Karen Leader: ‘If They Keep Attacking Us, There Will Be No Peace’

By Lawi Weng 5 November 2015

This week, representatives of a number of Burma’s ethnic armed groups convened in Wa Special Region for a political strategy summit among those that abstained from a recent ceasefire accord with the government. Attendees met for three days with the aim of establishing a path forward between non-ceasefire groups a new government set to take power early next year, following a general election to be held on Sunday.

Two participants took some observers by surprise: David Tharckabaw and Zipporah Sein, both members of the Karen National Union (KNU), which signed the ceasefire agreement with the government on Oct. 15. Both representatives attended the summit on behalf of the Karen National Defense Organization (KNDO), a non-signatory, rather than the KNU. Neither was present at the ceasefire signing ceremony, indicating a growing divide within the powerful KNU.

The Irrawaddy spoke with Tharckabaw on the sidelines of the summit in the Wa capital Panghsang about the KNDO’s objectives and motivations for attending the summit, and his views on the peace deal recently signed by other factions within the Karen political leadership.

We would like to know about the KNDO’s stance. The KNU has already signed the “nationwide ceasefire agreement” (NCA), so why did you come here?

The stance of our KNDO is that we wanted to see a nationwide peace agreement on the right track. What’s happening now is that there was some pressure from the government, and the KNU had to sign the NCA. This was not a real nationwide ceasefire, it was a fake NCA. For our KNDO, we will continue to work with our alliance of ethnic armed forces to reach a real nationwide agreement.

Some foreign NGOs have destroyed the house of the UNFC [United Nationalities Federal Council, Burma’s main ethnic alliance]. The house of the UNFC was broken already, and their members divided into different parts. These [NGOs] destroyed the unity of our ethnic groups. For those who signed the NCA, they could not come here [to the Panghsang summit]. Their house was destroyed and they were divided.

The KNDO and the KNU have the same fundamental standpoint, but some leaders did not walk on the right path. Our right stance is that we need to work and cooperate with our alliance of ethnic armed forces. Then our alliance will fight for equal rights and the right to govern ourselves with self-determination for our ethnic region. Our KNDO stance is that if we do not have our allied force, we need to form it. In the case that we need to lead our alliance, we need to prepare for that. This is our stance. We do not want to lose our path, which is why we will continue to work with our alliance of ethnic armed forces.

Do you worry that the Burmese government will cause problems because you joined this summit despite the fact that the KNU signed the NCA?

Why would I have to worry about the Burmese government just because I came here? They attacked our ethnic groups, one by one. We asked them to stop it, but they did not care about that. So why would I worry about them attacking us? Their actions are similar to colonial actions, but we have a brotherhood as ethnic groups. If they keep attacking us, there will be no peace.

The majority of Burmese do not support the current government. They are a group of Burmese extremists. They are very proud of themselves as they feel they are the majority in the country. Indeed, they are actually a minority ethnic group. Many Burmese are ethnic people, but they lie to us about our history. Many Karen Burmese are listed as Burmese.

They have attacked our ethnic groups since our country became independent. The first group they attacked was the ethnic Karen. After Ne Win oppressed the ethnic groups, many formed armed groups and our country has had no peace since then. As long as they keep using force to solve political conflict, our country will continue to be poor.

What would you do to bring unity back to the Karen leadership?

We are willing to join hands with the KNU, but we will keep our hand in the distance; not shake hands closely, but maintain a distance.

The Euro-Burma Office (EBO) is the main NGO that has destroyed the unity of the ethnic groups. Their money came from the European Union. Our men took that money, and the ideas of the NGOs were installed in their brains. Our men were genuine people; they did not understand whether those ideas were right or wrong. They believed it, and they signed [the ceasefire]. Our KNU talked to them [the government] seven or eight times about reaching a ceasefire, but they only told us to disarm. If we do that, then who will protect the Karen people?

We will maintain our forces and defend our people and our region. If there is a better way to work with the government, we will do it. This is what we want to see for the future of our Union.

Correction, Nov. 5, 2015 – a previous version of this interview incorrectly stated that the KNU met with the EBO seven or eight times to discuss the ceasefire agreement. Those meetings were held between the KNU and the Burmese government.