‘If We Don’t Defend Our People They Will Disappear’ 

By Lawi Weng 4 November 2014

Tensions remain high in southeastern Burma’s Karen State, where multiple ethnic armed groups sorely seek unity after recent clashes with the Burma Army. A road blockade, several attempted bombings and a mysterious death left many on edge in the militarized area along the border with Thailand. 

In late September, the Burma Army issued an order prohibiting several Karen armed groups from wearing uniforms or carrying arms in the border town of Myawaddy. Tensions rose and conflict soon broke out between government troops and two ethnic armed groups—the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) and the KNU/KNLA Peace Council—giving rise to fears that the country’s delicate peace negotiations could be faltering. 

Col. Saw Tun Tun, tactical commander of the DKBA in its headquarters at Sone Seen Myaing, Karen State, recently spoke with The Irrawaddy’s Lawi Weng about ethnic politics, trust-building and the future of Burma’s peace process.

Question: Since the recent fighting broke out, have you had any negotiations with the Burma Army?

Answer: Our top officials haven’t met with them yet. I heard that the Burma Army has requested a meeting, and we may meet in the future. Our officers on the ground have spoken with them, which helps to rebuild some trust.

Q: What do you think of the Burma Army’s order banning DKBA soldiers from wearing uniforms or carrying arms in Myawaddy?

A: We rejected that order because it is meant to destroy the morale of our troops. As soldiers, they are proud to wear their uniforms when they travel in public areas. It gives them pride and satisfaction. The Burma Army wanted to break their spirits by taking that away from them.

Hundreds of Burma Army troops have traveled into areas under our control as their battalions changed rotation. How would they feel if we told all of them to wear civilian clothes? This is what I’d like to ask them: How would you feel if we did that to you?

Is wearing a uniform truly a threat to the public? They [the Burma Army] said that ethnic armed groups wear uniforms to threaten civilians, but how about their troops? Haven’t they threatened the public? It’s not fair for them to act like the Tatmadaw [Burma Army] is a good army, and all of the others are bad, like the ethnic groups.

Q: The ongoing peace negotiations between the Union Peace-making Work Committee (UPWC) and the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT) seem to stagnate whenever the issue of federalism comes up. Why has this presented such a problem for peace negotiators? 

A: We need peace, which was why we [the DKBA] signed a ceasefire agreement.

Some people think that only civilians want peace. Personally, I think that soldiers are the ones who want peace the most because they are the first people to suffer when there is conflict. And I don’t mean only ethnic soldiers; government troops want peace, as well.

Sincerity is important in the trust-building process. You cannot build trust if you are not genuine. If they [the Burma Army] really want peace, the negotiations will be fruitful.

The current situation is a bit of a standoff, but [the government] doesn’t want to admit this. When negotiations hit a roadblock, it means we have reached a political problem. It’s a political standoff.

Q: Do you think that the Burmese government will allow for a federalist system, which ethnic people have demanded for decades?  

A: I don’t think so, but ethnic people will keep asking until we get. We have been fighting for this for many decades, demanding federalism for the whole country. We feel that it is a system that would protect the interests of ethnic minorities and keep them secure.

We will never disarm, even though they have told us to. Our arms are meant for the protection of our people, and if we do not have them, our people will disappear under the oppressive system of the Burmese military.

Q: Will the DKBA sign a nationwide ceasefire agreement if it is approved by the NCCT?

A: If we get what we want from the agreement, then yes, we will sign it. We won’t reject the agreement if it promotes peace and is good for the country. We have guns, but we don’t expect to be fighting a long civil war. Our troops are defensive, not offensive, and if we don’t defend our people they will disappear.

Q: What is your analysis of Burma’s parliamentary politics? 

A: There are unequal forces in Parliament, between the ruling party and the opposition groups. The army is also a strong force in Parliament. The opposition can’t really do very much for the country. If the Parliament is functional and serves the interests of the people, why can’t they amend Article 436 [which reserves 25 percent of parliamentary seats for the military]?