Karen Leaders Prepare for Divisive Assembly

By Saw Yan Naing 22 October 2014

Top-ranking Karen rebels are gearing up for an assembly in southeastern Burma this week, where a fractured leadership will discuss their future role in the nation’s main ethnic coalition and the possibility of uniting Karen rebels under a single military alliance.

The Karen National Union (KNU) will hold its central standing committee meeting from Oct. 23-25 in the group’s headquarters at Lay Wah, also known as Law Khee Lar, in Karen State.

Mahn Mahn, joint secretary of the KNU, told The Irrawaddy that committee members will prioritize three main issues: the KNU’s position on rejoining the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC); reviewing the peace process; and how to create a successful Kawthoolei Armed Forces (KAF).

“The first thing we will discuss is our suspension from the UNFC, and whether we will rejoin. Another thing is to review the whole process of the nationwide ceasefire. The last thing is to discuss the emerging KAF. We will discuss how to create this [unified armed force] more systematically,” said Mahn Mahn.

The UNFC is the nation’s newest iteration of an alliance of ethnic armed groups, while the KAF is a newly proposed umbrella group of ethnic Karen armies.

On Sept. 30, several leaders of the KNU—led by the group’s Chairman, Mutu Say Poe—walked out of a UNFC congress in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, stating that the sudden departure was caused by dissatisfaction with UNFC policy and structure, which they viewed as dominated by certain groups.

Not everyone within the KNU supported leaving the alliance, however, including Mahn Mahn and former UNFC Deputy Chairman David Tharckabaw. The KNU soon announced that its leaders needed to discuss whether or not they should remain as active members, and temporarily suspended participation.

The incident revealed growing disagreements among KNU leadership about the nation’s peace process. Mutu Say Poe and his supporters want to move quickly, working closely with the government to reach a nationwide peace pact. An alternate faction led by KNU Vice-Chairman Zipporah Sein wants to proceed cautiously as they remain skeptical of the Burmese government.

An added point of contention among Karen leadership is whether or not to support creation of the KAF, a unified ethnic Karen army that would combine four disparate forces. Those forces would include the KNU’s military wing, Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA); KNU defense force Karen National Defense Organization (KNDO); and two KNLA offshoots, the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) and the KNU/KNLA Peace Council.

The KAF was proposed on Oct. 13 by the commanders of several rebel armed groups, but Mutu Say Poe’s pro-government faction of the KNU issued a statement two days later distancing themselves from the proposal. The Oct. 15 statement also said that a military merger was already underway as of the KNU’s 15th congress, at which a “Unity Committee” was formed to implement a unification policy.

Zipporah Sein’s supporters back the creation of the KAF, while Mutu Say Poe’s faction opposes it. Karen civil society groups have been vocal in their support for unified armed forces in the fissured state.

The initial announcement of the formation of the KAF followed soon after several clashes between the Burma Army and both DKBA and KNU/KNLA Peace Council troops. The KNLA was not involved in the conflict. All groups involved have signed ceasefires with the government.

President Thein Sein’s reformist government has secured 15 ceasefires with armed ethnic groups since coming into power in early 2011. The government has held six rounds of peace talks with ethnic negotiators, but the two sides have yet to reach an elusive nationwide ceasefire agreement.