Analysis: Why Did the KNU Temporarily Leave Peace Talks?

By Nyein Nyein 29 October 2018

YANGON — The Karen National Union said it would temporarily suspend its participation in all ongoing peace negotiations in a letter to State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the chairperson of the National Reconciliation and Peace Center, on Saturday.

The KNU said in its letter that the suspension is necessary “in order to create meaningful participation of the organization in the peace process and to seek enough time for the creation of the unified participation of the whole organization.”

A KNU leader who spoke on the condition of anonymity told The Irrawaddy on Sunday the group decided to suspend the talks because “the peace process is not going as well as expected.”

He said thorough discussions will continue within the KNU and that the group will still remain a signatory to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), following KNU chairman Saw Mutu Say Poe’s commitment to continue on the NCA path.

The KNU will hold a central committee member meeting next month where the situation will be discussed, according to KNU sources.

In addition, the KNU sent a separate letter to the Peace Process Steering Team of ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) that are signatories to the NCA. The PPST is led by KNU chairman Saw Mutu Say Poe. The letter stated that the KNU would not be joining the upcoming PPST meeting scheduled for the second week of November.

The KNU said it would have to review, discuss and negotiate agreements reached during a high-level summit between government and ethnic armed organizations in Naypyitaw on Oct. 15-16.

“In particular, consensus was required to reach new peace process implementation mechanisms, a framework and decision-making process,” read the letter, which the group will continue to discuss,

The KNU will not join the upcoming political dialogue framework review meeting, slated for Nov. 1-3 in Yangon. This meeting of government representatives, EAOs and political parties had been  initially planned since July but delayed for various reasons.

Immense Loss of Trust

In regards to the political situation and peace negotiations, U Hla Maung Shwe, the adviser to the Peace Commission described the current conditions as “bad.” He has been involved in peace negotiations since the inception of the peace process in 2011.

“I do not mean that the peace process is over, but that trust among the sides has been lost,” he said.

“The government and Tatmadaw leaders will have to act wisely,” he added.

Achieving mutual trust among the peace partners has been a key issue since the process began. It has been unsuccessful to date. The EAOs and government forces have been fighting for seven decades and the treatment of the Tatmadaw and the government toward each EAO affects trust. The Tatmadaw has active military engagement against both signatories and non-signatories to the NCA.

The KNU and the Tatmadaw also recently hit a rough patch over a road that the Tatmadaw wanted to reconstruct in the KNU’s Brigade 5 area in Papun District, Karen State last March.

U Maung Maung Soe, a political and ethnic affairs analyst, said no understanding had been reached on the issue, as the KNU thinks the reconstruction is related to military intentions and not regional development because the Tatmadaw closed roads in Kengtung and Mongla, which were in good condition in Shan State.

“If the Tatmadaw increased military pressure following the KNU’s decision to temporarily cease peace talks, it would be a very bad situation,” he added.

With a lack of trust, stumbling blocks have left peace negotiations at a standstill. One of the biggest blocks emerged at the second Panglong Peace Conference in May 2017 when the Tatmadaw stated that if there were not a pledge of non-secession from EAOs, then talks of drafting state Constitutions, which would grant increased autonomy and self-determination, would not be heard.

This discussion point was left off of the agenda of the third session of the Panglong Peace Conference.

Tensions Mount 

“As the time to make a political decision nears, challenges rise,” noted U Maung Maung Soe.

Tensions were high within both the KNU and the PPST prior to high-level talks with the government, Tatmadaw, Parliament and EAOs, as the KNU wanted to delay the talks.

Within the KNU, the “hardliners” urged that the talks be delayed, citing the need for additional preparation time. But Saw Mutu Say Poe and Padoh Saw Kwe Htoo Win of the KNU moved forward and sought the “collective approval” of the PPST. Many members of the PPST wanted to go ahead, as they had initiated calling the summit with the state counselor and army chief due to the deadlock in the peace process.

Anxieties mounted, as the PPST agreed in early October to attend the summit, which did not bring about any concrete agreement and led the Tatmadaw continued to push its non-secession agreement.

On Friday, the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) clarified its position that it would neither consider integrating its forces into the Myanmar military nor disavow its right to secede from the Union without consulting the Shan community.

EAOs agreed in principle to a single army but highlighted the need for further discussions on integrating various armed forces into one.

Observers question whether the peace process will move forward, as the KNU and RCSS – two of the larger ethnic armed organizations involved in the process – have been disappointed.

“Peace negotiations will continue with heated debates and setbacks until 2020,” speculated U Maung Maung Soe, the political and ethnic affair analyst, citing the army chief’s pledge to achieve peace in the country by 2020.