‘Our Standpoint Is Cooperation’

By May Kha 28 October 2014

Efforts to sign a nationwide ceasefire appear to have stalled in recent months, despite several meeting between ethnic leaders and the government, raising concerns about Burma’s peace process prospects.

Divisions are also emerging among ethnic rebels. In late August, the Karen National Union (KNU) suspended its membership in the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), an alliance of 12 ethnic armed groups. Meanwhile, the possible formation of a united Karen force, the Kawthoolei Armed Forces (KAF), has sparked internal tensions among Karen armed factions.

Kwel Htoo Win, general secretary of the KNU as well as the secretary of the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT), recently spoke with The Irrawaddy about the KNU’s views on the KAF, the ceasefire process and Karen unity.

Question: What is the KNU’s take on the formation of the Kawthoolei Armed Forces (KAF) as a united Karen force?

Answer: We started discussing how to build unity among all Karen forces at the 15th congress [in November 2012]. We then formed the Karen Forces Unity Committee to adopt and implement the policies concerned. Our chief of staff chairs the committee, which is formed of stakeholders from Karen forces. The committee is set to meet every three months and has met leaders and devised plans to address internal conflicts and eliminate drugs. Then joint committees were formed and were joined by Border Guard Force (BGF) and Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) representatives. We have thought of building unity among Karen forces in principle but have not yet thought about detailed plans to form a united armed force. We have yet to progress toward forming such a force.

Q: What does the KNU think about its membership in the UNFC?

A: We have just suspended our membership in the UNFC. We’ll discuss carefully about the standpoint and organizational structure of the UNFC at our central executive committee meeting this month. Then we’ll decide whether or not to continue our membership in the UNFC.

Q: For what reason has the KNU suspended its membership in the UNFC? Is it true that there has since been a row within the KNU leadership over the issue?

A: There is no row. We, the KNU, have had freedom of expression from the very beginning. The KNU is built on the consensus of all members. We have suspended our membership in the UNFC just to review.

Q: National unity has been questioned after the KNU suspended its membership in the UNFC. What would you like to say about it?

A: It [the KNU’s decision to suspend its membership] does not put national unity in harm’s way. We have always tried to strengthen national unity. We will not let it break up and won’t break it up either.

Q: What would you like to say about renewed fighting on Karen soil?

A: It is the result of misunderstandings between soldiers at lower levels on both sides. Meanwhile, the fact that there is no clear designation of areas [controlled by] government troops and areas for ethnic armed groups makes it difficult to avoid engagement.

What I am sure about, is that no armed group is fighting as a matter of policy. The fighting is the result of misunderstandings between both sides at the lower level. There is still no code of conduct formulated for the lower-level [soldiers] to follow.

Q: The KNU has said it represents the entire Karen people and also has a very close relationship with the government? Would you make the standpoint of the KNU clear?

A: We have fought with the government for almost six decades. What we demand is a ceasefire and political dialogue. Political issues can’t be solved militarily. Fighting will lead to nothing unless the fundamental problem is resolved. We signed a truce with the government in 2012 and have been working toward a political dialogue.

Each ethnic armed group has its own standpoint. It is said we are close to the government. In fact, we are cooperating with the government to be able to sign the nationwide ceasefire deal. We are also cooperating with ethnic armed groups.

Q: The KNU has met both with the president and the military’s Commander-in-Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing. What is the KNU’s view on the army chief’s role in the ongoing peace process? Some suggest that fighting is being prolonged because of his hard-line attitude.

A: No doubt, it takes two to fight a battle. But some [clashes] are not intentional, just accidental. While the ceasefire is still under negotiation, there is no clear designation of areas for both forces. Under these circumstances, government troops enter the region of ethnic armed groups while patrolling for security. Ethnic groups shoot at them to defend themselves. Again, it is also attributable to the attitude of the commanders on the ground. Fighting is inevitable if there is no understanding. Some engagement happens because of emotion. Some can’t control their emotions. Fighting is partly attributable to individuals.

Q: Is the commander-in-chief a hardliner?

A: Personally, I think he wants peace too.

Q: What do you think about the involvement of the government and the military in the ceasefire process?

A: It is important that the military plays a role in the peace process. They have made pledges and so have we. There has been certain progress. The most important thing is to have understanding. If there is understanding, we will be able to make it.

Q: It is said that the military is making a U-turn in ongoing negotiations. What would you like to say about it?

A: My view is they are making sure of [certain] pledges. They are reviewing our demands at present [which] I see as a positive sign.

Q: The KNU once took up arms to defend its own beliefs and was described as hardline. Now, it is trying to achieve peace through negotiation. By which means exactly does the KNU wish to make peace now?

A: We took up arms for more than six decades for nationalism. But, we could not annihilate each other. It is the people who were hit hardest by the fighting. Now, we wish to bury the hatchet and make peace with our foe. Fighting has only led to hatred and the suffering of the people. Therefore, we choose to negotiate because we finally realize that finding the solution peacefully is best after years of fighting.