conflict with the Burmese government

The history of post-independence Burma is rife with conflict and protracted civil war between the central government and various armed groups. The war has been essentially ideological; historically between the socialist state and communist resistance; more recently between military rule and democratic opposition. Distinct from the democratic struggle, although recently somewhat converging with it, is that of the Karenni and other ethnic groups who have been fighting for self-determination and independence from the Burmese government since 1948.

Historically Karenni consisted of three states recognised as independent by their neighbours. To this effect, in 1875, the Imperial British and Burmese governments signed an agreement that the Karenni states were to be under the control of neither the British nor the Burmese. Burma was held by the British under colonial rule as a province of India between 1824 and 1948. During the colonial period Karenni was divided up into administrative areas governed by ‘Saophyas’ who had extensive control and departmental offices in their territories and did not pay tribute to the British monarchy, which had no institutional presence in the area. Between the 1840s and 1889, competition over teak and other resources produced conflict between various parties – Karenni, Burmese, British, Shan and Thai.

In 1947 the leaders of some ethnic minority areas that had previously been independent signed the Panglong Agreement allowing for accession of their territories to the Burmese states. Although Karenni leaders did not sign the agreement, on January 4, 1948, when Burma attained independence from British rule and the Union of Burma was created as an independent republic with a democratic parliament, Karenni State was incorporated into the Union of Burma. Many Karenni resisted and as a result military administration was imposed on the state. In 1957 the separatist opposition formed a new political organisation with a military wing, the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP).

Democratic rule in Burma ended in a 1962 coup d’etat led by General Ne Win. Ne Win ruled the country for twenty-six years as Chairman of the Burmese Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), administering the ‘Burmese Way to Socialism’ with Marxist and Buddhist influences. The BSPP brought in a series of harsh reforms and oppressive treatment, particularly of ethnic minority groups, crushing the separatist cause, denying the ethnic minority states any effective means of political participation and forcing the resistance movement underground. In 1988, a massive student-led uprising protesting economic mismanagement and political oppression, sparked by the appointment of General Sein Lwin of the security police as BSPP chairman, was violently repressed by the state but paved the way in 1990 for the first free elections held in Burma for nearly 30 years. Karenni groups took part in the 1988 uprising and two Karenni parties each won two seats in the 1990 elections.

The elections yielded a landslide victory to the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi, but the victory was denied by the military junta who refused to hand over power, dismantled the BSPP and seized direct control of the country. Neither of the Karenni parties had run on a separatist platform and both intended to represent the interests of Karenni within the national system but when the military junta seized control the parties were deregistered and former MPs were imprisoned or fled into exile. The State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) replaced the BSPP in 1988 headed by General Saw Maung. In 1997 SLORC was replaced by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) but this was essentially a renaming as the leadership did not alter.

After decades of low intensity fighting between state forces and rebel groups along the border, General Khin Nyunt invited the groups to discussions to negotiate ceasefire agreements in 1993, and seventeen ceasefire agreements were negotiated between SLORC and various splinter groups during the 1990s, including a short-lived one between SLORC and the KNPP in 1995. This agreement broke down after several months partly over KNPP claiming SLORC had breached the agreement by continuing its attacks and SLORC anger over KNPP log exports to Thailand. Following the breakdown of the KNPP ceasefire there has been a massive increase in conflict in Karenni state and large-scale forced relocation of villages by the Tatmadaw (Burmese state military forces).