KNU Leader Has Changed His Tune on the Chances for Peace

By Lawi Weng 14 August 2018

MON STATE — I met senior Karen National Union (KNU) leader Padao Mahn Nyein Maung during the Karen New Year in 2013. He was very actively working for peace at that time, and it seemed to me that he felt it was the right time to work with the government and the Myanmar Army. I met him in Ah Lone Township, Yangon Division, where a large Karen community and a number of journalists were celebrating the New Year.

The KNU had signed a ceasefire agreement with the government after fighting the state for more than 50 years. The KNU was the country’s oldest and strongest armed rebel group, and had long refused to sign an agreement with the military regime.

However, the political reforms embarked upon under then-President Thein Sein had convinced the KNU to change its mind. I asked Padao Mahn Nyein Maung what he thought the benefits of signing a ceasefire would be. His reaction was quite defensive. He told me that he knew what I was really trying to ask. “You journalists always have a negative viewpoint,” he said. “How can I say what the benefits are for our ethnic Karen? We have only just signed the ceasefire agreement.”

Some journalists, including myself, were disappointed by his behavior. Padao Mahn Nyein Maung was instrumental in bringing the KNU to the table to sign a peace agreement with the government, according to some Karen sources. Earlier, he had been sentenced to life in prison after being detained in China for attempting to cross the border in order to travel to Laiza, the headquarters of the Kachin Independence Army. The government of then-President U Thein Sein initially approached Padao Mahn Nyein Maung about making peace with the KNU while he was still in prison.

Padao Mahn Nyein Maung received an amnesty along with other political prisoners under the U Thein Sein administration and was successful in bringing the KNU to the table to sign a peace deal. At that time, Padao Mahn Nyein Maung took the view that he and the KNU could work for peace. He continually praised the administration for its commitment to seeking peace and always spoke positively about the peace process. The KNU was the ethnic armed group with the closest relationship with the government and the Myanmar Army at that time.

At that time, the KNU was a member of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC). There was a long debate among members of the bloc about whether to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). After deciding to sign it, the KNU left the UNFC. The government was extremely pleased by this development, and by the UNFC’s subsequent loss of influence. Within the KNU, however, the leadership was divided about whether to sign the NCA. Naw Zipporah Sein, who was a former vice chairman of the KNU, disagreed with the decision to sign the pact. She and others did not want the KNU to leave the UNFC. However, a group of KNU leaders including Padao Mahn Nyein Maung were happy to leave the UNFC and decided to sign the NCA.

It has been over three years since the KNU signed the NCA. But the situation has changed, and the relationship between the KNU, the government and the Myanmar Army has changed as well. Fighting recently broke out between the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA)’s Brigade 5 and the Myanmar Army over the latter’s decision to rebuild an old road through a KNLA-controlled area.

Padao Mahn Nyein Maung has changed his tune a lot since the NLD government took power. He has grown more pessimistic about peace, telling reporters at the recent third session of the 21st-Century Panglong Peace Conference in Naypyitaw that no one could touch the 2008 Constitution, which was written by the Myanmar Army. He even said he did not think the conference would help the peace process, as the Myanmar Army did not allow discussion of political issues.

Many people in the country view Padao Mahn Nyein Maung as a supporter of the Myanmar government. So it was a surprise to see him criticizing the peace process, the Myanmar Army and the government.

Padao Mahn Nyein Maung told some reporters during the 68th Karen Martyrs’ Day in Hinthada Township, Ayeyarwady Division, that the KNU could not build peace and national reconciliation with the Myanmar Army, as military leaders and government authorities did not allow the Karen people to celebrate the occasion.

The Myanmar Army’s action was disrespectful and would damage the peace process, he said, adding that the KNU could not establish trust with the Myanmar Army. He said the Karen people had the right to pay respect to their leaders and celebrate Karen Martyrs’ Day.

“If they [the Army] continue to oppress ethnic groups, it will render meaningless all the work done to achieve peace, create unity among ethnic groups, and achieve national reconciliation,” Padao Mahn Nyein Maung said.