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Karen Ethnic Group Calls for Dialogue With Burma's Government

31 January 2006

Leaders of Burma's Karen ethnic group have called for dialogue with the military government, but accuse the regime of stage-managing constitutional talks that have just been adjourned. The comments come as the Karen mark 57 years of resistance to Burma's central government.

Senior members of the Karen ethnic community said Burma's constitutional-drafting convention is fraudulent and lacks nationwide support. However, the Karen leaders on Tuesday called for negotiations with the military government to promote political dialogue.

The government on Tuesday adjourned the constitutional convention, which the military says will eventually lead to democracy.

Karen National Union (KNU) leaders on Tuesday gathered at their headquarters near the border with Thailand to mark the 57th anniversary of their armed rebellion.

"When we talk about the national convention, [it] should be like a genuine national convention, not a fake one. And if their national convention is recognized nationwide, then we can accept the national convention," said KNU Secretary-General Mahn Sha Lar Phan.

Mahn Sha spoke to reporters at a parade by 300 Karen soldiers wearing battle fatigues and carrying automatic rifles.

The KNU was not invited to join other ethnic groups at the convention.

Burma's main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, boycotted the convention. Its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been under detention for nearly two years.

Mahn Sha called on the international community to maintain pressure on the Rangoon government to sign cease-fire pacts with all of Burma's ethnic minorities.

Talks between the Karen and military government on a cease-fire failed in 2004 although Karen officers say a "gentleman's agreement" to avoid hostilities remains in place.

The government wants rebel groups to surrender their weapons and has stalled talks with those that refuse. Rangoon has said for years it wants to avoid having the country split by ethnic groups.

Colonel Nerdah Mya, a battalion commander, says the Karen need to show the world they are willing to negotiate with the government.

But as parading soldiers fired shots to mark the anniversary, Colonel Nerdah said the Karen would continue to fight if talks failed.

"We need to be daring," said Colonel Nerdah. "We need to dare to fight the enemy; we need to stand up against all the wickedness and whenever we have to fight we have to fight, whenever we have to kill we have to kill for our freedom, for the Karen rights."

Under former Prime Minister Khin Nyunt, the government negotiated cease-fires with 17 groups, but did not reach deals with several others. And some groups that signed pacts have split, with new factions continuing to fight.

Since Khin Nyunt was ousted in 2004, the military has moved to tighten control over the groups still maintaining armed forces.

Burma has been under military control since 1962. The National League for Democracy won 1990 general elections but the government refused to hand over power and jailed most NLD leaders.

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