A milestone in Burma’s transition from dictatorship to democracy will be the end of violent conflict between its central government and the ethnic minority groups living in its border areas. The United States applauds and supports the Burmese government’s efforts to reach a ceasefire agreement with armed ethnic groups. For many years, we have also stood by Burma’s ethnic minorities, providing humanitarian aid, resettling refugees from the conflict, and urging an end to human rights abuses committed against them.
This week, alongside several of my State Department colleagues, it was my honor to welcome a leader of one of Burma’s ethnic minority peoples, Kachin General Sumlut Gun Maw to the United States. General Gun Maw of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) is a senior negotiator for Burma’s Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team, which is engaged in peace negotiations with Burma’s government. The General met with a number of senior U.S. Government officials, including U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations Samantha Power, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, Assistant Secretary of State for Conflict and Stabilization Operations Rick Barton, Senior Advisor for Burma Judith Cefkin, and others from the National Security Council, USAID, and Department of Defense.
The Kachin and American people share ties going back to WWII. Many Americans owed their lives to the Kachin fighters who guided General Stillwell’s men in the high altitudes and thick jungles of Burma’s upper Kachin State, and helped Allied forces secure victory in southeast Asia. But following Burma’s independence, and especially after a military coup in 1962, its armed forces proved unwilling to unite Burma’s diverse ethnic nationalities by democratic consent and unable to bond them by brute force. The result has been decades of war and division, with millions of civilians displaced. In Kachin State, abundant natural resources – gold, jade, teak, timber, gems, to name just a few – have been drivers of this conflict rather than sources of development.
Since 2011, Burmese President Thein Sein’s reform-minded administration has been working towards a national peace process – perhaps Burma’s best chance at comprehensive peace in 70 years. We are hopeful that the next round of talks in May will make substantial progress towards this goal.
A ceasefire will be critical, but only a first step. In our meetings with General Gun Maw, we expressed firm U.S. support for the post-ceasefire peace process, which will have to tackle long unresolved political grievances. The balance between central and local authority, inclusion for all in national and local political processes, constitutional reform, equitable sharing of natural resources, and humanitarian access to internally displaced people are just a few of the issues that must be negotiated in good faith for a ceasefire to lead to durable peace.
We ended our discussions by encouraging General Gun Maw, who has never been to the United States before, to visit the Lincoln Memorial before his return home. We hope that the words written there, commemorating our own nation’s perseverance through civil war, will soon be spoken of Burma: that a Burmese government of the people, by the people, and for the people will strive on to finish the work it is in; to bind up its nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among its people, and with all nations.