In Advance of Ceasefire, Karen Rebels Call for Govt Troop Withdrawal

By Saw Yan Naing 14 October 2015

RANGOON — As ethnic peace negotiators descend upon the capital to sign a hard-won ceasefire agreement with the Burmese government, Karen rebels in the country’s southeast have issued a stern request for the withdrawal of Burma Army frontline troops and an end to deployment.

The Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the armed wing of the Karen National Union (KNU), released a statement on Wednesday reaffirming its support for the ceasefire while warning rebel troops to remain vigilant throughout its implementation.

Brig-Gen Mahn Shar Htu Gaw of the KNLA told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday that the armed group, which mostly occupies territories in eastern Burma’s Karen State, has clashed with the Burma Army and the government-affiliated Border Guard Force several times in recent weeks despite the KNU’s progress toward reaching a peace accord.

The pact, which is referred to by signatories as a nationwide ceasefire agreement despite having been accepted by only half of the ethnic stakeholders involved in negotiations, has been in the works for about two years and is set to be signed on Oct. 15 in Naypyidaw.

“We don’t oppose signing the NCA [nationwide ceasefire agreement], we have been involved alongside the process—but we informed our soldiers to be alert on their basic duty as usual,” he said.

“The Burma Army has in the past attacked some ethnic rebels while signing ceasefires with others, and we have had frequent fighting in our areas even recently. We want to reaffirm our stance and hold it firmly to avoid further serious confrontation.”

Wednesday’s statement urged the Burma Army to obey the military code of conduct and to immediately cease deployment and transport of weapons and ammunition through KNU-controlled areas. It further called on the government to withdraw some of its military camps on the frontlines of KNLA territories.

The KNLA also reiterated its request that government troops seek permission to travel and patrol on rebel-held routes, and that those patrols not disturb KNLA soldiers or carry out any lobbying efforts within their territories. The establishment of government-run administrative and judicial systems is also prohibited within the KNUs domain.

Karen rebels will not accept any type of proposed transformation, such as a Border Guard Force scheme or assimilation into a police force, the statement said, reaffirming its stance that the KNLA must firmly retain its role as the military arm of the KNU.

The KNLA is one of the longest-standing ethnic armed groups in Burma, with an estimated strength of more than 6,000 troops. The group has been at war with the Burmese government for much of the past 60 years, in efforts to achieve autonomy since the country gained independence from British colonial rule 1948.

Recent reports alleged that KNLA Brigade 5 had undertaken a new recruitment drive, leading some 2,000 villagers in Karen State’s Hpapun District to flee their homes for fear of forced conscription. A senior official told The Irrawaddy that the brigade regularly intakes new soldiers to replace aging servants, claiming the exodus was not caused solely by recruitment as many women and children were among the displaced.

“Some fled because they heard rumors of possible fighting between the Burma Army and the KNLA, they saw the movement of the Burmese troops. A group of about 70 Burmese soldiers were sent to that area,” the KNLA official said on condition of anonymity.

The KNU’s recent commitment to signing the ceasefire agreement has caused controversy within its own leadership. Although several high-ranking political leaders will represent the KNU at Thursday’s signing ceremony, the group’s vice chairperson, Zipporah Sein—who also serves as head of the ethnic negotiating bloc known as the Senior Delegation—turned down an invitation by the government’s chief peace broker Aung Min.

Zipporah Sein, who is among the camp of ethnic leaders that pushed for an inclusive accord, told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday that she did not wish to attend a peace deal ceremony as fighting continued in Kachin and Shan states.