KNU Elects Pragmatic Military Chief

By Saw Yan Naing 25 December 2012

Ethnic rebels in Karen State have elected a new army chief who is expected to take a pragmatic approach to ongoing peace talks with the government.

Gen Saw Johnny was elected as commander-in-chief of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) on Tuesday, at the close of an annual congress to choose new leaders.

The congress, held by the KNLA’s political wing, the Karen National Union (KNU), dragged on for nearly a month amid internal debates between hard and soft factions.

A former commander of KNLA Brigade 7, Gen Saw Johnny had experience fighting in the rebels’ long war against the government for greater autonomy and basic rights.

But he also maintains close ties with the KNU’s newly elected chairman, Mutu Say Poe, and the KNU’s newly appointed general secretary, Kwe Htoo Win, who are known for their pragmatism.

Another former commander, Lt-Gen Baw Kyaw Heh of KNLA Brigade 5, was elected as deputy commander-in-chief on Tuesday. He is known as more of a hard-liner.

The KNU is one of the biggest ethnic armed groups in Burma. It signed a historic ceasefire on Jan. 12 this year after decades of civil war with the central government.

Observers say the group’s newly elected leaders are close with the government’s peace negotiators and want to push for quicker reform.

Under their leadership, observers say, the peacemaking process and development projects may accelerate in the region.

At the KNU’s 15th congress, Naw Zipporah Sein was elected as the KNU’s new vice chairwoman, while Thaw Thi Bwe and Mahn Mahn were chosen as joint secretaries.

Recently, rifts have appeared among the KNU’s leadership over a peace deal the group is negotiating with the government.

Following internal disagreements, the KNU dismissed three leaders, including Mutu Say Poe, in early October for violating protocol by opening a liaison office in the Karen State capital Pa-an without informing other central committee members.

However, two of the dismissed leaders—Mutu Say Poe and Roger Khin, head of the group’s social welfare department—were later reinstated.