KNU Unity Strained by KNLA Head's Pa-an Trip

By Saw Yan Naing 28 September 2012

The Karen National Union (KNU) says it will take legal action against the head of its armed wing for making an unauthorized trip to the Karen State capital of Pa-an to open a new liaison office as part of a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese government.

In a statement released on Thursday, the KNU said that Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) leader Gen Mutu Say Poe and 30 other Karen rebel military commanders departed for Pa-an earlier that day without informing the group’s leadership.

Speaking to The Irrawaddy on Friday, KNU Joint Secretary 1 Saw Hla Ngwe said that legal action would be taken against Mutu Say Poe in accordance with KNU regulations. However, he declined to say if the general would be sacked as the KNLA head.

Hla Ngwe said Mutu Say Poe ignored a meeting called by the KNU central committee and departed for Pa-an to meet with Burmese officials and open the new office with leaders and representatives of KNLA brigades 4, 6 and 7.

Karen observers on the border say the move is further evidence of a widening crack within the Karen rebel leadership along military and civilian lines. They say top KNU and KNLA leaders have been increasingly at odds since the third round of peace talks was held in Pa-an in early September.

Others, however, maintain that the division is not really between the military and the political wing, but rather a result of power struggle among senior leaders. Some suggested that the Mutu Say Poe faction is unhappy with the leadership of KNU General Secretary Zipporah Sein because she is a woman.

However, some sources said the key factor driving the Mutu Say Poe-led group is business interests linked to the recently signed peace deal. According to sources, the group secretly met with government negotiators after the latest round of talks.

Meanwhile, there is also talk of an ideological division within the KNLA, between brigades 5 and 2 on the one hand, and brigades 1, 3, 4, 6 and 7 on the other. The former group is reportedly opposed to the peace deal, while the latter is said to support it.

Hla Ngwe insisted, however, that Mutu Say Poe’s decision to go to Pa-an would not affect the ceasefire agreement.

This is not the first time that the KNU has had to deal with a go-it-alone military commander. In 2006,  former Brigade 7 Commander Htain Maung left the group with about 300 soldiers and civilians to stay in government-controlled territories in Karen State.

Karen observers on the border said that brigades 5 and 2 will not oppose the KNU central committee leaders over the peace process, but will follow the ongoing talks closely and decide later whether to go along with the deal.

There will be a KNU congress in October in northern Karen State. Representatives of all KNU and KNLA brigades are supposed to be present to elect a new leadership. Sources on the border said that the peace deal is expected to be a major issue of contention.

Some worry that the conflicts within the KNU leadership could delay or even harm the peace process. They say that the lack of transparency over business deals being discussed behind the scenes of the peace talks is the key reason for the growing tensions.