Behind the KNU Election Results  

By Saw Yan Naing 11 April 2017

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — As predicted by a leaked document that The Irrawaddy received last week, there was little change to the Karen National Union (KNU) leadership in its recent election.

The document from KNU officials that was circulated among the group’s members and observers was largely correct—KNU chairman Saw Mutu Say Poe was re-elected, former general secretary Saw Kwe Htoo Win was elected as vice chairman, and former central executive committee member Saw Ta Doh Moo was elected general secretary.

Experienced leaders such as former vice chairperson Naw Zipporah Sein, former joint secretaries Saw Thaw Thee Bwe and Padoh Mahn Mahn, and Gen Saw Baw Kyaw Heh, vice chief-of-staff of the KNU’s armed wing the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), were not re-elected to the KNU’s central standing committee.

The results from the organization’s 16th congress aren’t all that surprising in some people’s eyes.

Analysis of the circumstances behind the election would show two competing groups—one whose members raise doubts over the government’s peace process, and another larger group who are seen to be closer to Naypyidaw.

Both groups had their own line-up of ideal candidates for the top five positions. The bigger group, aligned with Saw Mutu Say Poe, realized its plans, while the smaller group, aligned with Naw Zipporah Sein, failed.

Exemplifying the KNU’s split over the peace process, five of its seven brigades and five of its seven districts supported the KNU chairman’s group while the remaining units supported Naw Zipporah Sein’s faction.

One source within the KNU said, “It is simple, when the stronger group competes with the smaller group, the stronger group always wins.

“Some think that having a majority is a democratic feature and the minority must agree with the majority. But not all of what the majority does is necessarily right.”

Although the election was free, said one observer, it was arguably prejudiced because each of the 217 votes was advised on which candidate to choose by their teams before voting.

“We shot the targets as advised,” said one voter. “As we are united, we hit the targets.”

Voters favoring the larger group chose 41 candidates drawn up in a list by planners close to Saw Mutu Say Poe. As a result, all 41 candidates won posts in the central standing committee, purging members from the smaller clique such as Naw Zipporah Sein, Saw David Thakapaw, Saw Paul Sein Twa, and Gen Baw Kyaw Heh.

In their line-up, Naw Zipporah Sein was earmarked for chairperson, Gen Saw Johnny for vice chairman, Saw Thaw Thee Bwe for general secretary, Padoh Mahn Mahn for joint secretary 1 and Saw Paul Sein Twa for joint secretary 2, according to sources.

Both sides were reportedly well prepared, but as supporters of Saw Mutu Say Poe’s faction outnumbered that of Naw Zipporah Sein’s, the bigger group came out on top.

According to the election’s records, 139 out of 217 eligible voters balloted for candidates from the majority’s line-up for the first time on electing the 41 central committee members.

Candidates like Saw Thamein Htun, Saw Johnny, and Saw Kwe Htoo Win received the highest votes, according to a source.

The competing factions implemented well-thought out strategies in an attempt to win the election, but the recent showdown stems from ideological differences reported within the KNU since Saw Mutu Say Poe signed a ceasefire agreement with Burma’s previous government in 2012.

Back then, a KNU committee led by Naw Zipporah Sein announced the dismissal of Saw Mutu Say Poe, but it did not come into effect. After the attempt failed, cracks between the two leaders became more apparent.

Saw Mutu Say Poe will lead the KNU again for another four years, a period which observers say will see little shift on the organization’s approach to the peace process. Some have expressed concerns that the KNU leadership will continue its activities without sufficient transparency.

The top five leaders of the KNU elected another six to form an 11-member central executive committee, all of whom are associates of the KNU chairman.

They include Gen Saw Johnny, chief of the KNLA, Saw Issac Poe, Saw Thamein Htun, Mahn Nyein Maung, Saw Roger Khin, and Padoh Naw Dah Dah.

Leaders of the losing group were allegedly disappointed but accepted the election results without anger. The ballots are being kept for two weeks so that anybody who disagrees with the results can show up and complain within that timeframe.

Unless any official complaints are made, Saw Mutu Say Poe and his allies stand unopposed in the group’s leadership.