Ethnic Issues

KNU’s Kwe Htoo Win: ‘The Government Nodded and We Accepted’

By Kyaw Kha & Nyein Nyein 2 October 2015

Seven ethnic armed groups, including the powerful Karen National Union (KNU), have agreed to sign a nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) with the Burmese government, calling into question whether the accord is truly “nationwide.” Several stakeholders in the peace process have adamantly demanded that the pact be all-inclusive, extending to a number of armed groups that are still in active conflict with the Burma Army, as well as a handful of others that are not viewed as eligible by government negotiators.

An ethnic summit held in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, this week produced a split among ethnic stakeholders, some willing to move forward and others holding out for an inclusive pact. The Irrawaddy spoke with KNU General Secretary Kwe Htoo Win about his group’s decision to accede to the pact and what it means for the future of the country’s protracted peace process.

We have learned that the KNU is among the ethnic armed groups that are ready to sign a nationwide ceasefire agreement. Can you explain what it means to be ready, and the rationale behind this decision?

In our KNU policy, we regard armed conflict as a fundamentally political problem that cannot be solved militarily. Successive KNU congresses have decided to and made attempts to hold political dialogue, but it never happened. We have never signed a truce. The government has invited us to sign this ceasefire and enter a political dialogue, but signing the accord and starting the dialogue was not the original idea of the government. Ethnic armed groups cooperated with the government and demanded that the political dialogue begin after signing the ceasefire. The government nodded and we accepted this also.

We believe that political dialogue can be held smoothly and peacefully only after ending armed conflict. The KNU central committee reviewed the final NCA text and has accepted it. We decided to sign and implement it together with other ethnic armed groups. Our people, the entire Karen people, want peace. We therefore decided to sign the ceasefire and enter the political dialogue with other groups, political parties and stakeholders so that the problem—which stemmed from differing political ideologies—can be solved.

The KNU has previously accepted the principle of inclusion, though now it seems only seven groups will sign the accord. Doesn’t this mean you have ignored that principle?

It’s not like that. We will revisit the issue when the NCA is implemented. Before we reach a nationwide ceasefire, ethnic groups will sign it individually. Ethnic armed groups have made the same old demand for a nationwide pact and a political dialogue, and the current government has accepted it. In principle we accept all inclusiveness, but in practice, groups which should be included would play their part accordingly and finally toward an all-inclusive political dialogue.  Ethnic armed groups may have different objectives and stances, but we have the same goal: a federal union. Our policy is progressive realization, that is, to realize this goal step by step. Ethnic armed groups that are ready can sign the NCA and then work for the peace and stability of the entire country, based on the accord.

Was there any opposition to the decision to sign within the KNU? How will this affect the group’s leadership?

There may be different views within the KNU. Not only in the KNU, but even some individuals may be of two minds. But the decision was made democratically by the KNU central committee based on the principles and goals of the KNU, and therefore no one will reject this decision. They may have their own wishes and views, but we have to follow the decision of the majority.

Given the circumstances, do you think an inclusive political dialogue is possible?

Not only ethnic armed groups, but political parties will also join the dialogue. If we are to enter a political dialogue, the government should remove the groups with which it is fighting from the list of unlawful associations once the NCA is signed. Then those groups will be able to officially meet the government on equal terms, and we can engage with them legally without needing to be afraid of the prospect of being charged with unlawful association. This is a pragmatic way to go, I think.

Some groups are not fighting with the government and they are not regarded as unlawful. The government has said that those groups need not sign a truce, they can join the dialogue directly, but some of them did not listen.

So it seems that not all of the armed groups will be able to participate in the dialogue together.

They can take part even if they haven’t signed the NCA, but they will not have the right to make decisions or discuss the issues. They can attend as observers. As far as I understand, the President [Thein Sein] and U Aung Min have said so.

Do you think the accord can guarantee that guns will fall silent between the government and the signatories?

No matter how much a couple loves each other, there will still be times when they will quarrel. This is quite natural. We do expect that the NCA can lead to the complete silencing of guns, but it may not happen in reality due to distrust and suspicion between the two sides. We need to dispel this gradually; we need to move forward to nationwide peace step by step.