Burma’s Peace Process in 2012: A Briefing Paper by KWO.
One year ago in January 2012 the world started to see steps towards peace being taken by the new Burmese Government after many years of entrenched military rule and human rights violations. They were steps warmly welcomed by all. The situation in Burma has received a lot of international media attention and there is a lot of international enthusiasm and expressions of support for the peace process there. The Burmese people and many of the ethnic peoples, like the Karen, have sincere but cautious hope that this time there may be real change coming.
The KWO is eager to see peace come to our land. In 2012 we have worked hard to support the process whenever possible and to increase the space for women in peace building. We have seen a number of positive changes in Burma and hope very much to see many more in 2013. However, as we reflect on this past year and consider the real situation in Burma and in the ethnic areas, we see that there is still a long way to go before a genuine and sustainable peace is reached in Burma and refugees can return safely and with dignity to our homeland.
We share the sentiments expressed in a recent report from the Mon ethnic group in Burma whose internally displaced people are being offered “relocation” by the Burmese Government:
“Concerns in the IDP community that relocation could lead to a recurrence of violence or exploitation may seem unfounded to those flushed with enthusiasm for Burma’s brisk pace of reform. However, it is precisely because of this rapid shift, after many years of a deeply entrenched system of repression, that many ethnic communities are unable to abruptly shed their enduring memories of systematic injustice. Similarly, for people in remote areas, there has not yet been adequate evidence of improvements to daily life or sufficient trust built between disparate groups to warrant immediate broad-based support.”
(Destination Unknown: Hope and Doubt regarding IDP Resettlement in Mon State. A Report by Human Rights Foundation of Monland, October 2012.)
Much of what has happened, or not happened yet, in the Peace Process in Burma has not been reported by the international media. For example, it has been widely reported that the Burmese government has signed cease-fire agreements with quite a few armed ethnic nationalities, including the KNU (Karen National Union). However it has not been reported that these agreements are not yet firmly in place, there are no codes of conduct for each side, and no mechanisms for monitoring the ceasefires. Although the preliminary ceasefires can be seen as a positive step forward, they have not developed to a point where they are enforceable, so the situation for village people is still very insecure and fragile.
Now in early 2013, it is unclear which direction the peace process in Burma is heading. Given the worsening situation in Kachin State, the recent armed clashes in Shan State, and the instability of the cease-fire agreements, the peace process does not look very promising to us at the moment. The Burmese Government lacks a clear plan to resolve the long-standing political problems, which is the root causes of the long conflict in Burma, and without such a plan and action, the peace process will not go far. At the moment the Government’s “roadmap” looks quite different from the “roadmaps” of the ethnic nationalities.
Certainly there have been positive changes in Burma in 2012 that we welcome, although more of these have been observed in the urban areas than in the rural or ethnic areas.
In the urban areas include:
- Aung San Suu Kyi is now a member of Parliament after being one of the longest held, best known, political prisoners in the world. Her political party, the NLD, has been given limited powers and freedoms to function.
- Preliminary forms of Labor Unions have been allowed to organize.
- Hundreds of political prisoners have been released.
- Over 1,000 people have been removed from the Burmese Government’s blacklist.
- There is increased but limited freedom of the press.
- There are increased but limited freedoms for people to take part in politics, including some freedom to hold public protests.
- A “Myanmar Peace Center” (MPC) has been established in Rangoon by the Burmese Government, with staff and a role to co-ordinate efforts and support for the Peace Process. (However there are real concerns regarding the functioning of the Peace Centre, a lack of transparency, and a lack of involvement of the ethnic groups.)
- A more energized and open atmosphere has been observed in Rangoon with private companies, INGOs, donors, and representatives of international governments flocking to Burma to establish a presence and to look for ways to invest or to offer help.
In the Ethnic areas the positive changes include:
- Preliminary ceasefires have been signed with many ethnic organizations who have fought the dictatorship for decades.
- There is less actual fighting on the ground in most ethnic areas. Less actual attacks on villages.
- There has been a decrease in travel restrictions placed on local people so there has been an increase in safer freedom of movement.
- There has been a decrease in the restrictions on freedom of assembly and association. So we have seen an increase in community meetings, local mobilization, and networking.
- There are less reports being received of human rights violations being perpetrated by the Burma Army.
