KNU Leadership Set For Possible Shakeup

By Saw Yan Naing 6 March 2017

CHIANG MAI, Thailand – One of Burma’s oldest ethnic armed groups, the Karen National Union (KNU), will elect new leaders including a chairman during its annual Congress in mid-March.

The KNU has taken a leading role in the peace process, as its current leaders, particularly chairman Saw Mutu Say Poe, promptly steered the group away from conflict. These initiatives included signing a bilateral ceasefire and the country’s 2015 nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA), strengthening its ties with the Burma Army. Saw Mutu Say Poe’s actions drew both praise and criticism.

As the KNU’s 16th Congress will begin on March 14, many expect to see new faces in the organization’s political and military leadership. Rumors have also circulated that Saw Mutu Say Poe and Gen Saw Johnny, chief of the KNU’s military wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), will resign.

A reliable source within the KNU said that the aging chairman, who is in his 80s, has been advised to resign and take a break from his work. Saw Johnny has reportedly said that he will resign due to health reasons.

Several sources have predicted that the general secretary, Saw Kwe Htoo Win, could be elected as the next chairman, while Gen Baw Kyaw Heh may be the next KNLA chief. Another popular candidate for the chairperson post is current vice-chairperson Naw Zippporah Sein.

Observers believe if the current chairman and chief-of-staff resign, the KNU’s approach to the peace process may undergo major changes. A slower and more cautious approach is expected under a new leadership.

Cracks between the KNU leadership have been reported since a failed attempt to dismiss Saw Mutu Say Poe from his then role as chief in October 2012. Back then, a KNU committee led by the current vice-chairwoman, Naw Zipporah Sein, announced the dismissal of Saw Mutu Say Poe and two other top leaders, but it did not come into effect.

After the attempt failed and a faction led by Saw Mutu Say Poe came into power, relations between the leaders have been rocky.

Under Saw Mutu Say Poe’s leadership, several agreements have been signed with the Burma Army, and Saw Mutu Say Poe himself has paid many visits to Naypyidaw to meet the Burma Army’s top leaders including retired Snr-Gen Than Shwe, the junta’s former chief, reportedly without properly briefing his other colleagues or the public.

Saw Mutu Say Poe’s leadership has been met with mixed reception. Villagers in war-torn areas of KNU-controlled territories have said that they have enjoyed greater freedom of movement since the ceasefire was signed. There has been more road construction, better communications and some NGO development projects have emerged.

Villagers now have access to telephones, motorbike, trucks and boats. However, their main concern is that the progress will be unsustainable.

Sources within the KNU said that the current chairman is more of a symbolic figure than a key decision maker. The chairman is a straightforward man who has good intentions for his organization and his people, according to the sources. He has justified denying the occasional media interview with concerns that he may make mistakes.

Written statements he has read at formal events have been mostly prepared by others. Criticism has also been directed at what has been perceived as a tendency to take guidance from policy advisers who are seen as engaging more closely in dialogue with the Burma Army.

Still, some sources within the group say they need a leader like Saw Mutu Say Poe at this divisive time. And some KNU leaders believe that Naw Zipporah Sein and her faction are too close to the Karen diaspora, who are wary of the government’s peace process; these sources claim that these opinions don’t accurately reflect the reality on the ground.

Because of his long commitment to the Karen resistance, co-workers and fellow leaders respect Saw Mutu Say Poe and are unified under his leadership. The lack of a charismatic replacement for the chairpersonship is a concern among the group’s leaders. The chances of another term for Saw Mutu Say Poe are bolstered by the likely support of his colleagues, who dominate the leadership.

There will be debates and opposition on re-electing Saw Mutu Say Poe, but as he is still qualified to serve another term, it boils down to his own decision. If he is willing to serve again, it’s likely he will win.