Padoh Naw Zipporah Sein is the former vice chairperson of the Karen National Union (KNU). She is a longstanding KNU leader and has served the organization as a schoolteacher, women’s rights activist, general secretary and vice chairperson. Recently she lost a KNU election due to a power struggle within the leadership. Because of her cautious approach to the peace process between the KNU and the Burmese government, she is branded by Burmese peace negotiators and some observers as a hardliner. The Irrawaddy’s senior reporter Saw Yan Naing sat down with Padoh Naw Zipporah Sein and asked her about the KNU election, newly-elected leaders and the peace process.
MAE SARIANG, Thailand—
You were not re-elected in the KNU congress. What is the overview of that recent congress?
The elected leaders already had plans for this congress. They believed they would move forward with the peace process smoothly if they were elected. People see two groups within the KNU. They think one group goes along with the peace process but they categorize the other as not loving peace. They call us hardliners—including me.
Burmese peace negotiators and outsiders think people like me and Gen Baw Kyaw Heh [second in command in the KNU’s military wing] are hardliners and that we don’t support the peace process. This greatly impacts the KNU because even our colleagues categorizes us as hardliners, and spread that information.
This congress is worrisome. International governments including the US and the EU worried about who was elected, and the Burma Army and former government worried about hardliners being chosen.
You said propaganda caused people from the Burma Army and the international community to consider you a hardliner. What is your explanation to them?
We do not see ourselves as hardliners. There is no one within the KNU leadership who does not love peace. But people think of us as hardliners because we stand firmly on our policy. For example, I do not easily agree with the Burma Army. In a dinner meeting with representatives from the Burma Army, they said they would give two cars for use at a liaison office in Pa-an. But before the liaison office opens, the cars will be used for business. I rejected the idea because we have not discussed business among KNU leaders. I do not agree easily if we are not properly consulted. So, they see me as a hardliner.
Why you are cautious with the peace process? What are your concerns?
It has been over 60 years since we began our armed resistance. We cannot find a solution for peace at once. We have to work carefully and be honest in building genuine peace around the country. We need a good foundation and to go step by step. We have been pressured to go quickly but I do not think we can build peace quickly.
When I met a Burmese government delegation for the first time in 2011, I was doubtful because they said we had to rush to bring peace or else the Burma Army would take back power. I feel like we were pressured and threatened even from the first meeting so I hesitated and lost confidence in the process.
What is your expectation of the newly-elected KNU leaders?
My biggest concern is the Burma Army. It should withdraw its troops from the KNU territories, especially areas near civilians’ homes.
My priority is the withdrawal of troops because there should be safety for displaced civilians. If Burma Army troops withdraw from villages, civilians can return home and live without fear. We have asked for this since 2012 and we believed this would happen after we signed the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA). But it has not happened even a year after signing the NCA and no one mentions it. I want to see the new leaders press this issue for the sake of civilians.
Some newly elected central standing committee members lack political experience, while experienced leaders like you were not re-elected. Do you have any concerns about the new leadership?
It is our ethnic Karen way of thinking; people who love to discuss and debate are not wanted. Some elected leaders do not talk much. They do not complain or point out other people’s weaknesses. They worry about being disliked if they complain. Leaders who like to debate are not elected so there is no opposition within the leadership.
There are no women serving as KNU leaders. What is women’s role as far as leadership?
Some leaders do not think much regarding the role of women. They think if women are skilled, they will be included in the leadership. And if they are not skilled, they will be excluded. They also think women are talkative and curious because women are not like men. Women are outspoken. But men dare not to speak to each other openly. Women are straightforward.
Women suffer in war. Some serve as local community leaders in conflict areas. Civilian safety is related to women’s affairs. Men don’t suffer like women. Women suffer even after war. But men do not understand. Making peace is not only about stopping the fighting. It is about ensuring safety for civilians, especially women. Women should be included in the leadership.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.