Even though there have been some welcome positive changes, Burma still has a long way to go before a genuine and sustainable peace is reached. There are many challenges and obstacles which face us and need to be overcome:
- The Kachin ethnic group has seen the collapse of a 17-year ceasefire and large scale attacks by the Burmese Army on Kachin civilians including air strikes. Large numbers of new refugees have fled their homes.
- Violence against the Rohingya population has been encouraged and condoned by the Burmese Government.
- Most of the repressive laws within Burma remain unchanged.
- Most political prisoners were only provisionally released and remain subject to restrictions and re-arrest at any time.
- Violence against women continues unchecked. Victims have limited or no access to justice.
- The 2008 Constitution continues to enshrine military domination throughout the country and the oppression of ethnic minorities.
- Although there is a preliminary ceasefire in place between the Burmese government and the Karen National Union (KNU) the agreement has not developed towards a political dialogue.
- There are no codes of conduct in place between armed combatants of ceasefires. So they are not enforceable.
- Human Rights violations continue.
- Large scale resource extraction and mega-development projects, particularly in the more remote ethnic areas, are taking place without sufficient national regulation and without local consent or benefit. There is no national mechanism for environmental protection.
- Land grabbing, and land confiscations by Burmese Government and private companies is widespread and systematic.
- In the ceasefire areas there are steady increases in the numbers and presence of Burmese soldiers, who exploit the lull in fighting to bring in stores of food and supplies, strengthen the constructions of soldier encampments, and to build up the supply of weapons. Increased road building in these areas and forced local labour has caused new refugees to arrive in the camps along the border areas.
- Because the Burmese Government has been dysfunctional for so many years there are no laws or adequate procedures in Burma yet to regulate foreign investments, business, INGOs etc to ensure benefits and protections for citizens and local communities.
- Ethnic peoples’ right to self-determination continues to be ignored. Many of our community based and civil society organizations remain illegal, forcing us to work in secrecy.
- There are no legal mechanisms in Burma to meaningfully protect basic human rights.
KWO’s Peace Work in 2012.
Working within this evolving situation the KWO has been busy integrating our Peace Work with our regular community and women’s advocacy work. We have tried to make space for peace while still continuing to provide the basic services that our community work and projects achieve. In the Peace work we have focused our efforts in 3 main areas in 2012.
- Monitoring of the peace process and information sharing.
- Refugee Return: Preparedness
- Women’s participation in the Karen peace process (formally and informally)
- 1. Monitoring of the peace process and information sharing
In 2012, KWO participated in many meetings convened by other Karen or Burmese human rights organizations relating to the current situation in Burma and/or the issue of refugee return. We attended and presented at a Women’s League of Burma (WLB) donor meeting, attended a meeting of the Karen National Union Education Department on the state of education for the Karen people in Karen State, and a meeting of the Karen State Rural Development Group organized by Karen Environmental and Social Network, KESAN. These meetings along with many others have all been focused on changes in Burma, how to react and engage, effects on cross-border work and funding, the work being done by groups in Thailand, identifying efforts needed in Burma, and next steps for refugees and the community. KWO has also been meeting with groups and individuals inside Burma to discuss the situation and how best to coordinate with them. Our hope is that, if an enforceable ceasefire is put in place, then KWO can begin working more closely with these groups inside to improve the situation of women in Burma.
- KWO continued to monitor the situation on the ground in Karen State and submitted reports of human rights violations occurring there.
- KWO regularly shared information about the Peace Talks with the KWO branches in the refugee camps and inside Karen State who were then able to spread the news throughout their communities.
- During the KWO Central Standing Committee Meeting, our advocacy team made a presentation to the women attending (representatives of Karen women in all parts of Karen state and all camps) about the peace talks. We were able to share a DVD of this informative presentation with women at the community level.
- We convened the first ever “Seminar for Karen Women” attended by Karen women leaders from organizations inside Burma and along the border. At that seminar the group established a new entity which we are calling “Karen Women for Peace” and we will continue to share information and advocate for peace in Burma through the voices of women.
International Advocacy, Informing key actors in peace building.
