Conflict & Justice

Burma: a good cop, bad cop routine with ethnic rebels?


General Mutu Saipo (C), a representative of the rebel Karen National Union (KNU) toasting with Myanmar Railway Minister Aung Min (2nd L), Industry Minister Soe Thein (2nd R) and Immigration Minister Khin Yee (R) during a welcoming dinner held on the eve of talks between KNU leaders and a Myanmar government delegation, on Jan. 11, 2012 in Hpa-An, the main city of the country's eastern Karen state.



You might assume a government hoping to draw down six decades of warfare with armed separatists wouldn't jail one of the group's leaders for life.

But Burma, officially titled Myanmar, has done just that to Nyein Maung, according to the Democratic Voice of Burma and other outlets.

Nyein Maung is a well-known statesman and former political prisoner with the Karen National Union, the Karen ethnicity's political wing. Their conflict near the Thai border with Burma's army is the world's longest-running civil war and a serious threat to Burma's long-awaited foreign investment boom. (As I reported in "Progress, pitfalls await investors in Burma's frontier economy," developing Burma hinges on ending its various sectarian conflicts.)

Nyein Maung ran afoul of Burmese authorities for his ties to his armed "illegal organization," according to Radio Free Asia. This designation seems at odds with the government's stated goal of legitimizing the Karen leadership and bringing them into the fold.

So why would they throw this man in jail for life?

There's a catch. Karen leaders tell Burmese exile media groups (both The Irrawaddy and the Democratic Voice of Burma) that, if Nyein Maung requests a presidential pardon, he'll get one.

That would posit the leader of Burma's reform bonanza -- President Thein Sein -- as a compassionate voice of reason and perhaps help nudge the negotiations forward. It's a good cop, bad cop routine.

Still, ending this decades-running war will require the government to overcome extreme skepticism.

As Zoya Phan, chair of the European Karen Network, put it at a recent gathering I attended this month in Bangkok:

"Our homeland is still occupied ... so it's like pressing a pause button (on the war) but not the stop button."