The commanders of units of different Karen rebel groups in southeastern Burma announced on Tuesday that they will begin military cooperation in order to deal with an increase in Burma Army operations in their areas in recent months.
Gen. Saw Lah Pwe, the head of the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) and Gen. Baw Kyaw Heh, deputy commander-in-chief of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), who has support of KNLA brigades 2 and 5, agreed to work together. They are joined by two smaller rebel groups, the Karen National Defense Organization (KNDO) of Col. Nerdah Mya and the KNU/KNLA Peace Council of Col. Tiger.
The KNLA is the armed wing of the Karen National Union (KNU), the largest and oldest Karen ethnic armed group, and has a total of seven brigades.
The commanders said in a joint statement that they signed an agreement to begin military cooperation under the name of the Kawthoolei Armed Force. “In accordance with the wishes of the Karen people, we, the forces of KNLA, KNDO, DKBA, KNU/KNLA Peace Council, have unanimously reunified as the Kawthoolei Armed Forces,” the statement read.
Kawthoolei is the Karen name for the independent state that the Karen people have been aspiring to and fighting for since the 1940s.
The DKBA has about 1,500 fighters and KNLA brigades 2 and 5 can field an estimated 3,000 fighters. The KNDO and KNU/KNLA Peace Council are smaller groups with several hundred soldiers each.
Under the agreement, the armed groups will keep their current uniforms, insignias and flags, but they promised to cooperate and help each other in operations against the Burma Army.
The groups said their agreement had been prompted by a rise in hostile operations by the Burma Army in Karen areas of Karen and Mon states in recent months. They said these actions, as well as expanding government operations against rebels in Kachin and Shan states in northern Burma, were a reason to question the government’s commitment to the nationwide ceasefire process.
“Though the peace process has been going on for over three years, instead of achieving the expected progress, we can plainly see that the Burma Army has been carrying out activities that undermine [mutual] trust,” the statement said.
“Increasing military activities by the Burmese government army like these have caused much concern with us for the nationwide ceasefire negotiations and the peace process. For that reason, and in order to be able to protect the long-suffering people, we have to reunify the Karen national armed resistance forces,” the groups said.
The groups said they will work together with an alliance of other ethnic armed groups to negotiate with the government for the establishment of a democratic federal union of Burma, in which ethnic minorities have the right to full self-determination.
The new agreement marks a significant step towards unifying some of the Karen rebel groups, who have splintered into different groups during the past decades of rebellion. The DKBA split from the KNLA in 1994 after members of the Buddhist Karen community fell out with the predominantly Christian KNU leadership.
The DKBA fought alongside the Burma Army from 1994 until 2009. The KNU/KNLA Peace Council split from the KNLA to become a pro-government Border Guard Force in 2007, until a recent outburst of fighting near Myawaddy also affected Col. Tiger and his men.
KNU vice-chairperson Zipporah Sein told The Irrawaddy that the agreement was an important step towards uniting the Karen groups, adding that this had been demanded by the Karen community for many years.
“The aim [of the agreement] is to reunify and work together to protect the rights of Karen people. And it is a good sign and it is necessary. They [Karen communities] also have been demanding that we [armed groups] are not divided in groups and should reunify,” she said.
“Based on our agreement at the [KNU] congress, we agreed that we will try to reunify the Karen armed groups. So, [the groups] now agreed to cooperate under one name.”
KNDO commander Col. Nerdah Mya said, “As our Karen armed forces are divided into groups, we are trying to find ways to reunify them. None of them want to give up their insignias, none of them agreed to totally join another group.
“So, [military cooperation] is an idea that they all agreed to. They agreed to come under one umbrella group, the Kawthoolei Armed Forces.”
Despite the signs of Karen unity, however, it’s understood that not all within KNU leadership are happy with the new agreement, which was only signed by Gen. Baw Kyaw Heh, whose brigades 2 and 5 are known as “hardliners” in their stance towards the government.
Tensions have been steadily rising in southeastern Burma for several weeks until fighting erupted between government forces and the DKBA and the KNU/KNLA Peace Council in Myawaddy, a border town in Karen State, and in Mon State early this month. The KNLA was not involved in the fighting.
The violence broke out despite the fact that all Karen groups have signed bilateral ceasefires with the government.
President Thein Sein’s reformist government has signed bilateral ceasefires with 15 armed groups from Burma’s ethnic regions in recent years. Since last year, ethnic groups and the government have held six rounds of talks to achieve a nationwide ceasefire accord, but this has proven elusive.
The newly formed alliance of the Karen rebel groups could pose a further complication for the nationwide ceasefire process.