KWO representatives met with the “US Ambassador at Large for Global Women’s Issues”, Melanne Verveer, regarding the situation of women inside Burma and human rights violations and clarified that no permanent ceasefire was yet in place and explained our role, formally and informally, in the peace process. We had a similar discussion with a representative of the Finnish Government, and a Member of Parliament from Great Britain, as well as other interested visitors. Earlier in 2012 we met with representatives of the US State Department as well. We shared our view of developments inside Burma and the progress toward peace. KWO has been able to provide top policy makers with a grassroots view of what is happening in villages inside Burma. These types of government advisors often hear from officials and policy experts, but rarely from real people at the grass roots. We are able to give concrete examples of life inside Burma. We described the continuing food and land confiscations, violence against women and other human rights violations. We also were able to raise our concerns about the current peace process lacking transparency and not being inclusive enough for villagers to know what is happening and to have a voice.
- 2. Refugee Return: Preparedness
Given that steps towards peace were being taken in Burma it is not surprising that the UNHCR and the Thai and Burmese governments started talking with each other about the possibility of refugees in the 9 camps along the Thai – Burma border returning to their homeland. There have been discussions also between the Burmese and Thai governments about the return of unregistered Burmese migrant workers in Thailand also. The UNHCR refers to these talks as “preparedness” and emphasizes that it is not “planning” for refugee return at this stage. Refugees and CBOs have been alarmed throughout 2012 however with statements and news which seemed to indicate the opposite: that plans for refugee return were developing, that information was being withheld from us and that we were being kept out of decision-making processes.
Since early 2012 KWO has been involved in an active community awareness raising program with refugees in the 7 Karen camps about refugee rights and the international standards for refugee return. Since the second half of 2012, KWO has been doing a great deal of work around the issue of refugee return, as part of a co-ordinated community response to UNHCR’s “preparedness” activities. As refugees and our leadership had not been involved at all in these discussions or meetings, there was widespread concern and confusion about what would happen and whether or not we were about to be victimized in a difficult and rushed repatriation process organized without our agreement or participation. KWO, as it often done has in the past, stepped into the situation and began organizing people to talk about the issue and respond to the UNHCR and governments. Our goal is to create a direct voice for refugees in the process and to ensure the process is thoughtful and based on voluntary choice of refugees. We have developed allies in INGO’s and the advocacy community who are helping us push for more engagement by those who will be most affected, the refugees.
- KWO, with Burma Partnership, held a refugee exchange and workshop in early August 2012 where we learned about the experiences of refugees from other places, met with UNHCR and began planning to have an active voice in our own return, if it ever eventuates.
- KWO attended the new “Repatriation Stakeholders” meeting in November, and now being held quarterly, in Mae Sariang to discuss how better to share information and to co-ordinate.
- KWO, along with other Karen Community Based Organizations, worked with Burma Partnership to make a short video about Karen refugees and our current thoughts about refugee return, which featured an interview with KWO Secretary, Nan Dah Eh Kler. (titled: “Nothing About Us Without Us” can be seen on YouTube and other sites).
- We developed a position paper, based on KWO’s earlier efforts, that represents the Karen Community Based Organizations’ views on refugee return and the issues involved. (See attached.)
- KWO and KCBO have now met with UNHCR twice about this issue and will continue to do so.
- In December 2012 we sent people to Geneva to lobby UNHCR at a higher level directly.
- KWO released a statement on World Refugee Day in June, called “I Am a Refugee. Listen to My Voice”.
- KWO brought refugees together from a number of the camps to meet with the “UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar” who visited the border area in 2012. They were able to talk to him about why they fled Burma and what their concerns about the current situation in Burma are. Their comments were included in his final report on his visit to the area.
More recently the UNHCR and the Thai government have made efforts to reassure refugees and other stakeholders that the time for refugee repatriation has not yet arrived. They have made public statements saying it is much too soon to be planning refugee return. It is not yet safe enough in Burma to even consider sending any refugees back. According to UNHCR’s own principles, refugee return must be “voluntary, in safety and with dignity.”
After the annual meeting between the CCSDPT, UNHCR and MOI near Bangkok in January 2013, it was reported that “there will be no forced repatriation of refugees, the Royal Thai Government is clear about that. Everyone recognized that there have been some rapid changes in Burma, but none of the Thai government department representatives, nor the NGOs, nor UNHCR, see refugee return as happening any time soon. When it is time, it will be voluntary, and in safety and in dignity.”
