Upcoming Karen Congress Elections Uncertain

By Saw Yan Naing 3 November 2016

An upcoming leadership change of Burma’s oldest armed ethnic group the Karen National Union (KNU) is in question as it considers postponing the 16th KNU Congress to retain current Central Standing Committee members who are familiar with the peace process.

Top leaders of the KNU and its military wing the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) will this week discuss postponing the congress slated to take place in November, according to sources within the KNU who spoke to The Irrawaddy on the condition of anonymity.

Current Central Standing Committee members led by chairman Mutu Say Poe are worried that new leaders—who do not have established relationships with the government and the Burma Army—will disrupt the peace process.

“He [Mutu Say Poe] said in the KNU’s Central Standing Committee meeting in September that he wanted to postpone the Congress,” said a KNU leader. “But no decision was made, so we will discuss it in our current meeting,”

Several other sources within the KNU said that Mutu Say Poe wanted to postpone the meeting until after the conclusion of the peace process as new leaders would not understand the process and might change the KNU’s approach. The KNU Congress usually takes place once every four years.

Representatives from the KNU, the KNLA and Karen civil society organizations are meeting at the party’s headquarters in Hpa-an’s Lay Wah for the central committee meeting this week.

The KNU signed a bilateral ceasefire agreement with the previous government in 2012, signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in 2015, and attended the Union Peace Conference—also known as the 21st Century Panglong Conference—in late August this year.

Karen civil society organizations, rights groups, and intellectuals have criticized members of the central committee for being weak and self-interested in peace process negotiations.

There has been division among the KNU leadership since the 15th Congress in 2012 when there was controversy over the elections as ballots were burned before results were announced.

Former vice-chairman of the KNU David Tharckabaw, who failed to be elected, demanded a recount as he did not trust the results.

Mahn Myo Myint who runs Karen National Media said on Facebook at the time that he burnt the ballots after being asked to do so.

A high-ranking official of the KNU who asked not to be named told The Irrawaddy that it was not normal practice to burn ballot papers and that “some members of the election commission were unhappy and boycotted the commission.”

KNU leadership dodged further controversy on Wednesday when the Euro-Burma Office (EBO) executive director strongly refuted claims by writer Roland Watson, who runs a website that follows Burma’s ethnic affairs, that Mutu Say Poe had received US$2 million from the EU for quitting the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) and signing the NCA.

“The allegation cannot be true because our total budget is only $4 million, and we are not allowed to pay individuals or any organization without a full proposal and itemized budget,” said EBO director Harn Yawnghwe.

Contacted by The Irrawaddy on Wednesday, an EU Delegation to Myanmar spokesperson said the allegation was “baseless and absolutely incorrect” and that it could warrant a defamation case.