How the KNU’s ‘Hardliners’ Tried and Failed to Win the Election

By Saw Yan Naing 20 April 2017

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — In a clear sign of division within ethnic armed organization the Karen National Union (KNU), a faction of leaders seen as “hardliners” dubious of the government’s peace process lost in the KNU’s recent election—despite reportedly trying to negotiate with the larger consensus.

The leaders who were not re-elected to the KNU’s central standing committee (CSC) included former vice chairperson Naw Zipporah Sein, former joint secretaries Padoh Mahn Mahn and Saw Thaw Thee Bwe, and Gen Saw Baw Kyaw Heh, second in command of the KNU’s armed wing the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA).

On the other hand, chairman Saw Mutu Say Poe was re-elected and will lead the organization for the next four years. Praised for his pragmatism but criticized for leading with a lack of transparency, the chairman has built a relationship the Burma Army’s key players, including its chief, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing.

The cracks between the two KNU factions began to show in 2012 when Saw Mutu Say Poe signed a ceasefire agreement with the previous government. Naw Zipporah Sein then led an abortive attempt to dismiss Saw Mutu Say Poe, creating camps that some observers now describe as “KNU A” and “KNU B.”

One source within the KNU who attended the organization’s recent congress told The Irrawaddy that Naw Zipporah Sein’s faction tried to negotiate with the other side before the election, in order to bring representatives from each of the two sides into the leadership. However, the bigger faction allegedly rejected the overture.

“We tried to negotiate, but they didn’t accept the idea,” said the source, who asked for anonymity. “So, it was sort of like we were finished with each other.”

When Naw Zipporah Sein’s faction suggested increasing the number of members in the CSC by 10 to a total of 55, the 217 representatives of the KNU who attended the congress voted in favor of the idea.

Saw Mutu Say Poe’s faction was reportedly against the vote, and the majority of ballots went to Naw Zipporah Sein’s side.

Yet when it came down to the selection of CSC members, the majority chose candidates allied with Saw Mutu Say Poe, who was by then, according to sources, confident of a final victory.

“It was like they were testing their power,” said the source. “As they were sure that they would win, they didn’t accept the idea of mixing representatives [from both sides].”

All of Naw Zipporah Sein’s candidates for the CSC fell at the first round of voting.

“They [Naw Zipporah Sein’s faction] thought if so few of their candidates were in the leadership, those candidates would have to follow the other faction,” the source said. “They wouldn’t have power and would be ignored. So, they decided to back off.”

Some observers summarized the election as free but not exactly fair, as some experienced leaders were not elected. Instead they were replaced with newly graduated junior candidates who have little or no experience in politics.

After the election, Naw Zipporah Sein reportedly told elected leaders that she wouldn’t question the work of the new leadership.

“She said she would not disturb them and they are free to lead [the organization],” one source said.