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Monday, January 17, 2011

BURMA: VOICES FROM THE RESISTANCE

Few people are aware that there are 14 ethnic and other armed resistance groups in Burma of various sizes, with over 18,000 members operating along or close to the 2012-kilometer border with Thailand.

MAXMILIAN WECHSLER was recently able to gain access to ranking officers and leaders of six of these groups to find out their reactions and opinions on the general elections, the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, the armed struggle, their aims and future plans.

Ko Than Khe: Keep up the pressure






















Ko Than Khe, Chairperson of the All Burma Student’s Democratic Front (ABSDF) outlined the strategy of his group by saying: “To achieve the federal democratic union in Burma, we need to change the current military rule through [nonviolent] pressures including the people power movement, in combination with the armed struggle. This does not mean that the ABSDF is against the so-called national reconciliation. National reconciliation has been urged for two decades by the opposition and the international community, including the UN. But it has not worked and it is not likely to come to the surface in Burma as long as the SPDC [State Peace and Development Council] clings to the 7-Step Road Map.”
















Touching on the subject of the general election, he said: “It is a part of the Road Map to glorify the military rule through this sham election and form a military dominated parliament based on the 2008 constitution. So, it is just to show legitimacy inside and outside the country. It defies the 1990 election result and the role of the political parties, including the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

“Her release, in my personal and political point of view, is a cause for hope, and she has called for unity, and for all to work for the country. But she already confessed that the national reconciliation cannot come about by her efforts and those of the NLD alone. Everyone needs to participate and work to achieve the goal.

“Do I expect changes in Burma after her release? Obviously, it is a very significant and strident motivation for all, especially the Burmese people, to see her release. Meanwhile, nearly all political factions, including ethnic leaders and some political parties participating in the 2010 election, are ready to support her works.

“We don’t have any contact with her or the NLD. There is no need to have direct contact in the 21st century IT era. But we can expect that mutual understanding on our different positions already exist, as we have all been struggling for more than two decades for the common objectives of liberating the people of Burma from this tyrannical military dictatorship, restoring democracy and human rights, resuming internal peace in the country and establishing a federal system in the future.’’

When asked if the ABSDF will continue the armed struggle, Ko Than Khe replied: “Yes, we will. Dialogue is a means to solve the political problems on the table, but as long as the military leaders continue to hold to this 7-Step Road Map, we cannot expect to get a dialogue. Hence, we need pressure, pressure, including an armed resistance movement.

“In this regard, first, we need to be clear about the realities, what the country is facing. Everyone except the military leaders is suffering under this system. Beyond the politics, we have to talk about many issues, such as the economy, social programs, education, health, etc. Even though Aung San Suu Kyi has been released, her freedom is very limited, as everybody knows.

“We have not seen any positive sign from the military leaders that they are willing to talk about political issues such as the 1990 election result, the legality of the NLD, the more than 2000 political prisoners, on-going armed conflicts and tensions mounting among the ethnic ceasefire groups.’’

As for cooperation with other groups along the border and inside Burma, Ko Than Khe said: “If we look back on the ABSDF’s political history, we were born amidst the 8888 [Aug 8, 1988] democratic uprisings and have grown up in the ethnic areas. Hence, the ABSDF has already established mutual relationships and cooperation with major armed resistance groups. For 20 years already in these liberated areas, we have sacrificed our lives -- more than a thousand ABSDF members. One day, the ABSDF will contribute to national reconciliation and the establishment of federalism in the country.

“We all have different political backgrounds. We have all been struggling to achieve this liberation and we need to recognize everyone’s efforts. And we still believe that without political solutions, ceasefires alone cannot work out or handle the grievances of the armed resistance movements.”

Brig Gen Hsar Gay: Election didn’t change anything

















Commenting on the general election, Brig Gen Hsar Gay, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Karen National Union (KNU), said: “Although the KNU was against the general election because it was based on wrong principles, it did bring something new -- a split within the DKBA [Democratic Karen Burma Army] with the defection by Na Kham Mui and his followers in August. We don’t know if they will rename themselves or not.

“The election didn’t change anything in particular. What it did achieve was that when the Burmese junta asked the DKBA to transform itself into the Border Guard Force (BGF), this forced Na Kham Mui to defect. It also resulted in the fighting that erupted in Myawaddy and at Three Pagodas Pass on November 8.”

He congratulated Aung San Suu Kyi on her release: “We welcome her warmly and hope that she will be able to start political activities again. At the same time, we have to be very careful and watch what the SPDC has in mind.”

When asked, whether Aung San Suu Kyi supports the armed struggle, Hsar Gay answered: “She has always publicly expressed support for ethnic nationalities.”

According to Hsar Gay, the goal of the KNU is to create a genuine federal union or confederation with authority residing both in the central government and in each state.

