What Did KNU Leaders Gain by Going to Naypyidaw?

By Saw Yan Naing 24 January 2013

The visit to Naypyidaw by Karen National Union (KNU) leaders earlier this month was a PR coup for the government, but did little or nothing to promote the tenuous peace process that both sides say they want to advance.

Instead of talking about substantive issues, the KNU delegation and their hosts—President Thein Sein and Burmese Armed Forces Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing—spoke only vaguely about their shared desire to move the peace process forward.

That suited the Burmese government and army just fine—all they hoped to get out of the visit was a chance to portray themselves as peacemakers, and therefore not the ones responsible for the steadily escalating conflict in Kachin State.

It’s less clear what the KNU leaders who went to Naypyidaw, including newly elected Chairman Mutu Say Poe, hoped to gain from the visit. Some sources say, however, that they appeared to be more interested in making business deals than in taking peace negotiations to the next level.

One key issue that didn’t make it onto the agenda of this visit was the ceasefire “code of conduct” proposed by the former KNU leadership last September. According to Mahn Nyein Maung, a KNU central committee member who joined the delegation to Naypyidaw, the new KNU leaders did not raise this issue with either the president or the commander-in-chief because it was an “informal” visit made at the invitation of the president.

The code of conduct, consisting of 11 chapters and 34 detailed points, deals with such matters as the repositioning of government front-line troops in KNU territories and the security of civilians. Under an agreement reached in September, the code needs to be submitted to Thein Sein for review and approval, and then finalized by the KNU and government peace delegation in the next round of negotiations. It is considered a cornerstone of the entire peace process.

So far, however, no progress has been made at all in establishing the code of conduct, which must also be reviewed by Min Aung Hlaing.

A well-informed KNU military leader said that the failure to raise this issue during the trip to Naypyidaw reflects the new leadership’s desire to carry out the ceasefire and peace negotiations swiftly and boldly, in contrast to the more cautious approach taken by the former leaders, who were accused by some of not wanting peace.

This perception led some more neutral members of the central committee to cast their votes for the “pro-peace” candidates during the last KNU congress, held late last year. It remains to be seen, however, if the change in leadership will bring the desired results, since so far very little real progress has been made a full year after peace talks with the government began.

Meanwhile, in other ethnic areas, the situation looks even more uncertain. Fighting continues not only in Kachin State, where war has raged on for the past year and a half with no end in sight, but also in Shan State, where intermittent clashes continue to be reported despite a ceasefire between the government army and Shan rebels.

The current ceasefire in Karen State will also begin to look increasingly uncertain if concrete steps are not taken soon to set the stage for a comprehensive political dialogue. “The ceasefire is only a preliminary step to prepare for political negotiations,” said Brig-Gen Saw Hsar Gay, who is also a member of the KNU central committee.

“We have a lot of pending issues to discuss with the Burmese government, such as the code of conduct, partial troop withdrawal, investment projects and the construction of roads and infrastructure,” he said. “Unless they [the government] begin to address these issues, we will continue to see them as a threat.”