The Balkanization of Karen State

KNU and government peace delegations hold talks at the Sedona Hotel in Rangoon on 6 April, 2012. (Photo: THE IRRAWADDY)

The Karen National Union (KNU) finds itself once again at a crossroads in its 63-year resistance against the Burmese government. A major internal division over how to proceed in peace talks threatens to escalate. Some observers worry about plots and counter-plots within the Karen leadership, and that the power struggle will quickly lead to a split in the party.

The KNU this week dismissed its military chief, Gen Mutu Say Poe, and two other influential leaders, David Taw and Roger Khin, for violating the organization’s protocol.

Soon after the dismissal, the KNU appointed a new acting commander-in-chief, Brig-Gen Baw Kyaw Heh, the commander of Brigade 5 of the KNU’s military wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA).

Karen military sources have told The Irrawaddy they they expect the KNLA to splinter into two rival factions—with Mutu Say Poe leading Brigades 1, 3, 4, 6 and 7 while Baw Kyaw Heh maintains command over Brigades 2 and 5, which are loyal to the KNU central committee.

Of the KNLA’s total troop strength, estimated at 10,000 fighters, Mutu Say Poe’s faction would boast more troops then Baw Kyaw Heh’s two brigades. However, for the time being at least, no one is playing up the possibility of the two factions fighting against each other.

David Taw, widely seen as a pragmatic negotiator for the KNU, is suddenly being portrayed as impulsive in his pursuit of a peace deal. KNU General-Secretary Zipporah Sein, on the other hand, has been much more cautious, some would say “inflexible.”

Brig-Gen Saw Johnny, the commander of KNLA Brigade 7, has called for cool heads and dialogue, and said that “this is not the time to engage in bloodshed.” Regarding the peace talks with Naypyidaw, he said, “The battle must only go on at the table.”

History shows that the KNU is not immune to internal power struggles and a culture of plotting—the most significant incident in recent times being the assassination of then General-Secretary Mahn Shah, committed by two hit-men who were allegedly hired by Karen breakaway group, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA).

“I am worried that the KNU will resort to resolving this internal conflict the only way they know—using guns. If they could avoid using violence to resolve internal divisions, I think it will benefit the whole country,” said Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese analyst who is deputy director of the Vahu Development Institute, a Thailand-based think tank.

Other observers speculate that the Karen rebels may fracture into several small groups now that the country is in transition. The groups may form, some say, simply by way of ideological camps—the pragmatic camp, the conservative, the politically driven, the economic opportunists.

Most agree that the dismissal of the KNLA’s commander-in-chief raises the immediate specter of a north-south divide with Mutu Say Poe ruling the southern part of Karen State while those loyal to the central committee hold the north.

Frustratingly for those supporters of the KNU resistance, this is just another chapter in a history of splinter groups and wayward allegiances—the DKBA, the Karen Peace Force, the Karen Peace Council, and the Karen Border Guard Force. All are armed militias made up of ethnic Karen blood.

Some Burma watchers look “outside the box” and comment that the heated divisions in the Karen leadership could well be flamed by Naypyidaw, which they say will be using its influence to “divide and rule” the Karens—an old military junta strategy inherited from British colonial rulers—while offering financial and business incentives to Karen leaders.

The multi-million-dollar Dawei Deep Seaport project in Burma’s southern Tenasserim Division is partly controlled by KNLA Brigade 4 whose commanders, observers say, must be rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect of such rich dividends.

Many Karen civilians are urging their leaders to learn from the KNU’s past mistakes. They say that a division within the KNU not only weakens the Karen resistance, but strengthens the Burmese government’s hand.

One source close to government peace negotiator Aung Min, said that he [Aung Min] repeatedly advised the KNU not to be divided during peace negotiations, arguing that it would be difficult to move the peace process forward if various dissenting voices were aired.

Many ordinary Karens shake their heads in dismay. Several have told The Irrawaddy that they regard the KNU power struggle as sad—even shameful.

On Thursday, the Rangoon-based Kayin Peoples Party sent an open letter to the KNU, expressing concern over the internal rift, and urging the various characters to “work together in unity.”


8 Responses to The Balkanization of Karen State

  1. I hope the Karen National Union reconciles between fractions. Or they are completely swallowed by the enemy. Don’t let yourselves in the belly of the giant.

  2. Yes, this is divide and rule, but likely not intentional. Rather it’s a result of conflict driven scarcity. It would be best if the factions can make mutual assurance agreements that progress in any one area is treated as creating room to focus in all other areas. So that way it’s always a united position based on progress and gains rather than scarcity.

    Ideally the armies would withdraw significantly from conflicted areas, & would get replaced with well trained civilian police to work with local Karen police in (initially) a purely observational role. The reason for doing that is to deal with civil disputes normally, and for civic protection of property & business. With regularized policing, they can act to prevent regime cronies from pulling crimes in areas where there’s been conflict.

    The country has been in a crisis, and in a deep pit for so long that ways of acting to deconflict problems, and most importantly ways of creating broadly mutual success out of conflict have grown unfamiliar, uncertain, and in some instances unknown. War destroys community, and it does it at varying levels of scale. It becomes familiar, scarcity over time becomes a way of life. It becomes the lens which all is viewed through, and blinders to any other outcome but more scarcity.

    Things are changing though because the old ways of conflict driven outcomes failed. Now though when conflicts are resolved things can change. With peace comes prosperity, and when conflicts can be resolved through civil means using civic structures, the scarcities of war can be banished.

