Burma Should Honour Freedom's Martyrs and Revive the Spirit of Panglong

14/02/2012 14:44 GMT | Updated 15/04/2012 10:12 BST

Four years ago today, gunmen under orders from Burma's dictatorship came to a house in Thailand in broad daylight and shot dead a man as he sat on his veranda.

The man who was assassinated was the General Secretary of the Karen National Union (KNU), Padoh Mahn Sha Lah Phan, one of the most prominent spokesmen for Burma's ethnic nationalities.

Just three days before his assassination, I had spent half a day with Padoh Mahn Sha. I knew him well, and always visited him whenever I was on the Thai-Burmese border. His children are friends of mine. I had met some young men whom he was sheltering, who had escaped from the Burma Army into which they had been forcibly conscripted as child soldiers. I had lunch with Padoh Mahn Sha and other Karen leaders, and sat on the very same veranda where the assassins struck three days later.

The murder of Mahn Sha illustrates the lengths to which Burma's regime has been prepared to go to silence its opponents. It dealt a severe blow not only to the Karen people, one of Burma's largest people groups, but to all the ethnic nationalities and the democracy movement as a whole. While devoted to his people and proud of his Karen identity, Mahn Sha was a man who saw the bigger picture, drew people together and built bridges to others who shared his cause. An Animist among a predominantly Christian Karen leadership in a majority Buddhist people, a Pwo Karen from the Delta among Sgaw Karen from the hills, a principled man with a pragmatic outlook able to chart a course between so-called 'hard-liners' and those wanting to engage the regime, he developed strong links with other ethnic nationals and Burma's democracy movement, and became a respected and articulate international spokesman.

Four years after his assassination, his killers have never been caught. The situation in the country, however, has changed. For the first time in more than 20 years there is at least the possibility of real change, although there is still a very long way to go. Burma's democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, for years under house arrest, is now contesting parliamentary by-elections along with her colleagues in the National League for Democracy (NLD) in 48 seats. It is likely many of them will win, giving them a presence in parliament which will not change the country overnight, but may begin to influence governance for the better. The regime has negotiated preliminary ceasefire agreements with several of the ethnic armed groups, including the KNU, who have been fighting a civil war for sixty five years.

Despite the change in atmosphere in Burma in the past six months, there remain some fundamental challenges which are key to lasting peace.

The first is the need for a political process to accompany ceasefire negotiations. Until a meaningful, inclusive nationwide dialogue between the regime, the ethnic nationalities and the democracy movement takes place, ceasefires will result in an absence of fighting rather than a true peace. Ultimately, only a political solution that satisfies the desires of the ethnic nationalities and is acceptable to all the people of Burma will end decades of civil war.

That solution must include equal rights for all the people, respect for the ethnic, cultural and religious identity of the different nationalities that make up Burma, and a degree of autonomy and self-determination for each ethnic group, within a united, federal, democratic nation. Federalism has long been misunderstood by the military, who fear it equals secession. In reality, they need only to look at the models of the United States or Germany to see that federalism is the way to strengthen the unity of the nation. "Unity in diversity" should be the principle in people's minds.

Such a political settlement must be accompanied by reform of the military, repeal of unjust legislation and amendment of the constitution, so that there are institutional safeguards to ensure that peace and progress is embedded and cannot easily be reversed. The rule of law is central to Burma's reform.

Burma's military has a track record of appalling human rights violations, amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity: rape as a weapon of war, forced labour, the destruction of villages, homes and crops, the use of human minesweepers and child soldiers, torture and extrajudicial killings. These crimes continue today.

Last month I visited the Kachin people on the China-Burma border, where 55,000 have been displaced in a new offensive launched by the regime's army. For 17 years, a ceasefire existed between the regime and the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), which, contrary to its name, is fighting for autonomy and equal rights within a united Burma, not separation. In June 2011, the regime broke the ceasefire when the KIO refused to surrender their arms and join a border guard force under the Burma Army's control, and the conflict escalated.

The Burma Army is attacking civilians, who are not party to the war. I met a woman whose husband had been shot dead as he stood in his paddy field, and another woman whose husband's arms and legs were chopped off before he was shot. I met a 12 year-old boy whose mother was killed as she tried to pack up her house. "My grandfather fought in the Second World War, and he said even the Japanese were not as cruel as the Burma Army," one Kachin man told me. "I am very disappointed with all this torture and killing. I want the whole world to know about this inhumane behaviour."

Yet there are causes for cautious optimism. That the regime is even engaging with Aung San Suu Kyi, releasing prominent political prisoners and talking peace with the ethnic nationalities is a sign that years of international pressure may have had some effect. The Generals have seen what happened to Egypt's Mubarak and Libya's Gadaffi, and have decided they do not want to suffer the same fate. Their calculation is that a gradual transition, guaranteeing their security, is preferable than a violent popular uprising.

And they are fortunate that the mood of many of their opponents is gracious. Recently released dissidents from the 88 Generation Student Movement, who have spent years in prison, told me in Rangoon that while there would be a need for justice and accountability, it must be for the purposes of truth and reconciliation rather than revenge. "We can forgive - but we must not forget," said one.

Even the ethnic people, who have suffered so much, show a remarkable lack of bitterness. "I hope we can be brothers and sisters and love each other," said a Kachin woman who, while pregnant, had hid for two entire days without food or water under sleeping bags as bullets flew over her and Burma Army soldiers sought her. She had overheard soldiers saying "If you see someone, just kill them".

National reconciliation in Burma is not an impossibility, but it requires more than fine words and changes in mood. Burma's president, Thein Sein, deserves recognition for the steps he has taken in the past six months, moving faster and more substantially than anyone expected. But he needs to go even further, release all remaining political prisoners, and secure a genuine peace with the ethnic nationalities. Democracy activists, including those recently released from prison, are now talking about working with reformers in the government. For that to happen, however, the reform process, which Thein Sein promises is "irreversible", must deepen, addressing fundamental political, institutional and constitutional reform.

Padoh Mahn Sha embodied the spirit of Panglong, the agreement signed by ethnic nationalities with Aung San, Burma's independence leader and Suu Kyi's father, on 12 February, 1947. It granted the ethnic nationalities equal rights and autonomy, within a federal Burma, but after Aung San's assassination it was never implemented. Only when Panglong, at least in spirit if not to the letter, is implemented can the legacy of both Aung San and Mahn Sha, two men assassinated for their belief in freedom, be honoured. Only then can Burma be united, and the country which was once the 'rice bowl' of Asia transform from least developed nation status to prosperity once more.