The Untold Dreams of a KNU Peace Pioneer

By Saw Yan Naing 17 October 2012

The death last Sunday of David Htaw, a senior leader of the Karen National Union (KNU), came at a time of mixed feelings within the group over the peace deals that he has helped to reach with the Burmese government.

Regarded by many fellow Karen as a peace pioneer, the 65-year-old veteran of one of the world’s oldest insurgencies left an unfinished legacy that some fear could unravel because of an ongoing controversy over his recent actions.

Just days before he passed away, David Htaw and two of his colleagues, Gen Mutu Say Poe and Roger Khin, were dismissed by the KNU central committee for traveling to the Karen State capital of Pa-an to open a liaison office without the approval of the committee.

For now, however, the focus is on remembering a man whose still unrealized vision for his people remains something to aspire to.

“My father has always had great dreams for the Karen people. Some of them have not yet been told,” said Eh Kaw Htaw, one of David Htaw’s two sons.

Speaking to The Irrawaddy on Tuesday, the day before his father’s funeral in Thay Bay Hta, southern Karen State, Eh Kaw Htaw said that one of these dreams was of a Karen people who were strong and united.

“He always told me that the Karen are not divided. The only difference among them, he said, was how quickly they wished to reach their common goal.”

While some KNU leaders continue to resist attempts to seal a hasty peace deal with the government, David Htaw believed that there was no time left to waste. One of his dreams, according to his son, was to create a mainstream political party to contest Burma’s next national election in 2015.

Although he did not live to see this dream fulfilled, his son said he hopes that disagreements over the pace of change won’t derail the peace process completely.

“I want to urge KNU leaders to continue pursuing peace in the interests of the Karen people,” said Eh Kaw Htaw.

Recalling his father’s words, he added: “Some should go faster to the goal so that they can help others to follow them. If not, all of us will fall behind.”

Born on March 10, 1948, in Rangoon’s Insein Township, David Htaw was a graduate of Rangoon University who joined the KNU cause because of his love for the Karen people, said Eh Kaw Htaw.

As an city-born, educated person, he lamented that many of his fellow Karen living on both sides of the Thai-Burmese border had no legal status in either country. “He really felt that it was important for Karen people living in the mountains and in the jungle to have ID cards,” said Eh Kaw Htaw.

Despite his loyalty to his people, however, David Htaw could be a scathing critic of those who claimed to represent them, including some fellow leaders of the KNU. His reputation for speaking his mind earned him many enemies in the upper echelons of the group.

He wasn’t, however, without critics of his own. Some have suggested that his desire to reach an agreement with the government was motivated in large part by plans to take advantage of the “peace dividend”—development deals that would bring new business opportunities to the former conflict zone. Some even said that he was already into the pocket of the Burmese government.

David Htaw was active in advocating peace and development in Karen State. He signed the first ceasefire agreement on Jan. 12, when he led a KNU peace delegation to Pa-an for talks with government negotiators.

Aung Min, the Burmese minister who has played a key role in the government’s efforts to end decades of conflict with a host of ethnic armed groups, said he was sad to see David Htaw die before the results of his peacemaking could come to fruition.

Speaking to reporters at the Mingalardon military hospital in Rangoon where the Karen leader died, Aung Min said that David Htaw was the one who initiated the peace talks earlier this year.

In a letter of condolence, Hla Maung Shwe, a government peace broker, wrote that David Htaw was so dedicated to completing his mission that he even showed up at recent peace talks in the northern Thai city of Chiang Rai with a tank of oxygen so he could continue negotiating despite his worsening illness.

Eh Kaw Htaw said that his father had been suffering from lung disease and diabetes for three months and had been hospitalized several times in Chiang Mai, Thailand, for treatment.

While some worry that his passing could disrupt the ongoing peace talks, others say that it will have no major impact, as Mutu Say Poe and other KNU top leaders have agreed to meet up and handle their internal conflict in the near future.