Changes had been afoot in Burma for a few years. In 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s Nobel laureate opposition leader, was released from house arrest, following largely fraudulent “elections” which retained the deeply unpopular junta in power. In late 2011, Barack Obama’s secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, began going public with negotiations for a détente between the West and the isolated regime. Then, this month (January 2012), over 600 political prisoners were released unconditionally, diplomatic relations with the U.S. were restored, and a cease-fire was agreed between the government and the separatist Karen fighters in the southeast of the country, near the Thai border, ending what had been the world’s longest-standing armed conflict.
Hillary Rodham Clinton and Aung San Suu Kyi
Though the road may be rocky—after all, they haven’t tried free, open multi-party elections yet—it is clear the direction Burma will now drift, and it is undoubtedly good for Burma, for the region, for the West, and for the world. But it is Burma’s internal politics that are now in unpredictable flux.
Myanmar’s president, Thein Sein
When Burma became independent from the United Kingdom in 1948, it was supposed to be set up as a stable democracy, like neighboring India, but it proved difficult. In the Panglong Agreement of 1948, the British and the new Burmese leader, Aung San (father of Aung San Suu Kyi), agreed to establish the Karen, Shan, Kachin, and others in autonomous regions where their nationhood would be recognized within a federated “Union of Burma.” The Karenni or Red Karen (often considered distinct from other Karen) and Shan were offered eventual right of secession. The small and impoverished Chin ethnic group of the northwest border area had no interest in going it alone and merely asked for their own autonomous region. The Kachin, small in number, got not even that, and independence led to an ongoing separatist insurgency in the far north. The Kachin’s many grievances include the establishment of Buddhism as the state religion while only a minority of Kachin are Buddhist (a slight majority are Christian, and most of the rest follow local religions). The Karen, who felt slighted by the British, sat out of the negotiations and got nothing. The Shan and Karenni never got their promised referenda, either. Overall, they ended up only with administrative divisions named after their ethnic groups (the Karen in Kayin state, the Karenni in Kayah) in a uniformly authoritarian state with one central authority.
The Karen, of these groups, has a powerful public-relations presence in the West which had played a major role in the West’s continuing diplomatic isolation of the Myanmar junta. Because of this, the Karen cease-fire has been big news, and is being used by the U.S. State Department to demonstrate a loosening of the junta’s grip and a general democratization and demilitarization of Burmese society (analogous in some ways to public representations of the Oromo cease-fire in Ethiopia, as I discussed here recently).
Protesters’ sign displaying the flag of the Karen National Union
The flag of Shan State
It is not a stretch to observe the diplomatic machinations of the past couple weeks and conclude that the Karen are at the negotiating table with the U.S. and Burmese governments mainly because their making peace with a liberalizing government has to be a part of any international perception that Burma has turned a corner and deserves to be re-embraced as a good global citizen. If the Karen are savvy (and they are) and if they still want independence (and that may well end up being decided after they see how liberal Burma is really becoming), then they may eventually get more autonomy and maybe even a separate state (which they would like to call Kawthoolei). After all, also in recent months, the U.S.’s midwifing of a new Republic of South Sudan has been a successful power play that has further isolated (north) Sudan and may be pushing the Somalia war to a satisfying end-game. If an independent Karen republic is what it takes to woo Burma away from China’s sphere of political influence, the U.S. will see that as a small price to pay. A new Karen state would probably be a loyal U.S. ally. But Burma’s rapprochement with the U.S. may prove to be at the cost of their long-suffering northern minorities and their lands.
The current flag of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar