CHIANG MAI, Thailand — In a heated twist to the congress of a major ethnic alliance, the chairman of the Karen National Union (KNU) walked out in the middle of meetings over the weekend and threatened to withdraw from the grouping.
Mutu Say Poe, chairman of the KNU, which is one of the biggest rebel groups in Burma, left the congress of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) on Sunday morning in Chiang Mai, Thailand, citing disagreements over policy and the council’s structure. He was joined by the KNU’s deputy chairman and secretary, as well as a member of its central executive committee and an administrative staffer.
But two other KNU delegates stayed behind—including joint secretary Padoh Mahn Mahn as well as David Tharckabaw, who is deputy chairman of the UNFC—revealing a new schism in the already divided Karen rebel group. On Monday, while the faction led by Mutu Say Poe said in a letter to the UNFC that they were indefinitely suspending their membership in the alliance, the other faction said in a separate letter that they wanted to remain members. Both sides will meet to discuss the matter before making a final decision, the letters said.
The KNU’s participation or absence from the UNFC could have ramifications as the government seeks to sign a nationwide ceasefire deal with ethnic rebel groups around the country. While some KNU leaders have been cautious about engaging in peace talks after six decades of civil war, the chairman is more pro-government and enthusiastic about the nationwide ceasefire deal.
He and the four other KNU delegates walked out of the UNFC congress after calling for changes to the ethnic alliance’s structure that were widely opposed. “A majority of UNFC members do not agree with the KNU’s proposed structure,” Nai Hong Sar, general secretary of the UNFC, told The Irrawaddy. “So they [the KNU] said they needed to discuss with their leaders back at their headquarters.”
The UNFC is currently led by a chairman and deputy chairman, with a central executive committee and a policy implementation body. Mutu Say Poe proposed a looser structure, with a new “political leadership body” leading policy and the secretariat to implement policy—changes that would likely decrease the KNU’s responsibility.
Nai Hong Sar said confusion over the KNU’s membership in the UNFC would not spill over to ceasefire negotiations with the government. “It will have no effect on the KNU’s representation in the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT),” he said, referring to a grouping of 16 ethnic groups, including many from the UNFC, which is preparing to sign the nationwide ceasefire deal. Nai Hong Sar and a KNU secretary Pado Kwe Htoo Win are both spokesmen for the NCCT.
The UNFC is holding its first congress in three and a half years. The meetings were expected to wrap up late last week but were continuing on Monday.
With reporting by Saw Yan Naing.