Observing the current situation, the KWO and Karen community leaders also do not anticipate that we will be able to return safely to our land any time soon. So we continue to plan for the provision of essential services for our community in the refugee camps and we will do so also for any refugee return process, if or when it takes place. Following return we will need to continue essential services until the national Government in Burma is able to fulfill its responsibilities and provide basic services to its citizens.
- 3. Women’s participation in the Karen peace process
In 2012 the KWO has been active in the Karen peace process, both formally and informally, in public meetings and behind the scenes. We have been pushing for an increase in women’s involvement and inclusion in peace building.
- KWO issued a statement calling for greater involvement of women in the peace process.
- We sent women to participate in and speak at the Karen Worldwide Meeting of Karen people. K’nyaw Paw presented on the peace process of Mindanao with recommendations for action.
- We sent one of our staff to the Netherlands to attend a conference and training in a summer school on women, peace and security given by Oxfam/Novib, Leiden University and the Dutch Foreign Affairs Department.
- We participated in a meeting held by the Women’s League of Burma with a variety of ethnic groups engaged in peace negotiations, calling on each of them to increase the presence of women in those talks and to address important issues for women and children.
- We assisted in establishing the new grouping “Karen Community Based Peace Support Network” which is active in co-ordinating our Karen civil society’s participation in the Peace Process.
- Both before and after the KNU’s first round of peace talks, the KWO developed documents to present to the KNU the suggestions and concerns from a woman’s perspective about the peace process and the peace talks.
- When the 12 points of the preliminary ceasefire agreement were released, KWO held internal and community discussions and analysed the 12-point plan. We then submitted a written response representing women, which raised our concerns.
- We formed a KWO Peace Team to work on the peace process which includes 6 women, and formed a separate support group for that team. With our Peace team we identified key areas where we want KWO to focus our efforts and for women in the community to be more involved.
- KWO released a statement outlining how we want to see women included in the peace talks.
- KWO sent a representative on a “Peace Study Tour” to the Philippines.
- KWO attended several workshops related to the analysis of economics and development in Burma.
- We participated in all meetings and consultations that were organized by the community or CBOs related to peace issues. We also attended any that were organized by INGOs / donors if we were invited. If we were not invited, but we heard about them in time, we requested that we be included.
- Through our membership of the Women’s League of Burma (WLB), we co-ordinated our peace efforts with other women’s organizations from Burma. We were active in the WLB Signature Campaign which sent an open letter to all parties in the Peace Process calling on them to work together to attain peace in our land.
- As a skilled and empowered organization representing a large number of Karen women, we continued to demand that we be included in any strategy or planning meeting. We were invited and able to participate in some.
- Within KWO, we held numerous meetings, to plan our Peace Work and to re-prioritise and re-organise our other work without causing negative effects. Those members of KWO who were becoming more involved in the peace work, delegated our duties to other staff and those staff doubled their efforts so that KWO can be more involved in the peace process.
- In all areas we worked hard to mobilize women and we extended our active working areas in Karen State.
The KWO message to all women about the Peace Process in Burma is clear. We will not be reluctant and we will push forward ourselves. When we have questions and concerns we will ask and express them and will demand more explanation. We support the process and we want women actively involved at every step and every level. We will work closely with other community based groups (CBOs). And we will hold the leaders accountable for their actions and statements in this peace process that belongs to us all.
Appendix 1: KCBO Position Paper
11 September 2012
Karen Community Based Organizations’ Position on Refugees’ Return to Burma
The following is a preliminary working paper prepared by the Karen Community Based Organizations (KCBOs) concerned with refugees’ repatriation and return to Burma.
This position paper does not look into the case of people who choose not to return or those who are unable to for any reason. We will address their concerns and issues in the future as we continue to develop our positions and concerns and reach out to more people in our community.
It is our position that every refugee should have a free choice regarding whether or not to return. We KCBOs believe that the outlined preconditions must be met before the return of refugees takes place. These conditions are not yet in place; therefore refugees must not be returned or repatriated at this time.
Definitions as used in this position paper
These definitions were developed and agreed upon by the KCBOs; they reflect our common position and understanding of the following terms:
Return: Refugees returning with their full participation in the decision‐making process at all stages of the return process, through our own decisions and willingness.
