KNU Wants to Leave Peace Steering Team

By Nyein Nyein 21 May 2019

CHIANG MAI, Thailand—The Karen National Union (KNU) submitted its withdrawal from the Peace Process Steering Team (PPST) at a summit of ethnic armed organizations (EAO) in Chiang Mai, Thailand on Saturday. But, after hours of negotiations, KNU leaders said they would continue attending as part of the PPST until the summit’s completion.

The summit, held from May 14 to 18, included ten EAOs—all signatories to the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA). KNU Secretary Padoh Saw Tadoh Moo raised the issue the KNU had with the current framework to summit attendees during the summit’s first session.

The PPST was formed in 2016 to conduct political negotiations with the incumbent National League for Democracy (NLD) government, and was led by KNU Chairman General Saw Mutu Sae Poe for three years, until he delegated authority to KNU Secretary Padoh Saw Tado Moo in March.

The Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) Chairman, General Yawd Serk, officially took the lead on May 19.

Khun Myint Tun, vice chairman of the Pa-O Nationalities Liberation Organization (PNLO), an NCA signatory, told The Irrawaddy that the summit leaders asked the KNU to continue participating in the PPST despite their desire to leave.

Because many groups wanted the KNU to continue, EAO leaders decided the summit’s second portion would be convened soon, to encourage the KNU to continue participating to the finish.

Padoh Saw Tadoh Moo told The Irrawaddy that the KNU wishes to leave the PPST because the body has not made reforms needed since 2017.

“Actually, we raised [reviewing the] PPST after the second session of 21st Panglong in [May] 2017,” he said. “The findings at that time suggested not only reviewing, [but that] the PPST needed reforming. But the reform was not even included in the discussion until 2019. Thus, if they don’t want reform, we decided it is inappropriate for us to keep going like this.”

He declined to provide details on what kinds of reforms the KNU would like to see the PPST take.

The KNU’s role in the peace process

Given its military strength and its role as the first EAO of the revolutionary movement, beginning in 1949, the KNU is a well-respected EAO and a key player in the peace process. And, as a signatory to the NCA, its decisions shape the Myanmar peace process. Many groups, especially in the southern part of Myanmar, follows its lead.

The KNU did not make verbal ceasefire deals with the military junta throughout the late 20th century; the group’s leadership decided to make ceasefire agreements for peace with the quasi-civilian government in 2012.

Despite this, Padoh Saw Tadoh Moo denies the group’s influence.

“Even though the KNU was in a leadership role [in PPST], it is just [as] a figure-head. All the decision-making procedures are always collectively done,” he said. “So in some part, if I have to say, frankly, other groups in the PPST have different principles and interests. These affect the decision-making procedures, and we think this is risky for our own organization.”

Tensions in the PPST grew after the team decided to hold an October meeting between the government and the EAOs during the third anniversary of the NCA signing. At that time, KNU members were reportedly split on taking part in the meeting, but the PPST moved ahead and met with the government anyway.

Cracks within the KNU were already becoming noticeable then, but the KNU leadership has always denied there were factions, admitting of differing opinions but claiming they stood together on principles.

KNU proposes EAO cooperation regardless of signatory status

On May 17, the KNU said they think the existing PSST structure is inadequate, proposing a new cooperation framework including EAOs regardless of signatory status.

This was repeated on May 18 in a statement from the KNU outlining a KNU-proposed Peace Process Consultative Meeting (PPCM), in which both the signatories and non-signatories of the NCA could participate, “to set the common goals and agendas, exchange of information and mutual discussion” during the Summit.

He said the proposed PPCM structure would help in continuing the peace negotiations and allow for step-by-step negotiations before and after 2020.

Since signing the NCA in October 2015 and convening the Union Peace Conferences four times since January 2016, only NCA signatories have been able to act as delegates in the political negotiations, while representatives of other EAOs have been missing.

“We think [the PPST] also needs to open discussions with others groups who are not NCA signatories,” said Padoh Saw Tadoh Moo. Even though we tried for three years, the current political landscape is going nowhere and we think it is dwindling.”

The KNU always upholds its Saw Ba U Gyi’s four principles for the revolutionary cause: “Surrender is out of the question; the recognition of Karen State must be complete; we will retain our arms; and we shall decide our own political destiny.”

They do not hesitate to leave any alliance or negotiation if its central committee sees its cooperation with allies as going against any of these policies.

The group withdrew from the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) in 2014 during negotiations over text in the NCA.

Peace negotiations began in late 2011 under then-president U Thein Sein, with government peace negotiators holding many talks among some 21 EAOs and their changing negotiating committees: the now-defunct UNFC, the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordinating Team (NCCT), the Senior Delegations (SDs) and others. Negotiations ticked up especially from 2013 to 2015 as the NCA text was being finalized.

In a similar pattern to the current dispute, the KNU had been the first to leave the UNFC as well.

“The new ethnic structure would work, because we find the collective leadership based on the policies of each group, rather than an institution,” said Padoh Saw Tadoh Moo.

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