    Globally the absolutely radical changes the country has been undergoing are generating a lot of goodwill, and a lot of business interest. More of it is centred around the populace than land and resources though, what people really want are trade, manufacturing, & the markets that end up going with them. That takes peace to happen. No one’s going to invest in grabbed land though, and grubbing around to screw people isn’t going to pay, and in the long run (there is one now, who’d have thought that would happen while we’re all still alive) that sort of sleazy crime will end up costing. There’s no one from any major power doing business internationally that isn’t very aware of how that bites back, and China is no exception for all that matter.

    I know there is a long road ahead, and it’s a slippery one too. However the world is watching, and wanting to act. Vast opportunities for all await peace.

    • That was a very wishful generous view of the international business practice. Why is it there then that people are rising up in good old Europe (answer: starvation) and the American government departments are preparing themselves for civil war with illegal Dum-Dum bullets and all ( answer: insanely wide inequality with – yes- starvation).

      Multinational companies would not even pretend to hesitate to slit mass throats to get a hand on land.

      Guess how many human sacrifice the Chinese Pipe and rails (Thant Myint-U’s paradise future) would be prepared to make on top of thousands of Kachin and young Burmese blood already wasted. Millions in the least.

      This is dog eats dog. Karen are now joining to global, communal hell by beginning to kill each other. That’s all.

  3. Does Karen people know that how important their MEANINGFUL unity is for their own survival of demanding social justice, equality? Leaders are just tools for the organization function. If a leader is a good leader, the organization achieve the dream. For the Karen as a whole should asking a meaningful question now, “What is a common dream of every Karen?” Which leader contribute more for Karen people life to be better? Are Karen people feel safer with a leader who is leading the organization not only with organization power or gun power just as individual? How well Karen people know their leaders who are making decisions for their future peace and to be a proud Karen no less than a Burman or any other nationalities around the world? If organization dismiss one or more than one of it’s leader, there should be very strong reason why it did so, especially the organization such as KNU and KNLA. It is about time Karen leaders should come clean and make their people proud rather than self serving their own interests.

    Remember one thing, the game of peace is different than the game of war, ask yourself if you are a Karen leader, how will you serve Karen people and what is your vision. If you are demending “Federalism”, you need a vision of serving the people who live in Karen land.

  4. The Burmese Freedom Fighter

    Whatever bad thing happens, we all blame Burmese Army. That is not right. Burma is not the only one that need to be reformed, but all of us, all the citizens of Burma. This is the fact that unity in the KNLA doesn’t grow well in the face of challenging situation. Unity itself doesn’t deserve to be blamed, but KNLA and KNU.  We all have to look into the reasons why unity in KNU is not doing well. It may need compromise, or more patient, or less arrogant. Never, ever blame the other for our failure if we want to success. Blaming has no positive effect at all, nor it helps in finding solution. To make thing right and thrive, let practices no blame, no excuse, no argument but just understanding. We all have to know our past, accept the reality at present, and believe in our future.
    The Burmese Freedom Fighter

  5. George Than Setkyar Heine

    Of course Mutu Say Poe has FALLEN PREY to HIS THIRST – greed, power and opportunity – of course.
    When a DOG is THROWN a PIECE of MEAT, even if it is poisoned, IT WOULDN’T HESITATE to BITE IT at least.
    That’s what happened to HIM and his ILK in the KNLA/KNU today.
    EVE ATE THE APPLE and ADAM DID the SAME, and ALL MANKIND had to PAY until TODAY say the Christians if I am not wrong.
    Zipporah Sein led the KAREN delegation to that HELL HOLE (Naypyidaw) and now KNLA/KNU has to pay – POSSIBLE SPLIT among the rank and file – I say.
    The REST is on the SILVER SCREEN to LOOK/SEE as we used to say in Burma for that matter.
    Of course ALL MY BEST WISHES GO for the KAREN and FOR THE BETTER as well at the end of the day I PRAY.
    At the moment Daw Suu is PLAYING with the POISONOUS VIPERS at Naypyidaw no less as well.
    A guy WHO LIVES by the GUN DIES BY THE GUN and the SAME APPLIES to A SNAKE CHARMER who plays with poisonous snakes as well they say.
    Hence, ALL MY PRAYERS GO for Daw Suu’s SAFETY and SECURITY of course and DELIVERANCE from EVIL and OUT of HARM’S WAY while she VENTURES into that HELL HOLE at Naypyidaw PLAYING with the VIPERS for her PEOPLE as she says today.

  6. Aung Min and associates told them and promised them something but the military wing is doing different thing. Aung Min and associates are just baits which can kill all ethnics’ future.

  7. Every body or organization have mistake and right decision. Karen also like that. They make mistake in 1949 when they have over confident and greed to take all Burma without talk to other ethic nationalities and lost the chance. During Just mananpalaw dreak dawn by Burma military, they make mistake by splitting their organization into two DKBA and KNU.The second mistake was influence by Burmese military trick. This time I hope they learned from the past mistake . They should not forget how they are put dawn by Burmese military tactic making them friction. Takhin ko daw hmaing tell U nu Newin and thier fellow to crush ethic nationalities by various tactic to eliminate them. Do not hate Burmese for that because the Burmese ethic them self also serve slave under called Burmese military dominated by Chinese dominated few Burmese military officers. Unless some body have 37.5% of Chinese blood they can not be regional commander. After 1984 the Burmese military learned fromn Ramos who love his country than his position in the army in Philippine . The Burmese military do not want pure Burmese and native ethic national person to become regional commander in military. They sure that hybrid Chinese will love the their position in the military than the country. According to 20808 constitution , Burma have four branch of power, the congress( hluttdaw, supreme court, the executive branch leaded by president,and the Military.If the military do not agree on other three branch . the Military have right to coup. Addition of that the Military have take defense , border affair , home affair without taking out uniform ( Chinese hybrid) in the union level and state level. If the President want to appointed that positions, the military commander have to agree on that. Wake up Pure Burmese and pure ethic nationalities.

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