“As part of a federation or confederation, we will have our own state government and our own defense forces, with representatives in the federal government. Karen State will have representatives in the capital of Burma, which should be Rangoon. It would be the ideal place because of logistics and other reasons. We shouldn’t forget that about 300,000 Karen people also live there. The capital should be a federal city -- like Washington DC,” Hsar Gay said, adding:

“Each state will have a state constitution which complies with the federal constitution. This is acceptable to all ethnic nationalities. We want a federation, meaning that all ethnic states will come together in the same country.

“All ethnic states should have their own state and local governments. We also want to maintain our military force, whatever it will be called – local militia, border police – for some years after the creation of the federation in order to have a guarantee, for some years at least. We will accept a federal army as well.”

Asked whether the KNU will continue its armed struggle, Hsar Gay replied: “Setting Aung San Suu Kyi free doesn’t mean that the attacks on the ethnic people by the SPDC will stop. The situation will become even worse because the Wa and Kachin refuse to be incorporated into the BGF. It is very probable that the Burmese will attack them some day. In preparation for this scenario, we have military alliances in place to open a bigger front – from Kachin State down to Mon State. Kachin, Wa, the Shan State Army-North and South, Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), KNU and the New Mon State Party (NMSP) will all join the effort together.

“I believe that sooner or later the Burmese will use force against the Wa and Kachin, which could change dramatically the whole country, especially for the ethnic nationalities. In my opinion it is impossible for the Burmese to fight on three or four fronts at the same time or to occupy the [not officially recognized] Wa State.”

















To the question of how the KNU make money to support the organization, Hsar Gay replied: “We don’t get much assistance from big foreign sources, but only from individuals, which doesn’t amount to much. We are making money from taxation, but this is less now because of our smaller territorial control than 20 years ago. Still, we have a tax system in place for the trade within our areas. We do gold mining in some areas under our control as well as levy taxes on trade and exportation of some natural resources. There are some Thai and other foreign companies who are logging and we have tax agreements with them. This is nothing new. Other groups like the Karen National Union / Karen National Liberation Army – Peace Council (KNU/KNLA-PC) also do this, as does the KNPP.

“I just visited their [KNPP] liberated areas, including the positions of the 1st; 2nd and 3rd battalions. They are well organized, with many outposts and a high morale. I am very impressed with the security and positions they have. They control a reasonably big area. Some soldiers from the Pa-O National Liberation Organization and ABSDF are also living with them.”

When asked about a rumor that the KNU had developed a secret weapon that can shoot down Russian-made helicopter gunships ordered by the Burmese military, Hsar Gay surprisingly gave more information: “The Burmese recently bought about 50 Russian-made helicopter gunships. They also possess other helicopters but are afraid to use them because they don’t want to lose them. If they do so in our areas, even with armor, we will shoot them down. We have modified old weapons and manufactured special ammunition for this purpose in our workshops. I can also tell you that this weapon has a range of about 1,500 meters and can be used effectively against armored vehicles.”

He disclosed that the KNU destroyed one Burmese helicopter about 15 years ago with an RPG while it was on the ground. “At that time we didn’t have a weapon to shoot down a helicopter in flight,” he said.

Maj Gen Dr Timothy Laklem: We want self-determination

















Maj Gen Dr Timothy Laklem, Head of Foreign and Diplomatic Relations, KNU/KNLA - PC, a group which split from the KNU said: “We don’t have any problem with the KNU or with the DKBA. We have the same goal: to see a free Burma.

“We are happy that Aung San Suu Kyi was released. She doesn’t have the same intention as the regime to order us to stop the armed struggle. She has come to the conclusion that we have to negotiate and we all can work together for the future of the country. She would be the most appropriate person to bring the nation to reconciliation and to lead in a positive direction, together with the ethnic leaders.

“We want an independent Karen State and a democratic federal union of Burma, no matter who is in power. We want self-determination. We believe that the Karen and all ethnic peoples should have their own ethnic states based on democratic elections. Orders for disarmament are not the solution. Discussions and mutual conclusions are the best way. It should not be one person deciding and giving orders, and that is not Aung San Suu Kyi’s way either.

“The military are very narrow-minded with their Myanmarnization, meaning that the Myanmar people want to dominate. I don’t believe that Aung San Suu Kyi comes with this spirit. However, if she does comes out like that to dominate the country’s politics and democracy, we ethnics will tell her: ‘Do what you want to do but don’t mess with us.’ But if she wants everyone to live in peace and harmony, she has to choose a democratic federal union that gives respect to ethnics and allows them to manage their own affairs and whatsoever. Ethnic indigenous rights have to be recognized by the government.”

As for the general elections, Timothy Laklem said: “After the election, all the people inside Burma and around the world know that it was shameful. It was not an election, but a selection.

“I want to clarify why we cannot accept the BGF. None of the ethnic groups can accept the Burmese armed forces. The BGF should be a union of armed forces. The chief of staff should be elected by the people. The military has to be representative of the people, not a group of war-mongers. It has to protect the people and to recognize the equal rights of the ethnic indigenous people. The BGF is now only protecting the interests of the power-mongers.”

