Among Burma’s Karen Rebels, a House Divided

By Saw Yan Naing 3 November 2014

After more than 60 years of war with the Burmese government, the Karen National Union (KNU) is trying to adapt to the dynamic political environment unfolding in Burma. In the process, cracks are beginning to show within the leadership ranks of Burma’s longest-running ethnic rebellion.

Central to the split is the rebel group’s approach to ongoing government-led peace negotiations.

The majority of KNU leaders, led by their chairman Mutu Say Poe, are pro-government, while a sizeable minority led by vice chairwoman Zipporah Sein are not in favor of Naypyidaw’s peace program. The cracks have been emerging since the KNU signed an historic ceasefire agreement with the government in January 2012.

While the leadership maintains an official silence on the matter, the KNU’s internal rifts are an open secret, and several attempts to resolve the disagreements have ended in failure.

The latest evidence of the leadership schism has involved the proposed creation of the Kawthoolei Armed Forces (KAF), which would comprise the KNU’s armed wings—the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and the Karen National Defense Organization (KNDO)—and two breakaway armed groups. The breakaway groups, the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) and the KNLA-Peace Council, split from the KNU in 1994 and 2007, respectively.

The KAF proposal, which was first made last month, led top KNU leaders to gather for an emergency meeting to discuss the issue, with the majority of KNU leaders agreeing only “in principle” to the creation of the KAF. KNU chairman Mutu Say Poe’s faction is not satisfied with the KAF, while Lt-Gen Baw Kyaw Heh, vice chief of staff of the KNLA, fully backs the unified fighting force.

The DKBA recently held public talks concerning the proposed unification and said it would go ahead with the KAF, but the KNU’s official position is that the issue will be tabled until its next congress in 2016.

Kwe Htoo Win, general secretary of the KNU, said: “We need to check whether some Karen armed groups took up weapons for business interests or political interests. Some armed groups exist only in name. They don’t exist as professional armed groups. They don’t follow the rules. So, it will take time to work it out.”

Divisions have also cropped up within the KNLA-PC, a smaller Karen armed group led by Gen. Htain Maung, who is undecided on whether to join the KAF. The KNLA-PC dismissed its two top officials, Pastor Timothy Laklem and Col. Tiger, a.k.a. Eh Kaw Htoo, after learning that the two were involved in the KAF proposal and signed onto the plan on behalf of the KNLA-PC.

Sources within the KNU and the DKBA also said that Pastor Timothy Laklem, a controversial Karen politician, was behind the release of the KAF announcement on Oct. 13, without waiting for approvals from leaders of the respective Karen armed units.

The Mutu Say Poe faction that dominates the current KNU leadership also views the move to create the KAF as a potential rival to an existing “Unity Committee” led by KNLA chief of staff Gen. Saw Johnny. At its last congress in 2012, the KNU said that unification of the disparate Karen armed groups was an ultimate aim.

“We already have our Unity Committee and they will be working on it [reunification]. We have to reunify them [Karen armed groups] and let them stay under one policy and follow the same regulations,” said Kwe Htoo Win.

Saw Johnny, who backs Mutu Say Poe’s faction, said he believed that the KNU should move quickly with the peace process after decades of armed conflict with the government. The KNU has been waging war with the Burmese government since shortly after the country gained independence from Britain in 1948.

When asked about some critics’ concern that the peace process is being rushed, Saw Johnny replied: “Actually, it is not moving fast enough. The best way is to negotiate political problems at the table.”

He added that despite dealing with the Burmese government and its peace program, the KNU still had its reservations about its negotiating partner.

“It is like we are still on the battlefield,” Saw Johnny told The Irrawaddy in an interview at his house in Lay Wah, the headquarters of the KNU.

Not the First Divisions

It is not the first time that the Karen and its political leaders have faced disagreement and division.

Karen political bodies such as the Karen Central Organization (KCO) and its youth branch, the Karen Youth Organization (KYO), emerged in 1945 to contest Burma’s general elections in 1947, the year the Karen National Union (KNU) was founded.

Disagreements over who should represent Karen interests in Parliament, however, led to the resignation of several KNU and KCO leaders.

After Burma’s independence in 1948, the KNU started to wage war against the Burmese government, suffering huge losses of territory that it had held in Insein, Rangoon Division; Taungoo, Pegu Division; Papun in northern Karen State; and Manerplaw on the Thai-Burma border.

That last loss was actually due largely to a DKBA offensive against the KNU headquarters in Marnerplaw in 1995, with the Karen splinter group receiving backing from the Burma Army.

In 2007, more bloodshed as a result of Karen disunity: the KNLA-PC split from the KNU, leading to assassinations on both sides, including the killing of the late KNU general secretary Padoh Mahn Sha in 2008.

As the government steps up its effort to ink a nationwide ceasefire with all of the country’s ethnic armed groups, the KNU again finds itself at a crossroads.

Saw Lay Mu, a KNU official, described the KNU’s current position as “never divided and never united.”

Despite the stated aim of many Karen leaders to reunify the splintered ethnic group, practical matters like the KAF continue to stand in the way, exacerbated by the various egos and emotions driving decision-making at the highest levels.

Talking with sources from the respective Karen armed groups, The Irrawaddy learned that from the senior leadership on down to the soldiers on the ground, the various Karen armed groups are ideologically divided over the government’s peace program.

Reflecting on past divisions and losses incurred, Saw Johnny once famously said: “It is not because our enemy [Burmese government] is clever. It is because we are not clever.”