Karen Groups Seek Unity at 3-Day Conference

By Saw Yan Naing 29 May 2014

RANGOON — Several hundred ethnic Karen leaders from armed groups, political parties, youth groups and community-based organizations are meeting in Karen State to focus on building unity among Karen communities around the world.

An estimated 500 or 600 people are attending the three-day Karen Unity Seminar in Pa-an District. The seminar began on Wednesday and has drawn representatives from Karen groups in Burma, the United States, Europe and other countries.

Among those in attendance are members of the Karen National Union (KNU), the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) and the Karen Peace Council, as well as members of Rangoon-based Karen political parties, according to KNU sources.

“The aim of the seminar is to build better unity among the Karen people, step by step,” Maj. Shi Sho, an official from the KNU liaison office in Pa-an, told the Irrawaddy on Thursday.

The 10th Karen Unity Seminar is taking place at Lay Wah, in territory controlled by KNU Brigade 7, just opposite Thailand’s Tak Province.

Ethnic Karen make up about 7 percent of the 60 million or so population in Burma. In addition to Karen State, many live in Rangoon, Pegu, Tenasserim and Irrawaddy divisions.

Led by the KNU, Karen revolutionaries waged war against the central government for decades after Burma gained independence from its British colonial rulers. They founded the KNU in 1947 and officially declared their armed struggle movement in 1949.

The KNU established a base in Insein, Rangoon Division in 1947. The base was later moved to Taungoo, Pegu Division, and finally to Manerplaw, on the Thai-Burma border.

However, the Karen rebel group has seen major divisions over its history, including in 1994 when the DKBA, a Buddhist-led Karen armed group, broke away from its mother organization, the KNU, which is dominated by Christian Karen.

When President Thein Sein’s government initiated the peace process with ethnic armed groups in early 2012, the KNU signed a historic ceasefire agreement.

Since then, two factions have emerged within the leadership, with one side wanting to approach the peace process cautiously and continuing to express doubts about the government’s intentions. The other faction wants to move forward quickly with the peace process.