Much of the cautious optimism that followed Hilary Clinton’s historic visit to Burma, was tainted with unease and confusion over the past fortnight, as Thein Sein’s administration continued to send conflicting signals about its approach to ethnic minority groups.
First, on-going negotiations between the government and Kachin resistance fighters appeared to yield fruit, with the President announcing an unexpected ceasefire of the military offensive that has seen tens of thousands of civilians displaced and war-crimes committed by government troops. This surprising volte-face gathered momentum as the government publicly acknowledged the suffering of Kachin civilians and allowed a United Nations humanitarian team to deliver relief.
Yet days later, it became clear that the government was channelling fresh troops and supplies into the region, with skirmishes and even aerial bombing raids continuing. Meanwhile, the Chinese government, which has long been complicit in persecution of the Kachin people, compounded the situation by violating international law and sending thousands of refugees back to squalid and disease-ridden camps on the Burmese side of the border.
However, even as this unfolded Thein Sein’s lead negotiator was announcing to journalists the goal of peace with all of Burma’s ethnic resistance groups within four years. His comments suggested that the continuing assault against the Kachin may not be indicative of government policy at all, but rather of troops on the ground failing to follow instructions from the centre. Some speculate that this could be due to communication difficulties and failure of orders to ‘trickle-down’. Others have raised the more ominous prospect of soldiers deliberately defying the ceasefire – potentially pointing to a rift between reformers at the top and hardliners on the front line.
The lack of clarity was heightened further still on Friday, when Mahn Nyein Maung, a prominent leader of the Karen resistance (incidentally also deported by the Chinese government) was handed a seventeen year jail sentence on the meaningless charge of ‘unlawful association’. By sending him to join the 1546 political prisoners still languishing in Burma’s notorious jails, the government has demonstrated a continued hostility to the Karen people at the very time it is purporting to be engaging with them.
Overall, the only certainty is that at least some elements of the government want no progress and wish to continue various campaigns of ethnic cleansing that have blighted Burma for more than fifty years. Whether Thein Sein is included in that group remains to be seen, but either way the plight of ethnic minorities must be a priority for William Hague during his visit next month and for the entire international community in its engagement.