Karen Leadership Puts Problems on Hold

By Saw Yan Naing & Lawi Weng 29 October 2014

SONE SEEN MYAING, Karen State — A recently concluded meeting of the Karen National Union (KNU) revealed a dominant element within the group’s fractured leadership, as it announced on Wednesday that it will postpone the unification of Karen armed forces and remain on leave from Burma’s main ethnic coalition, the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC).

The KNU, which is the leading political organization of Burma’s ethnic Karen population, suspended its membership from the UNFC after some leaders walked out of the bloc’s most recent congress in Chiang Mai, Thailand, on Aug. 31. Several members of the KNU said at the time that the sudden departure was caused by dissatisfaction with UNFC policy and structure.

The decision to temporarily leave the bloc indicated widening disagreements within the KNU, as those who supported the move are largely viewed as supporters of a nationwide ceasefire agreement. The UNFC, which is the most recent incarnation of a coalition of ethnic armed groups, resolved to reserve two vacant seats in its leadership for KNU members in hopes that they would return.

But at the KNU’s Central Standing Committee meeting, held in Law Khee Lar, Karen State, KNU representatives decided not to assume the vacant seats of vice chairperson and central committee member, and to remain indefinitely suspended from the group.

Lt-Gen Baw Kyaw Heh, vice-chief-of-staff to the KNU’s armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), told The Irrawaddy that the issues leading to the suspension of UNFC membership are still unresolved.

“[The majority of Karen leaders] don’t like the current policy of the UNFC. They will see if they can negotiate a restructuring of the alliance. The current position is to keep our membership suspended,” he said, adding that the KNU would continue to cooperate with the group on some issues.

Also prominent on the meeting’s agenda was a recent proposal to unify disparate Karen armies into an allied force under the name of Kawthoolei Armed Forces (KAF). Baw Kyaw Heh said that the KNU has agreed in principle, but that it cannot make a decision on the matter until the issue is tabled during its next congress, scheduled for “sometime in 2016.”

“We agreed on the idea to reunify all ethnic Karen armed groups,” he said, “but we agreed that we need further discussion about the group’s name and how to implement this.”

Baw Kyaw Heh was one of four signatories to the original proposal to create the KAF, an idea floated earlier this month. On Oct. 13, he and several other military leaders issued a public announcement that the KNLA, the Karen National Defense Organization (KNDO), the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) and the KNU/KNLA Peace Council planned to cooperate under the military alliance.

The KNLA and the KNDO are both affiliated with the KNU, while the DKBA and the KNLA/KNU Peace Council are splinter groups that broke away from the KNLA in 1994 and 2007, respectively.

Despite shelving the issue until an unspecified date in 2016, the KNU insists it is committed to unification. Sources close to the discussions said that leaders of both the KNLA and the KNDO agreed with the KNU’s decision, reiterating that the organization already has a “Unity Committee,” established during the 15th congress, held in 2012.

On Wednesday, several KNLA representatives announced the KNU’s decision at a conference of Karen ethnic armed groups hosted by the DKBA at its headquarters in Sone Seen Myaing near the Thai-Burmese border. DKBA sources said that the meeting was held to seek public opinion on unification, and that the event was attended by about 200 civil society representatives.

Some attendees, particularly members of the DKBA and the KNU/KNLA Peace Council, were displeased with the decision, claiming that waiting up to two years for the KNU to convene will prolong disunity and risk subjecting rebel armies to the “divide-and-rule” tactics of the government.

“What will Karen people do about this in the meantime? Within two years, even the president will be replaced, the KNU will have a new chairperson,” said Col. Saw Kyaw Thet, commander of DKBA’s 5th Brigade. “All Karen people need to work hard to form this alliance as soon as possible.”

Saw Yan Naing reported from Chiang Mai, Thailand.