We Are Still in the Battlefield: Karen Military Chief

By Saw Yan Naing 17 February 2014

LAY WAH, Karen State — Sitting at his wooden home at a military base just on the bank of Moei River opposite Thailand’s Tak Province, Gen Saw Johnny, commander in chief of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), is angry, tired and full of thoughts about disunity among Burma’s ethnic armed groups and the lack of trust in the peace process.

Despite these stresses, the onetime rising-star Karen warrior said that there is no way but to negotiate through ongoing talks. It is time, he said, to sideline military means in order to secure peace after decades of fighting with the government.

“We can’t kill all of the Burmese army to defeat them. And the Burmese army also can’t eliminate the ethnic groups. So, there is only one option that we have to solve the problem:  at the table, by political means. That’s why we team up again and try to reach common agreements,” said the 66-year-old in a recent interview with The Irrawaddy.

He said that there has been almost no fighting in Karen State since a ceasefire which was signed between the KNLA’s political wing, the Karen National Union (KNU), and the government in January 2012.

But government troops are still deployed in the region, and despite ongoing talks between ethnic political representatives and a government negotiating team—the next round of which is expected to take place in the Karen State capital Hpa-an next month—the ethnic armies are still at war.

“We don’t hear gunfire much in our areas since we signed ceasefire agreement. But, war has not come to an end in other ethnic areas. We are still in the battlefield. But we have to engage with the government as they are opening space for us. There is no other way but to negotiate,” he said.

Saw Johnny believes that the government will begin troop withdrawal in some ethnic territories after an under-negotiation nationwide ceasefire agreement is signed, and when trust between the Burma Army and rebels is stronger.

The KNLA commander also urged that despite lacking trust in one another, Burma’s ethnic groups should work together in demanding rights to autonomy, self-determination and equality. The ethnic minorities should not repeat the mistakes, and disunity, of the past, he added.

In 1976, ethnic groups founded National Democratic Front (NDF), a bloc of ethnic armed groups, vowing to cooperate in pursuit of common goals. But in the 1990s, two NDF members—the Kachin Independence Organization and the New Mon State Party—signed individual ceasefire deals with the military government. They were criticized for prioritizing their own interests above the common goals of the alliance, and for leaving other members behind.

Most of the ethnic armed groups, including the KNU, have signed ceasefire agreements with the government individually since late 2011. Bu despite the January 2012 ceasefire, the government has been accused by the KNLA military leaders of failing to consolidate the ceasefire as agreed.

Lt-Gen Baw Kyaw Heh, vice commander-in-chief of the KNLA said, “We came up with a code of conduct that both government and the KNLA armies have to obey in order to consolidate the ceasefire. We proposed it to the Burmese government and its army. They are supposed to review and amend it if needed. Then, we will cooperate to finalize it and obey it.”

“We suggested the government to show us some evidence to be able to gain trust from each other and consolidate the ceasefire. For example, the government should withdraw or reduce some of its troops from their frontline bases that are close to villages in our territory for the safety for civilians,” said Baw Kyaw Heh.

However, none of these initiatives had been implemented so far. Instead, he said, the government has jumped into economic and development projects in ethnic areas that are strengthening government control and influence in these areas.