BANGKOK, Thailand -- Since World War II's end, anti-colonial revolutions, communist takeovers and other conflicts have come and gone in Southeast Asia. But one has outlasted them all: war between Myanmar's army and the jungle-dwelling Karen ethnic group.
Sixty-three years and running, the civil war is often labeled the world's longest. It pits guerilla fighters toting a hodgepodge of weapons -- from rusty carbines to M-16s -- against army battalions. It has littered jungle paths with land mines and driven more than 150,000 into refugee camps along the Thai border. Its horrors have helped give Myanmar (formerly Burma) its dark reputation.
But now, under Myanmar's great experiment with reform, there is hope the war could soon end.
A "peace negotiation team" representing the Karen ethnic group -- roughly 7 percent of the country's 50 million population -- has just returned from sit-downs with top-tier government officials.
Members of the Karen National Union, the minority's political wing, and the Karen National Liberation Army, its armed wing, have finally come face to face with Thein Sein, the country's reformist president. They are also in talks with Myanmar's best-known figure: political prisoner-turned-parliamentarian Aung San Suu Kyi. There is talk of allowing their political faction, still deemed "illegal," to compete for office.
For the first time in decades, an end to this war is within sight, senior Karen negotiators say. Peace talks could bring dramatic change to their claimed territory, a Maryland-sized zone with vast natural resources and an eager labor pool next to Thailand.
Though daily warfare has been suspended, army outposts remain inside Karen State. Skepticism among the Karen group's senior leaders remains high. As the central government parlays for peace with various rebel armies across the country, its military continues to battle another ethnic group, the Kachin, who occupy territory along the Chinese border.
Western governments, including the US, insist some sanctions will remain as long as Myanmar's insurgencies rage on. But ending the conflict could unlock more aid and investment from America, which has absorbed thousands of Karen refugees seeking asylum.
May-Oo Mutraw, one of the negotiation team's top members, was once one of them. She is now a U.S. citizen. At 16, she fled her Karen homeland (commonly called "Karen State"), landed in a Thai refugee camp and later emigrated with her family to California. Now 40, she is based on the Thai-Myanmar border as a fellow with the Indiana University's Maurer School of Law, where she earned her master's degree.
In an interview, Ms. May-Oo describes the negotiation team's progress, the future of Karen State and the possibility of transforming their liberation army into a U.S.-style national guard.
May-Oo: Trust is a very heavy word. We have a saying in Burmese: "You can't even trust your own knees." They could betray you at any time, and you can fall. We just negotiate for the benefit of the nation and its people and look for common ground.
We don't want to fight if we don't have to. Currently, the Burmese government doesn't want to fight either. They have their own reasons. But for now, we have a common interest, ... and we can start from there.
On transforming the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA):
KNLA was born to protect the interests of the Karen people. If any situation comes that makes the KNLA feel a need to defend and protect us, they'll do that.
The name itself is "liberation army." If we're actually liberated, and it's only there for our protection, we might have to change its name as well as its form.
In the United States, we have the national guard. We're really looking into that. It's completely under the sovereignty of a state government. But even though the state has complete control over its national guard, their duty is to the constitution of the entire union.
On the future of Karen State:
At this point, I can't say there will be peace five years from now. Should there be peace -- but peace that's not on our terms -- there might be lots of factories in Karen State. A lot of plantations owned by two or three rich men. Very likely, the Karen would be the laborers.
But is that what we want? Our vision of Karen State has schools, clinics, hospitals, home-grown doctors, professors and lawyers. It will develop as any normal state should develop.
A message to American businesses eyeing Myanmar:
Anywhere we go as American citizens, we have an obligation to uphold our Constitution. If we go out of its jurisdiction, is it legitimate to do things that amount to crimes in the United States? We should be aware of our conscience. In the U.S., we talk about fair wages, excessive working hours, safety hazards. In Burma, just because there's no law to protect workers, ... we should not turn a blind eye.
Often I only see businesses coming to countries like Burma when things are unstable, and there's no rule of law. They don't necessarily have intentions of developing the country. I see them as opportunists.
This is a country that still has ongoing war. If you're going to a war-torn country to do business, you might as well share responsibility in the peace process.
On legalizing the Karen National Union (KNU):
When we raised that, the government was sincerely surprised. The president said he didn't even think about it. I like to think it was sincere carelessness. We hope that, sooner rather than later, this will be solved. The deputy attorney general mentioned it could be done by presidential decree. It doesn't have to go through parliament.
We've witnessed for many years now that successive Burmese governments put our people in jail, torture them, kill them because they are allegedly in communication with the KNU. That's exactly what the KNU doesn't want.
On removing sanctions:
The international community displays excitement beyond measure: individual governments and groups including the United Nations. It's much to our dismay that, [U.N.] Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is talking about lifting sanctions in their entirety.
The Burmese government has so much to prove. They've proved to us, time and again, that they can be ruthless beyond measure. Now, they want to change. They deserve the benefit of the doubt. Just as we deserve the right to be suspicious.
First Published May 13, 2012 12:00 AM