“Karen in Capital,” read the front page headline in Tuesday’s edition of the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar, accompanied by a photograph of Karen National Union (KNU) representatives, including chairman Mutu Sae Poe, in Naypyidaw on Monday.
The story’s prominent placement is perhaps indicative of the government’s determination to stress the significance of a pending nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) which the KNU, alongside seven other armed groups, have pledged to sign at a ceremony scheduled to take place in Naypyidaw on Thursday.
Representatives from all eight groups are now in the capital ahead of the signing.
On Monday, the government removed three armed groups, the KNU, the All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF) and the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), from its list of unlawful organizations.
Officials said the five other groups set to sign the ceasefire accord on Thursday are not listed by the government as unlawful organizations.
The decision of Burma’s oldest ethnic armed group, the KNU, to sign the accord has been a controversial one, with the group’s senior leadership divided on the issue.
Broader opposition to the signing also emerged earlier this month with the release of a joint-statement, signed by more than 40 ethnic Karen civil society organizations, accusing the KNU of making an “undemocratic” decision.
Although senior leaders of the KNU will attend Thursday’s signing ceremony, the group’s vice-chairperson Naw Zipporah Sein, who was also head of the ethnics’ negotiating bloc known as the Senior Delegation, turned down an invitation to attend from the government’s chief peace negotiation Aung Min.
Speaking with The Irrawaddy on Tuesday, Naw Zipporah Sein said she was not prepared to attend while fierce fighting continued in Kachin and Shan states.
“My opinion is: I will sign [the NCA] only when the guns are silent. I’m not courageous enough to attend the ceremony and celebrate the signing while fighting is still going on and even escalating. If I attended the ceremony, I would feel like I was going to celebrate the ongoing offensives,” she said.
Major ethnic armed groups, including the Kachin Independence Organization, the Shan State Army-North and the New Mon State Party, have withheld support for the ceasefire until it is inclusive of all armed groups.
Asked about the prominent coverage afforded the KNU in Tuesday’s Global New Light of Myanmar, Zipporah Sein said that winning the signature of the Karen rebel group was a political coup for Naypyidaw.
“For them [the government], it is historic,” she said. “Politically, they will get a very good image. So of course they highlighted it.”
During the colonial period, ethnic Karen were favored by the British to serve in the armed forces, a fact that ramped up ethnic tensions with the Burman majority.
The KNU took up arms against the central government shortly after Burma gained independence in 1948, beginning one of the longest running insurgencies in the region.