CHIANG MAI, Thailand — The Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) has made a symbolic step towards its reunification with rival ethnic rebel groups by using the Karen New Year festivities on Sunday to officially incorporate the logo of the Kawthoolei Armed Forces (KAF) into its uniforms.
Kawthoolei is the local name for the independent state that Karen armed insurgents have been fighting for since the 1940s, the longest continuous ethnic rebellion in the country. Maj-Gen Saw Moses, the second in command of the DKBA, says that by adopting the KAF logo, his organization hopes to build momentum towards an eventual union with all Karen rebel groups.
“We fully accept and support the idea of the KAF,” he said. “We want to be reunited as one army. Our hope is to stay under one political leadership in the future.”
The DKBA split from the Karen National Union (KNU) in 1994 after relations soured between the Buddhist Karen community and the predominantly Christian KNU leadership. The DKBA spent the next 15 years fighting alongside the Burma Army against the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the KNU’s military wing.
In 2010, the DKBA was split by an attempt to integrate its soldiers into the Burmese Army’s Border Guard Forces, leading to a rapprochement with the KNLA. Saw Moses said a reunification of the two groups—along with smaller factions such as the Karen National Defense Organization (KNDO) and the KNU/KNLA Peace Council—is an important step in extracting future concessions from the government.
“If we are united, we will be more powerful in dealing with the government,” he said. “If we are divided into pieces, they don’t really care about our words. So, now it is time that we have to unite. Unity is strength.”
The KNLA and the KNDO have signed an in-principle agreement to the idea of a military merger, but the KNLA will debate the extent of its commitment during its 16th Congress, to be held sometime in the coming year. So far only Gen. Baw Kyaw Heh, known for his hardline anti-government stance, and the two brigades he commands have committed to military cooperation under the KAF banner.
The DKBA has an estimated 2000-3000 soldiers, while the two KNLA brigades can field an estimated 3000. The KNDO and KNU/KNLA Peace Council have several hundred soldiers each.
Approximately 2000 people attended the Karen New Year celebrations at the DKBA’s headquarters in Kaw Thoo Mwee Khee over the weekend, which coincided with the 20th anniversary of the formation of the DKBA.