CHIANG MAI, Thailand — The Karen National Union (KNU) began its 16th Congress on Tuesday to elect new leadership and review policies.
Significantly, and unlike previous congresses, delegates from Karen communities abroad will not be allowed to vote in the leadership elections.
Top KNU leaders including chairman Saw Mutu Say Poe, vice-chairperson Naw Zipporah Sein, general secretary Saw Kwe Htoo Win, and joint general secretaries Padoh Mahn Mahn and Padoh Saw Thaw Thee Bwe attended the congress on Tuesday.
Leaders, officials, and representatives from the KNU’s seven districts, as well as delegates from Karen communities overseas, had been arriving at the KNU headquarters in Lay Wah, also known as Law Khee Lar, since last weekend in order to attend the Congress.
After much speculation, KNU sources close to chairman Saw Mutu Say Poe have said they believe he will run for re-election.
“We expect 220 representatives to attend the congress including representatives from Karen overseas communities, although they are not allowed to vote for new leaders this time,” said Saw Say Say from the KNU’s headquarters.
Saw Say Say told The Irrawaddy that the decision was in line with the KNU’s Constitution and that some KNU leaders had reviewed the role of overseas Karen and decided they should be excluded from voting.
Sources within the KNU, however, said overseas delegates were banned from electing new leaders at the Congress because they disagreed with the current KNU leaders’ approach to the peace process.
The delegates have been critical of initiatives by KNU leaders including signing the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) and conducting business deals that lack transparency, sources said.
Leaders said that overseas delegates should observe, discuss, and advise, rather than make decisions, as they are not active on the ground in Karen State.
Representatives will finalize the agenda of the Congress on Monday, said Saw Say Say, adding that the peace process under the current leadership will be discussed, and new leaders will be elected.
The Congress is scheduled to last between two and three weeks, though some observers expect it to take longer.