Karen representatives and international groups have expressed caution over recent peace efforts in Myanmar, appealing to the international community, especially the European Union and the US, to maintain pressure on the Burmese government.
"We welcome the peace initiative between the Karen National Union [KNU] and the Burmese government," Zoya Phan, chair of the European Karen Network and adviser to the Karen Community Association, told IRIN on 5 March in Bangkok. "But we remain cautious over the government's commitment," she said.
"We are collectively calling on the Burmese government to genuinely commit to a ceasefire with the KNU, stop military operations in Karen areas, start political negotiation, and guarantee ethnic rights for the Karen people and for all the people of Burma," K'nyaw Paw, executive member of the Karen Women's Organization and Presidium Board Member of the Women's League of Burma, added.
Their comments follow a four-day conference organized by the KNU in Kawtholei, Kayin State, attended by 167 Karen community and religious leaders, as well as representatives from women's, youth and other Karen organizations from Myanmar and globally on the ongoing changes in the country.
"Karen people around the world have pledged to work in unity and we hope that the international community will stand with us by pressuring the Burmese government to work sincerely for peace and national reconciliation in our country," explained Saw Kenneth Moe, vice-chairperson of the Karen National Fellowship, Korea.
The conference comes more than a month after a 19-member KNU delegation held talks with Myanmar's Railways Minister, U Aung Min, and other representatives of the Burmese government on 12 January in Pa-an when a four-step roadmap for peace was discussed.
Little concrete change
The Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the military wing of the KNU, has been fighting Myanmar's central government to achieve greater autonomy since the country gained independence from Britain in 1949.
Thousands of ethnic Karen have been internally displaced in what has been described as one of the longest-running insurgencies in the world today.
According to the Thai Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), an umbrella group of NGOs working along the 1,800km border, more than 450,000 minority people, including the Karen, have been displaced from their homes in eastern Myanmar.
Another 140,000 are living in 10 refugee camps inside Thailand.
But despite recent talk of peace and political reform inside Myanmar, not much has changed for the Karen, community leaders say.
"The situation in Karen areas has not improved and the rights and the protection of the Karen have not been guaranteed," said Zoya Phan. "These are critical issues that must be addressed in order to achieve lasting peace in our communities, and for there to be significant political reforms in Burma."
More than 160 Karen political prisoners remain in jail, including Karen leader Mahn Nyein Maung, a member of the KNU's central executive committee, now serving a 17-year sentence in Yangon's notorious Insein prison.
"What we see in Myanmar now is like a 'pause' button. It's not a stop button," she said, regarding recent reform efforts inside her country.
"The repressive laws remain in place; not all political prisoners have been released and the ethnic conflict has not stopped," she said, citing ongoing military activity in ethnic areas, in particular in northern Kachin State, where more than 40,000 people have been displaced from their homes following the collapse of a 17-year ceasefire in June.
"We need to see this stopped. We need to see a nationwide ceasefire. Not just in Kayin, but in other parts of Burma."
Burmese government officials were unavailable for comment.