RANGOON — The largest ethnic Karen armed group, the Karen National Union (KNU), has welcomed a fringe Karen armed group, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, to “reunite” under the KNU’s leadership.
This is part of a broader effort by the KNU to unify the heavily fractured Karen armed resistance movement—after decades of factionalism, splintering and divide-and-rule tactics by the Burma Army—in order to negotiate for peace under a united front.
The call from the KNU comes after the fringe Karen armed group—also named after their late commander, Na Ma Kyar—faced sustained assaults last month from the Burma Army and its allied Border Guard Force in the Myaing Gyi Ngu and Mae Tha Waw areas of Hlaingbwe Township in Karen State.
The fighting has forced more than 4,000 villagers to flee. They remain displaced.
The KNU’s statement, released on Tuesday, said it was “vitally necessary” for all breakaway Karen armed groups to reunite under the KNU’s political leadership.
Saw Thaw Thee Bwe, a joint secretary of the KNU, told The Irrawaddy that the fringe Karen armed group would need to dissolve their organization and enter under the command structures of the KNU’s military wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), because their current policy is “against” that of the KNU.
“But it very much depends on whether they want to reunite,” Saw Thaw Thee Bwe said.
He added that the KNU’s gesture was aligned with the goals of the United Committee for Karen Armed Groups. The committee was formed in 2013 with the aim of establishing unity after more than twenty years of fighting between different Karen armed groups. The KNLA’s commander-in-chief, Gen Saw Johnny, is the current chairman.
The fringe Karen armed group, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, is estimated to command a little over 100 soldiers. It was formed at the end of 2015, from a faction that broke away from the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army after it signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement last year [also signed by the KNU]. The remaining “Benevolent Army” is now estimated to field around 2,000 soldiers.
The Democratic Karen Benevolent Army was formed out of a Buddhist-majority faction that broke away from the Christian-dominated KNU in 1994, and allied itself with the Burma Army in subsequent attacks against the KNU. It formerly used “Buddhist” in its title, before replacing the word with “Benevolent” in 2012, after many of its members joined the Border Guard Force set up by the Burma Army in 2010. The new breakaway group chose to adopt the older the name for itself.
Other Karen armed groups include the KNLA-Peace Council, the Karen Peace Force and the Padoh Aung San-led Payar Gon Karen Peace Group.