Raymond Htoo: New Panglong Conference needed



















Raymond Htoo, Permanent Member of the Central Committee of the KNPP, said that the general election will not yield any positive benefits in the lives of the Burmese people, but will extend the life of the military junta.

He described the release of Aung San Suu Kyi as very good news for all people of Burma.

“We are happy that she was released from the house arrest as all people hope that she will be able to bring democracy to Burma. You could see how thousands of people went to welcome her. Our people are hopeful and want her to be the future leader in Burma. She must lead the people to democracy.

“Neither her release nor the elections will affect our work very much, but we do expect changes in Burma. If we can hold a second Panglong Conference, we can discuss the future of Burma. The people are not interested in what the SPDC is doing. Such a conference can lead to decisions that everybody can accept and that will lead to the Federal Union of Burma.”

Raymond Htoo explained that the Panglong Conference was a meeting attended by leaders of various ethnic nationalities and Aung San – then a head of the Interim Burmese government – that took place at Panglong, Shan State in February 1947. The agenda included the united struggle for independence from Britain and the future of Burma after independence as a unified republic.

He went on to say that the KNPP strategy is to pursue both political negotiations and armed struggle. We are cooperating closely with other democratic groups as in the past, to build up the future of Burma. We don’t recognize the election and its results. We will continue our armed struggle until the SPDC has gone.

“We cooperate with all democratic groups, such as the Shan State Army (SSA) South, KNU and even with former ceasefire groups, including the Kachin Independence Organization and the NMSP.”

Saw Kwe Htoo Win: We will continue to fight

















Saw Kwe Htoo Win, Chairman of the KNU Mergui-Tavoy district, said that after the election, the situation didn’t change.

“The military continues its grip on the country. We don’t have any choice but to continue struggling to achieve our political goals. We have to use both the armed struggle and the political way.

“The election was a fraud. The SPDC used their officials, whether civilian or military, to intimidate and to rig the election in order to win. The SPDC threatened villagers to vote for the Union Solidarity and Development Association, a group that backs the SPDC. In our areas, the villagers didn’t have to go to vote. The village leader or other government officials took the ballots and ticked them for them. This is not freedom and we can’t accept the result.

“The election and Aung San Suu Kyi’s freedom won’t alter our group’s strategy. We will continue to fight. The SPDC is using force, so we have to continue fighting and also try to achieve peace by political means.

“Aung San Suu Kyi has never said whether she supports the armed struggle. She has always used peaceful and non-violent means to achieve her goals, but she hasn’t condemned armed resistance either.

“We will continue armed struggle until we actually have peace talks with the SPDC and until there is a democratic government. In this regard, we are in constant contact with other armed resistance groups and former ceasefire groups.”

U Aye Saung: We fight for survival


















U Aye Saung, General Secretary of the People’s Liberation Front, a small left-wing armed group, said: “We are surviving because the KNU is looking after my group. They armed my group and give us all necessary things, like food.

“The ethnic groups will continue to fight against the SPDC regardless of the election, which was rigged. We don’t recognize it. The former ceasefire groups are now also fighting against the Burmese military. They are also interconnected with other fighting groups. This doesn’t include the ceasefire and other groups that joined the BGF, they follow the SPDC. They are now armed forces under the SPDC. But the armed resistance groups will continue what they have been doing in the past – to fight.”

When U Aye Saung was asked if his group would stop fighting if Aung San Suu Kyi told them to, he answered: “No, we have to fight because she can’t protect us. If she can, then we will stop. We welcome her release and I hope that she can understand why we are engaged in the armed struggle. We follow our own cause. We have to fight for our own survival. Whatever government is in Burma, we want a federal union.

“The armed struggle will continue because the SPDC still attacks us. There are many SPDC troops in the KNU and KNPP areas now. All armed groups will continue to fight together with former ceasefire groups against the SPDC army. We are now all interconnected.

“All the former ceasefire groups [that didn’t join in the BGF] don’t believe in the election, so they have only one way, and this is to fight.’’

BURMA'S ARMED RESISTANCE GROUPS ALONG THAI-BURMA BORDER
NAME OF GROUP ESTIMATED ARMED PERSONNEL
1. Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and Karen National Defense Organization (KNDO) (KNDO is de-facto police force under command of KNLA) 7,000
2. Shan State Army (SSA) South
7,000
3. 5th Brigade, Democratic Karen Burma Army (DKBA)
1,500
4. Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP)
1,400
5. All Burma Student’s Democratic Front (ABSDF)
500
6. Pa-O National Liberation Organization (PNLO)
300
7. Monland Restoration Party (MRP) 250
8. Karen National Liberation Army - Peace Council (KNLA - PC) 200
9. Myeik Dawei United Front (MDUF)
200
10. Karen Peace Force (KPF)
60
11. People’s Liberation Front (PLF)
20
12. All Burma Muslim Union (ABMU)
20
13. People’s Patriotic Party (PPP)
10
14. People’s Progressive Front (PPF) 5
TOTAL:
18,465




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