Soon after reports were released about an internal conflict within the leadership of the Karen National Union (KNU), the Burmese government’s chief peace negotiator Aung Min called for unity among the Karen factions and assured them that Naypyidaw is not attempting to inflict a “divide and rule” policy in its dealings with ethnic armed groups.
Aung Min, who is also a minister within the President’s Office, said that the peace process will continue as usual. He made the comment after meeting with ethnic Karen representatives based in Rangoon on Saturday.
All this follows the drama of the KNU central committee dismissing its military chief Gen. Mutu Say Poe along with two other leaders, David Taw and Roger Khin, accusing them of violating the organization’s protocol. They immediately appointed Brig-Gen Baw Kyaw Heh of the Karen National Liberation Army Brigade 5 as its acting commander-in-chief.
Now there are growing concerns among ordinary Karen people that the conflict within the KNU leadership will divide the rebels into two factions—north and south—perhaps the biggest division within the KNU since it was founded in 1947.
Some also worry about the delay in moving the peace process forward between the government and the KNU. Observers say that the Karen power struggle might lead to a breakdown of the ceasefire agreement which was signed on Jan. 12. Others fear an all-out conflict between rival brigades of the KNU.
Many Karen watchers say they are worried that the peace process will flounder or backtrack under its new acting commander, Baw Kyaw Heh, who is believed to be more cautious in his approach and somewhat dubious about a potential peace agreement.
But those who would downplay events insisted on Monday that the apparent split in the rank and file of the KNU is simply a personal rivalry.
One veteran KNLA military leader told The Irrawaddy that the conflict must be handled “in a cool-headed manner” if the KNU is to achieve peace and unity. He said that despite the different ideologies, the KNU’s leaders must compromise for the sake of the Karen people who are thirsty for peace after enduring a civil war for more than 60 years.
It has been reported to The Irrawaddy that 11 central committee members of the KNU have agreed to meet up sometime soon at the Thai-Burmese border to try to settle their differences.
One faction will include Mutu Say Poe, David Taw and Roger Khin with the support of Brigades 1, 4, 6 and 7.
The other faction is headed by KNU President Tamla Baw, Vice-President David Takapaw, General-Secretary Zipporah Sein, Joint-Secretary 1 Hla Ngwe and Joint-Secretary 2 Daw Lay Mu. They are backed by Brigades 2 and 5. Brigade 3 seems to be sitting on the fence while events unfold, said KNU sources.
The disagreement within the Karen leadership is believed to have begun during the second round of peace talks in Pa-an between the government’s peace delegation and the KNU central committee led by David Taw on Jan. 12 when a ceasefire was signed.
Zipporah Sein quickly denounced the move and said that the delegation led by David Taw was not authorized to sign a truce.
KNU military sources have told The Irrawaddy that Zipporah Sein and her faction were so bemused that they hatched a plan to dismiss Mutu Say Poe, David Taw and Roger Khin, but put it on the shelf while the peace process was in mid-stream.
Soon after, the KNU general-secretary led her own delegation to Rangoon to meet Aung Min’s team, and she followed that up with a meeting in early September in Pa-an where they signed a second draft of the so-called “code of conduct” which is to be applied to both the KNLA and government forces.
Zipporah Sein’s faction insists it repeatedly invited Mutu Say Poe for a clear-the-air meeting, but their advances were spurned. Instead, they say, Mutu Say Poe formed his own delegation, consisting 31 men, and set off to Pa-an to open a new “KNLA liaison office” on Sept. 29—the final straw as far as Zipporah Sein was concerned.
Foe the most part, international observers, Burma watchers and ordinary Karen civilians still want to see a peace agreement between the KNU and Naypyidaw. But they need reassurances that the central committee can put its differences aside and move ahead in unity.
An experienced KNLA military leader assured The Irrawaddy on Monday that there would be no bloodshed and that the whole fiasco would be resolved peacefully.
Ashley South, a Burma watcher and researcher, said, “It’s my understanding that the government is serious about negotiating a peace agreement with the KNU—although of course there is still a long way to go until real peace is achieved. I don’t think the government wants the KNU to split up.”