Women’s Activists Call for Unity Among Karen Rebel Groups

By Nyein Nyein 20 October 2014

Three Karen women’s rights groups have urged various Karen rebel groups to overcome their differences and unify militarily and politically in order to better represent the interests of the Karen people in southeastern Burma.

The Thailand-based Karen Women’s Organization and two Rangoon-based organizations, the Karen Women’s Union and the Karen Women’s Empowerment Group, issued a joint statement on Sunday, saying that they supported recent attempts by different rebel group commanders to begin military cooperation.

The women’s groups said the initiative could “help bring the genuine peace that all [the Karen public] seek,” and is “an opportunity for both peace-building and improved cooperation, which can help reduce violence against women.”

They urged the different Karen rebel groups, which all signed bilateral ceasefire deals with the central government in recent years, to come up with a military code of conduct agreement with the Burma Army so that clashes between government forces and rebels can be avoided.

On Oct. 13, a commander of two brigades of the Karen National Union (KNU)’s armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army, announced that he would work with the head of the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) and with Col. Tiger, a commander of a small Karen splinter group, the KNU/KNLA Peace Council.

The groups said they had formed the Kawthoolei Armed Forces, a loose cooperation commitment whereby the groups retain their separate military command structures. The commanders said they were beginning cooperation in the face of growing of Burma Army operations in southeastern Burma.

But since then, cracks have begun to appear within the leadership of the various groups, with one KNU leader distancing himself from the initiative, while the KNU/KNLA Peace Council said Tiger had been relieved of his command.

Karen rebels have been fighting for greater autonomy for their region for more than six decades. During this time, groups such as the DKBA have broken away from the KNU, the oldest and biggest rebel group. The different Karen groups have fought each other at several stages in Burma’s ethnic conflict.

Many of the groups also seek a cut from the profitable cross-border trade and smuggling of goods and drugs in the region, which borders Thailand.

A recent KNU congress announced that it planned to reunite the various groups to further the Karen’s political goals and better help their people.

The women’s activists said they fully supported this plan, as the Karen community on the ground had often suffered from the divisions between the armed groups.

“This is the right time to show our unity, while clashes are resuming,” said Naw Ohn Hla, head of the Karen Women’s Union, referring to a recent outbreak of fighting between the DKBA and the Burma Army.

The women’s groups also urged the Karen rebel groups to respect human rights, help reduce violence against women and to refrain from the involvement in corruption and illegal business activities.

“We have witnessed that some Karen leaders are using their power to do mining for gold and other precious metals for their own benefits,” said Naw Siyo Paw, a secretary of Karen Women’s Organization.

During a Karen People’s Forum on Friday and Saturday in Pa-an, some 200 participants from 75 non-governmental organizations also issued a statement calling for greater inclusion of local authorities, NGOs and the Karen public in the ongoing nationwide ceasefire negotiations.