Karen rebels search for peace through Myanmar′s elected leaders | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 09.04.2012
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Karen rebels search for peace through Myanmar's elected leaders

With the international community considering ending Myanmar sanctions, the country's president has held peace negotiations with Karen rebels in the first such high-level talks with the ethnic minority in over 60 years.

Change is picking up the pace in Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma. At the beginning of this month, the country held a by-election - its second democratic election - which turned out to be a landslide victory for the leading opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party, which won 43 seats in parliament. One of those seats went to party leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. It was her first time to run in an election after nearly two decades of house arrest. Since then, and also after previous releases of some of the country's political prisoners, the international community has been increasingly speaking out in favour of lifting sanctions against the Southeast Asian country.

But change doesn't stop there. Now, the government has been active in holding peace talks with rebel groups. Leading representatives of Myanmar's Karen minority met with President Thein Sein (on April 8) and with Suu Kyi just a day later.

Aung San Suu Kyi (L) meets with Naw Si Pho Ra Sein (R), General Secretary of the Karen National Union (KNU)

Myanmar's ethnic minorities welcome the country's democratic change

It was the first time a Burmese head of state held talks with representatives from the country's Karen minority group since 1949. The talks focused on a peace agreement between the government and the Karen National Union (KNU).

A change in policy?

After assuming office as president in 2011, Thein Sein called out for ceasefires between government and minority rebels, who have been engaged in armed conflict since Myanmar gained independence from Britain in 1948.

Ethnic minorities make up around one third of the total population. According to AP press agency, recent preliminary ceasefire agreements have already been reached between the government and representatives of the Mon, Shan, Chin, Wa and Kokang minority groups.

"We all know that a ceasefire is the first vital step. We will not be able to reach internal peace without a ceasefire agreement," Nobel Peace Prize laureate Suu Kyi said after meeting with Karen representatives on Sunday.

KNU representatives are hopeful that the ceasefire will last. The recent negotiations include provisions for the protection of civilians and the return of refugees and guidelines for soldiers.

"In order to achieve real peace in this country, the people will play a big role. But we also need the government to participate in the peace process. That is extremely important," said KNU Secretary General Zipporah Sein.

Conflict continues

Despite negotiations, people living in Myanmar's conflict-torn east have not seen much improvement. The KNU has been fighting the government since 1949 - at first for independence, and now for self-determination. Now, the KNU is demanding Naypyidaw's current military-backed, democratically elected government do its part to uphold a ceasefire.

Aung San Suu Kyi

Suu Kyi, aka "The Lady," won a seat in parliament in the April 1 by-election

While the government carries out talks with the Karen, bloody conflict between rebels and government troops continues in Kachin state, in the country's north.

A 17-year ceasefire was broken in Kachin state in June, 2011 (soon after democratically elected and military-backed Thein Sein was instated as president), after government forces launched a new attack against rebels. Some people have criticized Naypyidaw for carrying out peace talks with one rebel group while continuing to wage a war against another. And it also makes one wonder how much power President Thein Sein really has compared to the military and hardliners in government.

Author: Nicola Glass, Sarah Berning
Editor: Shamil Shams

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