For more than 60 years the Karen National Union and Burma’s ruling military junta, known these days as the State Peace and Development Council, have been at war.
Now, after a hiatus of 14 years, the two sides will hear each other out, in a bid to thrash out a deal that might end the bloodshed.
A timetable and location are yet to be set, but Thailand is likely to play host to the talks.
Thailand, the current chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations - of which Burma is a member - has cast itself in the role of mediator.
It is a contentious role for Thailand to play, because much of the Kingdom’s future energy demands will be serviced by deals already struck with Burma’s generals.
And there are dozens of other deals on the table that will enrich Burmese and Thai businessmen, who inevitably and necessarily have close ties with the military of both countries.
Thailand can also use this role of peacemaker to deflect stinging criticisms of its treatment of Muslim Rohingya boat people in recent months.
Human rights groups lashed out at Thailand when tourists produced holiday “snaps” of Burmese citizens hog-tied on beaches with Thai military men leering over them.
As Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch investigators began interviews with those who had been subjected to such treatment, the full horror of what had happened was revealed.
Emaciated survivors offered testimonies of being towed into international waters on pontoons and set adrift without food or water.
From Thailand’s perspective the time is definitely ripe for some public relations work.
KNU vice president David Thackrabaw, speaking from a secret location on the Thai-Burma border, said the KNU was committed to peaceful resolution of the conflict and would certainly meet with Burma’s generals.
“Of course we will meet with them, but not in Burma, it must be in a neutral location,” he said.
The Karen National Liberation Army’s Colonel Nerdah Mya, the eldest son of the late General Bo Mya, a former KNU president, welcomed the talks.
“I really don’t know much of the details, you should speak directly with David [Thackrabaw], he met with the Thais, but I think if both sides are sincere then such an opportunity is to be welcomed,” said Colonel Nerdah.
Mr Thackrabaw was elected KNU vice president in October last year and came to power on the promise to stand firm on the four principles of the Karen “revolution”.
These principles, laid down by KNU founder Saw Ba U Gyi, include a flat refusal to lay down arms, the Karens’ absolute right to determine their own destiny, that Karen state be recognised “absolutely” and that surrender is out of the question.
History shows past attempts at negotiation have failed dismally, mainly because the junta’s generals have never agreed to begin talks without an undertaking that the Karen lay down their arms for good.
That would mean compromise on one of the four principles.
And as KNU deputy foreign minister Saw Hsar Gay, responsible for European lobbying, says: “you can compromise on many things, and I believe in compromise, but you cannot compromise on a principle.”
Both sides have much to gain from an amenable deal, but there is also much to be lost.
Burma’s generals, who have now promised the international community for the past 14 years they are following a “road map to democracy”, are hoping elections planned for next year will loan their regime a veneer of legitimacy.
If they cannot bring the country’s largest ethnic minority into the fold, their chances of selling legitimacy on the back these elections are slim, to say the least.
Elements of every ethnic minority have rejected the 2010 elections, labelling them a farce to re-open economic relations with the West, which first introduced economic sanctions and arms embargoes in 1996.
But the KNU is at the weakest point of its six-decade battle for recognition, and the prospect of at least a lapse in hostilities must be inviting.
On Wednesday and Thursday KNU leaders were locked in meetings discussing the make-up of any delegation that might meet with the junta’s representatives.
It is unlikely the junta’s supreme leader, General Than Shwe, will attend the talks.
Never before has a junta chief attended such talks.
The Thai offer comes at a time when the military has been exerting intense pressure on the KNU, which once enjoyed relative solace on Thai territory.
On March 12 an anonymous letter, without letterhead or signature, was delivered to KNU headquarters demanding the leaders and anyone capable of commanding KNLA troops leave Thailand immediately.
The demand was made as a result of a meeting last December in Myawaddy, just across the border from Thailand’s Mae Sot, between military strongmen of both sides.
The KNU knew well the letter had been penned by elements within the Thai military..
Security along the Thai-Burma border has always been tenuous, with smugglers, armed insurgents, drug dealers, human traffickers and illegal-logging tycoons riding high in their flashy four-wheel drives, anonymous behind blacked-out windows.
The refugee camps spread out along roads that hug the border represent the human consequence of the power-plays these men orchestrate.
But the situation has now deteriorated to such an extent that even on the Thai side, farmers cannot tend their land without the possibility of a stray mortar shell falling in their field.
