Concluding the visit, Gro Harlem Brundtland said:
“As the President himself told us during this visit, Myanmar is a young democracy. We would add that it is also an ambitious one, blessed with an incredibly diverse and energetic civil society wanting to fully operate within the democratic process.”
Gro Harlem Brundtland commented later:
“Conflicts often weaken or suspend democracy, while democratic institutions designed to build nationwide consensus reduce the risk of internal conflict. All parties to the conflict should contribute wisely and constructively to help bring about this new beginning.”
During their conversation, he emphasised that any amendment to Myanmar’s constitution should be made in the national interest, and highlighted the urgency of reaching a nationwide ceasefire to alleviate the suffering caused by the conflict.
At a camp for people displaced by the long-standing conflict, set up in the grounds of a Baptist church, the Elders sat down with the camp’s residents to hear about the conditions under which they were prepared to return to their home villages.
The Chief Minister told the Elders that that his administration’s priority was to pursue economic development and maintain stability. He emphasised that these two objectives go hand in hand.
They expressed a range of concerns about the authorities’ historic treatment of the Kachin people. Citing inadequacies in the design of the nationwide census, difficulties encountered in reaching a ceasefire and the situation faced by internally displaced persons (IDPs), these groups generally expressed a feeling of mistrust towards the government and the Tatmadaw.
They went to Mae La, a refugee camp established in 1984 to support mostly Karen populations fleeing conflict and discrimination inside Myanmar. The camp hosts more than 40,000 refugees today.
Pastor Robert, who leads the Karen Refugee Committee, described the uncertainty felt by camp residents who face the prospect of one day returning to Myanmar. These refugees feel that they lack adequate information about the situation and opportunities available to them in the country. Many of the younger residents have lived in Mae La most of their lives, or were born in the camp.
Martti Ahtisaari commented:
“It is very impressive to see how these communities have, with international support, built good quality clinics, schools and expertise over several decades. This human capacity, inside Myanmar and in exile, is the very basis upon which to build lasting peace and still needs the support of the international community.”
Among the health services it provides, the clinic offers prosthetics and rehabilitation for landmine victims, treats malaria and has a paediatric ward.
Martti Ahtisaari later remarked:
“Once a nationwide ceasefire can be agreed by all sides, hopefully soon, there is an opportunity for further trust-building by integrating these services – these doctors and teachers – into the country’s own structures. A country needs a productive, skilled and healthy population ruled by mutual interest and trust.”
They described their concerns over Myanmar’s large-scale development projects, in Karen State and elsewhere, especially their worry that these initiatives are moving faster than the peace process. They stressed that responsible development requires political reform and consultation with the local populations.
They feel excluded from peace negotiations, insofar as discussions have focused on the nationwide ceasefire and involved only senior male cadres from the government, army and ethnic armed groups. They highlighted that women have suffered most from the conflict and have a crucial role to play in helping to build long-term peace in the country.
The UNFC representatives expressed cautious optimism mixed with historic reservations about the ceasefire process. They were pleased that all parties had agreed to work on the same version of the ceasefire proposal rather than promoting different texts. They were keen to move quickly to the next stage, a national political dialogue on future constitutional arrangements in Myanmar, after the planned national ceasefire accord.
“People have to feel they have a stake in the peace process. When they can express their views and concerns – and these are discussed – this paves the way for a totally new beginning in the society.”
Gro Harlem Brundtland added:
“Both parties have to have more patience than they have ever had. The government has to make this as all-inclusive as possible.”
In March 2014 Gro Harlem Brundtland and Martti Ahtisaari returned to Myanmar for the Elders’ second visit to the country. They also travelled to the Thailand-Myanmar border to meet communities exiled by more than 60 years of civil war.
Photos: Kaung Htet / The Elders