Inside Burma: an end to the world’s longest civil war? Not so fast


KAREN STATE, Burma – Is the end nigh for the world's longest-running civil war, a conflict still simmering in Burma's landmine-studded eastern hills?

Despite reports to the contrary, the answer appears to be no.

I've just returned from an outpost manned by the Karen National Liberation Army, a 6,000-troop guerilla force warring for independence from Burma's central government.

Many were shocked last month when news broke that the tribe's political wing, the Karen National Union, agreed to a ceasefire with the army.

This armed ethnic group is among Burma's most defiant. Conventional wisdom dictates that their armed guerillas would be the least comfortable signing a truce with the central government of Myanmar (Burma's official title), which is aggressively trying to tame internal conflicts as it courts foreign investors.

Well, they didn't, according to the group. That widely reported "ceasefire" was a misinterpreted "initial agreement" to pursue a ceasefire, the group's supreme headquarters says. The confusion is likely owed to internal politics: certain leaders, more eager to draw down the conflict, appear to be at odds with other leaders.

To get their message straight, the Karen invited journalists to one of their outposts for an unconventional outdoor "press conference," the kind where baby chicks dart under the speakers' table and men with US-made M-79 grenade launchers patrol the perimeter.

In short, the group insists that ending this six-decade war is going to require a) pulling all Burmese troops from their terrain b) releasing all Karen political prisoners and c) ending all other wars, such as the conflict still raging in Burma's Kachin state.

But, according to the Karen, Burma's army hasn't been playing ball.

High-intensity combat has ceased for now, said Zipporah Sein, the Karen National Union's general secretary. "But they keep sending in more troops and resupplying their posts," she said. "We want them to leave. Now."

As for all the effervescent hope that Burma is rife with change?

"There is no change here," she said. "None at all." (My three-part series "Burma Rebooted," which explores the country's reforms, is here.)

In the coming days, I'll be writing about the quickening rush of foreign investment into Burma and the potential pushback from armed ethnic groups, who control much of the territory in which Burma's desired natural resources are located.

The Karen, whose turf contains substantial resources including gold, say they're not at all ready for U.S. or European firms to invest in their region if Western sanctions lift this year.

"It's too soon," said Hla Ngwe, another secretary with the Karen National Union.

"No fishing in troubled waters."

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