The leader of the militant wing of the Karen National Union (KNU), Burma’s oldest ethnic rebel group, has said his organization will move forward with the country’s peace process and has committed to fighting a “bloodless battle” with the government in order to achieve greater autonomy.
Gen. Saw Johnny, commander-in-chief of the KNU’s Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), earlier this month in Rangoon made rare public remarks defensively articulating his position on the so-called “nationwide ceasefire agreement” signed by the KNU and several other non-state armed organizations on Oct. 15, while acknowledging uncertainty over negotiations with the government to come.
“We are still on the battlefield. But now we don’t fight with guns,” said Saw Johnny, whose KNLA was founded in 1949 and controls about 6,000 troops in southeastern Burma.
“We are finding ways to avoid bloodshed in battle. We are changing the blood-stained battlefield into a bloodless one. We have yet to reach our goal. And we don’t know how many years it will take.”
Saw Johnny said political dialogue was the only way to end more than six decades of conflict between the Karen armed group and the country’s ethnic Burman-dominated central government.
“We love honesty and we have fought for it against the government for more than 60 years. But neither the Burmese government nor the KNU has been vanquished. Only Burmese and Karen soldiers have died and civilians have lived in poverty. So we will solve the conflict by political means,” said Saw Johnny, addressing about 50 Karen community leaders and others at Rangoon’s Panda Hotel on Oct. 17.
He acknowledged that not every ethnic armed group agreed with this approach, and even admitted to a split within the ranks of the KNU leadership on the issue.
Saw Johnny said, however, that he saw no better way to achieve a lasting peace than to meet the government at the negotiating table, adding that the signing of the ceasefire agreement marked only the beginning of a process. The KNU would not listen to criticism from third parties including the media, he said, and would instead act based what it believes is in the best interest of the Karen people.
“Among our Karen leadership, we have different opinions over the peace talks and we even used to try to dismiss one another. As you know, to date, we are not united. But we will go forward in spite of disunity,” said Saw Johnny, who claimed that 80 percent of the Karen people supported the KNU’s decision to engage in the government-led peace process.
He added that the KNU had already seen its approach bear fruit, with the government removing the group from its list of illegal organizations. Prior to that delisting, anyone could be imprisoned for having contact with the KNU under Article 17/1 of Burma’s Unlawful Association Act.
“We have been opening the door for political talks for a long time, but the Burmese government didn’t offer a chance for it. They only asked us to disarm and come back into its ‘legal fold.’ But now, we don’t need to disarm while holding political talks,” said Saw Johnny.
“You all can cooperate with us now. All Karen people from cities, villages and overseas have a duty to achieve what we want. No foreign country can achieve it for us,” he told the audience.
The KNU leadership has struggled to maintain a united front for years, resulting in the formation of a handful of splinter groups and internal divisions within the organization as government efforts to forge a nationwide ceasefire accord have progressed over the last two years.
The KNU’s vice chairperson, Naw Zipporah Sein, turned down a government invitation to attend the ceasefire signing ceremony in Naypyidaw, an indication that serious doubts about the sincerity of the Burmese government linger in the upper echelons of the ethnic armed group’s leadership.
“I don’t need to point out how many Karen factions there are even within the KNU. But it doesn’t matter. We will move forward in accordance with the people’s support. We will convince others to move forward. But we can do nothing if they want to move backward,” said Saw Johnny.
Founded in 1947, the KNU is one of the largest ethnic armed groups in Burma. The KNLA was founded two years later and had waged a war with the government through 2011, before signing a bilateral ceasefire agreement with the government in 2012. Clashes, however, have still been reported sporadically despite the ceasefire.
“Since 1949, many soldiers and leaders have sacrificed their lives for the prosperity and freedom of the Karen people. We have to achieve realization of the goal [of self-determination] in order to honor their sacrifice. So, we will try to be united and work together to achieve our goal,” said Saw Johnny.
The KNU, along with six other ethnic armed groups and the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF), signed the multilateral ceasefire with the Burmese government in Naypyidaw on Oct. 15, while other major armed groups of ethnic Kachin, Wa, Kokang, Karenni and Mon identities abstained from signing.
Disagreement over whether to sign the ceasefire, both among and within the country’s ethnic armed groups, has in recent months largely boiled down to the government’s refusal to allow some rebel armies to sign the accord. Burma Army attacks have occurred on some of the non-signatories in the days since the signing.