Karen Armed Group Leader Condemned for Backing Talks With Junta

By The Irrawaddy 11 May 2021

A public statement by General Saw Mutu Sae Poe, chairman of the Karen National Union, issued on Monday in which he urged stakeholders to follow the negotiation channel to solve Myanmar’s political problems prompted huge criticism in Myanmar, including from the Karen community.

The statement came after the military launched air strikes on civilians from late March to early May in retaliation for attacks on military outposts by Brigade Five of the KNU’s armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army.

The KNLA attacked the military’s outposts to show support for the civilians striking against the junta.

“I am saddened to see the efforts to solve arising political problems in 2021 by taking up arms. The political problem needs to be solved through the political means, which is negotiation,” said Saw Mutu Sae Poe.

He said the KNU would continue political negotiations and uphold the principles of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement. He urged all relevant stakeholders to maintain peace by following the NCA. The KNU is one of the ten NCA signatories and had held political negotiations with the ousted National League for Democracy government until January.

General Saw Mutu Sae Poe has also maintained a good relationship with coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

Observers said the KNU chairman’s stand is somewhat softer than his previous letter to the coup leader on March 22, which was in response to an invitation to attend the Armed Forces Day. At that time, he urged the military to stop its atrocities and killing against unarmed civilians protesting the Feb. 1 coup. He also urged the release of all detainees held since the coup.

A political and ethnic affairs observer who spoke on condition of anonymity said the chairman’s position reflects reality as only half of the KNU’s seven brigades (in Papun in Karen State, Shwe Kyin in Bago Region and Thaton in Mon state) are actually taking part in the fighting against the military regime. The KNU’s headquarters is staying out of the armed engagement with the military following the coup.

However, a KNU leader in their central committee said the letter is the KNU chairman’s personal view and does not represent the whole organization.

The most active armed engagements were in the Brigade Five area of KNU’s Karen National Liberation Army. KNLA seized military’s outposts in Thi Mu Hta on Salween River in Karen State’s Papun District on March 27 and another two outposts on April 27, killing nearly 200 soldiers and wounding another 220.

In retaliation, the military launched air strikes and bombing raids against Karen civilian residents, displacing more than 30,000 people in the area. The military spokesman also accused the Brigade Five leaders of violating the NCA and said they have regular contacts with the KNU headquarters to continue implementing the NCA.

Naw Wahkushee, a leading member of Karen civil society groups, said questions remain whether political negotiation could stop the military’s killing and attacks on the Karen civilians, including bombing and airstrikes on villages.

Many other Karen youth also said on social media that if the leaders no longer believe in the armed revolution that the KNU has been in for the past 70 years for equality and self-determination, they should step down from their position because the brutal military regime is killing indiscriminately, including unarmed civilians in urban areas.

“Many Karen, as you see in their comments, do not accept his stand,” Naw Wahkushee said on social media. “It should not be. Even though it is an individual position, he is still in the position of the chairman of the KNU and still belongs to the organization. And also [he] represents the Karen people.”

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