CHIANG MAI, Thailand—The Karen National Union (KNU) is standing firm on its decision to temporarily suspend its participation in ongoing peace talks, but will seek solutions to overcome the impasses facing the peace process through informal negotiations, it said in a statement.
The statement was released after an emergency meeting of the KNU Central Standing Committee on Nov. 10.
The KNU leadership met last week to review its high-level talks with the government, Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military) and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) in mid-October, and to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of the implementation of the peace process.
The group announced it was suspending its participation in the peace process two weeks ago, saying it needed time to conduct internal consultations on a meaningful participation in the process, before moving on with it.
The KNU said that confusion over the peace process had increased because stakeholders had different understandings of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). It said this was making it hard to “solve the issues, which are developing repeating contradictions” as the different groups pushed to implement the agreement according to their various, and different, understandings of it.
The KNU stressed the need for “solution-seeking negotiations” in order to overcome obstacles to the implementation of the NCA.
“The KNU abides by the NCA agreements, which include the building of a Democratic Federal Union with equality and full self-determination according to the result of political dialogue, and the KNU believes there must be a single interpretation of those agreements,” its statement reads.
The statement said the issues of non-secession from the Union and armed forces integration had been raised by the government and Tatmadaw “as negotiation preconditions which were not included in the NCA agreement.” The KNU said that by bringing up such preconditions, the government and military were implying that the negotiation of topics agreed to in the NCA would only continue once the EAOs had accepted those terms.
The KNU has repeatedly said the parties need to “thoroughly discuss the security affairs first” before continuing on to negotiate the single army issue.
The KNU also insisted that “it is not sufficient” to limit the process of crafting democratic and federal principles to NCA signatories, saying it must involve other EAOs who are not yet allowed to participate in the political dialogue to ensure that everyone is properly represented and to realize a sustainable peace.
The seeds of the current impasses now plaguing the peace process can be seen in the way the NCA text was developed back in 2014 and 2015, especially regarding the issue of all-inclusivity and the six points raised by the military, which objected to the inclusion of three armed groups—the Arakan Army, the Ta’ang Nationalities Liberation Army and Kokang’s Myanmar Nationalities Democratic Alliance Army—in the process.
The signing of the NCA in October 2015 was preceded by seven months of deadlock in the composition of its draft text, said Khuensai Jaiyen, an adviser to the Peace Process Steering Team (PPST). Thus the current situation is cause for concern, based on prior experience, the adviser said.
“It is a concern if we do think so [about the current situation]. Thus we need to have many more informal negotiations like in the past, because there are people on all sides—the government, Tatmadaw and the EAOs—who really want the peace process to keep moving and to achieve peace,” he said.
Different opinions on KNU’s move
Observers have differing views of the KNU’s decision; some see it as a positive reaction, while others speculate that it could point to a split in the KNU leadership.
This has led to concerns that fighting in its areas will return; that the peace process will weaken; and that the convening of the Union Peace Conference three more times before 2020 will be delayed.
In March, clashes between the KNU and the Tatmadaw over the latter’s rebuilding of an old road in an area controlled by the KNU’s Brigade 5 in Papun district displaced civilians and disrupted the daily lives of local people.
Sources close to the government speculate on a possible split between the KNU’s leaders, and have even suggested that chairman General Saw Mutu Say Poe may not be in full control.
KNU vice chairman Padho Saw Kwe Htoo Win recently denied any such divisions to The Irrawaddy, while acknowledging that differing opinions exist, saying this is normal in a democratic organization.
“If the military stays in its own zone of control and does not cross the line, there would be no concern about fighting, and thus nothing to worry about,” said Saw Matthew Aye, an ethnic Karen civilian representative on the Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Committee (JMC). The JMC comprises representatives of the EAO commanders and Tatmadaw, as well as civilians.
He said the KNU’s decision is a “positive reaction” because the current peace process needs a break to allow participants to rethink and review, as the meetings so far had not resulted in any specific decisions.
Due to the KNU’s decision to postpone all peace talks, including both political negotiations and military monitoring, the 19th JMC Union-level meeting scheduled for November has been postponed, Saw Matthew Aye said.
However, trust was still lacking between the peace negotiation partners, the KNU said, so the stakeholders must have “trust-building mechanisms, common visions, shared values and national reconciliation” in order to overcome the obstacles to implementing national reconciliation and building trust.
The KNU joined the peace process in 2012 and signed its first bilateral ceasefire with the government in January that year. It pledged to find solutions to political issues through political means rather than arms after over six decades of fighting with the Tatmadaw.
There are also rumors that the KNU is likely to replace chairman General Saw Mutu Say Poe with KNU General Secretary Padoh Saw Tadoh Moo as the leader of its delegation to the PPST.
“I don’t think there is potential for such leadership change,” said Khuensai Jaiyen, however, describing the divergent views within the KNU as differing opinions, not a leadership split.
PPST meeting likely this month
The PPST meeting has been temporarily postponed as the KNU and another NCA signatory, the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), are internally reviewing their positions on the peace process.
The RCSS also said last week that it had decided not to take part in the discussions of the JMC at either the state or the Union level, claiming the JMC is not abiding by the NCA.
Although there are uncertainties over whether the ethnic leaders of all 10 signatories will meet soon, Khuensai Jaiyen was optimistic that the meeting will happen this month.
He said the leaders could not avoid such discussions, as EAOs need to negotiate for common ground and to move forward on negotiations with the government, but “it will take time.”
Before the PPST meeting with all signatories, the KNU and the RCSS will hold separate discussions between the two on how to move forward, as they did in early October before deciding to join high-level talks in Naypyitaw.
Saw Mra Yar Zar Lin, the deputy leader of the Peace Implementing Committee of the Arakan Liberation Party, another signatory to the NCA, said open and thorough negotiations are urgently needed and thus the talks must go on.
“There will be an impact, more or less, on the process [because of the KNU’s move],” she said, as the views of each and every EAO were needed to decide whether the process should move forward or not.
“We, the EAOs, must only raise the concerns on what type of federal principles we want to achieve, and the government should also openly say to what extent they agree with those,” she added.
Correction: A previous version of this story mistakenly said that KNU representatives did not participate in the most recent JMC secretariat meeting at the end of October. They did participate in the meeting.