KNU Agrees to Talk Unified Karen Army by 2015

By Lawi Weng 31 October 2014

SONE SEE MYAING, Karen State — The Karen National Union (KNU) has opened the door to the possibility that a much-debated unified fighting force of ethnic Karen rebels could come into being by 2015, with the group agreeing to discuss the proposal next month after previously indicating the issue would be tabled until 2016.

At a press conference on Thursday, the KNU appeared to give some ground to the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA), which is eager to see the creation of an envisaged Kawthoolei Armed Forces (KAF) comprised of four ethnic Karen armed groups.

Popular sentiment may also have nudged the KNU along, with more than 200 representatives of Karen civil society groups agreeing to support the KAF’s creation at a two-day meeting to discuss the issue in Sone Seen Myaing, Karen State, which wrapped up on Thursday.

Saw Moe Shay, the deputy army in chief of the DKBA, told media that the unified army would be formed “within a year,” and that three Karen armed groups would meet on Nov. 19 to discuss the matter further.

“We will work to form it as soon as possible,” he said on Thursday, adding that the DKBA aimed to form the force before Burma’s general election, slated for late 2015.

The KAF proposal was first floated earlier this month, when leaders from the four groups issued a statement indicating an intention to unify their armies.

The KNU, whose militant wing is the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), has since distanced itself from the plan. On Wednesday, the KNLA’s vice chief of staff, Lt-Gen Baw Kyaw Heh, said unification would be postponed until “sometime in 2016” at the earliest, pending discussions at the KNU’s 16th congress that year.

But Gen. Paw Doh from Brigade 7 of the KNLA said at the press conference on Thursday that the scheduled November meeting could result in a final cooperation agreement. “We hope some result will come out of the military leaders’ meeting on Nov. 19,” he said, before adding that the KNU first needed to carry out internal discussions about the plan. “We [the KNU] need to talk among each other as a group and take a little more time,” he said.

Contacted by The Irrawaddy on Thursday night, KNU central committee member Padoh Saw Thamein Htun said the KNU’s official position—that it supports the formation of KAF in principle—had not changed. He did not indicate, however, that the group was committing to a unification by next year, as the DKBA’s Saw Moe Shay had asserted at Thursday’s press conference.

“The DKBA strongly supports formation of the KAF, and will stand as KAF troops in the future. The KNU agreed in principle to form the KAF,” read a statement issued by the KAF “formation group” following the meeting. The statement said that the DKBA had agreed to let the KNU, which the DKBA broke away from in 1994, lead the unification process.

The proposed KAF would comprise four Karen rebel groups: the KNU, DKBA, KNLA-Peace Council and the Karen National Defense Organization (KNDO).

Thursday’s meeting, hosted by the DKBA at their headquarters in Sone Seen Myaing, also saw some 200 representatives from Karen civil society groups throw their weight behind the KAF’s formation.

Wah Ku Shee, a member of the Karen Women’s Organization, said: “For our KWO, we support a reunification of all Karen armed groups and the formation of the KAF. We have wanted this to happen for a long time. A reunion of their armed forces will be good for our Karen people.”

She said her group hoped the KAF force would adhere to strict respect for human rights and the rights of women.

The KAF proposal comes following recent clashes between the DKBA and the Burma Army in Karen and Mon states, despite the two sides having inked a bilateral ceasefire agreement in 2011. The KNU, which has its own bilateral ceasefire with the government, also saw its troops engage in a firefight with Burma Army troops last month.

Additional reporting by Nyein Nyein.