Repatriation: The word repatriation when interpreted into Karen is very passive. It implies the return of refugees without their participation in the process and decision‐making and without being able to make their own decisions or without an alternative option. For this reason we prefer using the word “return.”
Consultation: Meeting with and listening to a broad range of people and the community. Providing them with all relevant information and including them in open discussions and the decision‐making process. Materials need to be provided in advance and in the native languages of the group. Meetings must be held in locations where people feel comfortable and not intimidated so open discussions are ensured. Consultation is not a training or simply making announcements or sharing information; it is an interactive inclusive and participatory process.
Pre‐Conditions to Refugees’ Return
The following conditions must be in place before refugees return to Burma:
• A political settlement must be in place between the ethnic armed groups and the Burma government.
• A nationwide ceasefire including a code of conduct and meaningful enforcement mechanism must be agreed upon and fully enforced.
• People’s safety and security must be guaranteed by the Burma government and the Karen National Union (KNU) through agreement(s) and enforcement mechanisms.
• Land‐mine clearance must be completed in areas where refugees are returning or are needed for their livelihood. Land mine removal in other areas should have begun.
• The Burma Army and its associated militia must withdraw from Karen areas.
• Human rights violations referenced in a comprehensive ceasefire agreement must have ended and the rule of law established so that returnees and others have a place to report violations and can reasonably expect sanctions against perpetrators to be issued.
• The Burma government must abolish all oppressive laws that affect refugees’ and ethnic community. This includes but is not limited to the Unlawful Associations Act, the Electronic Transaction Acts, and the cross border act.
• Healthcare and education, built on existing systems where possible, must be available in the places of return.
• A framework to resolve land issues must be agreed upon, including issues related to land ownership, land seizures and others.
Process to Follow When Planning Refugees’ Return
The following processes must be followed as the refugees’ return is being planned and developed and only once the above conditions are met.
• Refugees must individually decide for themselves whether or not and when to return to Burma or to remain in the areas where they have currently taken refuge.
• There must be a special program for those who cannot return for any reason.
• There should be a local and international monitoring group for the return process. This group must be recognized by government of Burma, UNHCR, KNU, and the Thai government.
• An independent committee representing refugees must be created and be responsible for the return of refugees from the beginning up until the end of the process. This group would include representatives of KCBOs, Camp Committees, the Karen Refugee Committee (KRC), and other refugees in the camps. It must be recognized by and work with the Burma and Thai governments, UNHCR, KRC and KNU.
• A complete and up to date assessment of the locations where refugees will be returning must be done by a local monitoring team. This group must be an independent group and be allowed to complete the assessment before the return takes place. Community Based Organisation representatives must be part of this team.
• Community Based Organizations must be involved at all levels and phases of the refugees’ return.
• The leadership and management roles of all different actors in the return process must be clarified and the decision makers and donors must put in place transparency and accountability mechanisms about their activities.
• There must be recognition of women’s leadership and their contribution to the community from now until refugees return home.
• The return of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) must take place first and be followed by refugees.
• Refugees must be able to return in groups with their organizations, structure and with a good, detailed plan.
• There must be a full long‐term support plan for refugees’ basic needs until we are able to stand by ourselves.
• In areas where refugees and IDPs are returning, training and awareness programs must be given to both refugees and local people to understand each other and promote smooth integration.
• There must be specific joint procedures and mechanisms agreed by the KNU and the government of Burma in place to report cases of human rights violations and have them addressed.
• There must be a refugee information centre in each location where refugees will be returned.
• During our return, vulnerable people such as pregnant women, mothers with newborn babies, sick people including the chronically ill, people with HIV and TB, the elderly, disabled people, must receive special care.
• Returnees must be recognized as full citizens and have government Identification Cards issued.
• Certificates in camps that are related to education, health, livelihood, etc. must be recognized so that refugees will be able to use them when they return.
Karen Community Based Organizations (KCBOs) Background Information
The Karen Community Based Organizations (KCBOs) is a grouping of a variety of Karen groups working on different issues, including education, health, relief assistance, environment, community development and human rights. These groups have been working in response to humanitarian crises in Karen areas and along the Thai‐Burma border, providing assistance to refugees and IDPs.