Armed gangs are also terrorising local villages.
The Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, an ally of Burma’s ruling military junta, on Saturday, February 7, kidnapped a clutch of Thai villagers near Umphang, northern Thailand.
First they “interrogated” them, handing out vicious beatiings and yelling at them.
Eventually they released all but two.
The two Thai citizens who are perhaps still being held, a local Christian leader and his son-in-law, are thought to have been taken into Burma, where their fate would likely be imprisonment in torrid conditions, or summary execution.
Since June last year the DKBA and Burma Army units have made repeated intrusions into Thai territory, looting villages, burning corn stores and, in one instance, shooting a Thai Army officer.
In the second week of January the DKBA and SPDC troops overran the base camp of the Karen National Liberation Army’s Special Battalion 103.
SPDC troops then destroyed the significant settlement, equipped with solar power, fish holding tanks, a huge granary and a medical clinic that serviced 800 people living in two nearby villages.
The KNLA had lost and won back the base repeatedly since last year.
But now there is nothing to win back.
The KNLA commander of the base, Colonel Nerdah, said at the time his base camp [103SB] was in cinders and his special battalion “no longer has a location, we have to find a new location, for now we are moving all the time”.
David Thackrabaw said the SPDC was pursuing a “scorched-earth” policy against not only the KNLA, but also the Karen civilian population.
DKBA forces began their latest offensive on October 7, 2008, in the Thai village of Mae Klaw Kee, summarily executing KNLA Captain Taw Naw Po as he ran for his life.
DKBA soldiers then looted huge corn storages and torched the buildings.
A Thai Captain was killed the next day during a clean up, causing a redeployment of Thai Army units from the flatlands of Tak, about five hours’ drive from the mountainous border region.
The following day DKBA soldiers turned their attention back to the Burmese side of the border, arresting the entire population of Way Key Klo, shooting on sight anyone trying to flee, in a bid to root out KNLA sympathisers or reservists.
Most were simply terrified corn farmers, in many cases women and children.
Those who did make it to the border were turned back by Thai soldiers, leaving them in a desperate no-man’s land.
Hundreds are now homeless, living rough in remnants of jungle protected by small bands of KNLA soldiers.
Such cross-border sorties by hostile Burmese militia are now so common that Thai acquiescence, at least at a local military level, is considered the new reality by villagers struggling to make a living amid intense security risks.
For almost a year now, locals have had to accept the new see-sawing cross-border nature of this 60-year-old conflict, since Wah Lay Kee, home to KNLA sixth brigade’s 201st battalion, was attacked from the Thai side on June 30.
It was in 2008 that Thailand and Burma signed a memorandum of understanding on cross-border contract farming.
The lucrative deal centered on areas where the DKBA has been attacking KNLA units from the Thai side during the past 12 months.
That Thailand should now offer its assistance in brokering peace between the warring factions is no coincidence.
Apart from contract farming, far more critical bilateral business deals have been signed between Burma and Thailand.
With the KNLA having lost much ground in the past few years to the Burma Army, one of the remaining theatres of this war centres around the Salween River.
The Burmese generals, with the backing of Thailand and China and, alleges the KNU, European interests trying to dodge economic sanctions imposed by the European Union, are in the early stages of constructing a massive dam in Karen State.
There are currently seven dams planned for the Salween, one of the world’s wildest rivers and home to what the World Wildlife Fund describes as “possibly the most biologically-diverse temperate eco-system in the world”.
At the moment Burma’s junta has managed to construct only a fair weather road to the Salween through Karen territory, home to the KNLA’s fifth brigade.
The KNU is doing everything it can - destroying backhoes and bulldozers, springing hit-and-run offensives - to prevent the SPDC from managing to seal that road.
In KNU battle statistics for the months of January and February, the fifth brigade area far surpasses any other KNLA region in sheer amounts of ammunition used.
The battle for the Salween has indeed begun in earnest and the SPDC has ramped up its attacks against the KNU, with multiple KNLA base camps currently surrounded, its soldiers hopelessly outnumbered.
Talk of peace in these times seems optimistic at best, on the verge of farce at worst.
Daniel Pedersen Mae Sot
ENEMIES locked in the world’s longest-running civil war are to begin cease-fire talks aimed at brokering a lasting peace deal.