Open Secrets Behind the KNU Talks

By Saw Yan Naing 19 April 2012

They live in areas under Burmese government control, but they cheer the government’s enemy―the Karen National Union (KNU), an ethnic armed group that has fought for greater ethnic autonomy for more than half a century.

In the past, Karen communities in government-administered regions would never have dreamed of openly expressing their support for the KNU, which is still officially regarded as an illegal organization.

But when a KNU peace delegation traveled to the Karen State capital Pa-an and other cities around Burma in early April, including the former national capital Rangoon and regional capitals Pegu and Tavoy, where they will open liaison offices, they were greeted by cheering crowds of local Karen supporters.

Even when they were accompanied by Burmese officials, the KNU peace negotiators were welcomed warmly. In Kyaukgyi Township in Pegu Division, around 3,000 people turned out for a rally to show their support for the KNU when they arrived with government representatives to assess the needs of internally displaced persons (IDPs) living in the area.

According to Naw May Oo Mudraw, a spokesperson for the KNU peace delegation, such scenes were  common wherever they went.

“We got great support not only from Karen people but also from other ethnic people who have suffered because of the war. They seem very hopeful that our peace process will make their lives better,” she said.

But even as they seem to have lost their fear of expressing their support for the KNU, many ordinary Karens living in government-controlled areas remain troubled by the fact that the group is still officially outlawed.

“Karen people are happy because they want to enjoy the benefits of peace, but they will continue to worry as long as the KNU is an illegal organization,” said Zipporah Sein, the general secretary of the KNU.

Despite such concerns, however, the participation of the wider public in the peace process is crucial to its success, according to Alan Saw Oo, a leader of the Karen community in Rangoon.

For some observers, however, the KNU’s outlawed status is not the only unsettling aspect of the government’s recent push to end decades of fighting. They note that while Naypyidaw is scoring political points by signing ceasefire agreements with some groups, its army is continuing to wage war in the far north against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), another ethnic armed group.

Some, noting that the KNU’s Brigade 4 controls a key area near the multi-billion-dollar Tavoy (Dawei) deep-sea port project in Tenasserim Division, have also suggested that the government’s peace offensive appears to be more about securing its business interests than resolving longstanding political differences.

Ending the conflict with the KNU will greatly benefit the government and its Thai partners in the project, and may also profit some KNU leaders (a business source on the Thai-Burmese border claimed that some have already bought land that could skyrocket in value if the peace holds), but it is still far from clear how local people will be affected.

“I don’t think that civilians will benefit if business concerns drive the peace process. We have to make sure that civilians, especially Karen civilians, also benefit,” said Saw Kapi, a California-based Karen commentator who has followed the peace talks closely.

To allay such concerns, the KNU delegation briefed leaders of Karen community-based organizations about their peace talk with the Burmese government a few days after returning to their base. However, according to a Karen refugee camp leader who attended the meeting, there was no specific message about Karen refugee settlements in their homeland in Karen State.

Despite meeting several times with the Burmese government peace negotiators since late 2011, the KNU has secured no concrete guarantee that IDPs and Karen refugees on the Thai-Burmese border can safely return to their homes, said sources.