The Balkanization of Karen State
By Saw Yan Naing 5 October 2012
The Karen National Union (KNU) finds itself once again at a crossroads in its 63-year resistance against the Burmese government. A major internal division over how to proceed in peace talks threatens to escalate. Some observers worry about plots and counter-plots within the Karen leadership, and that the power struggle will quickly lead to a split in the party.
The KNU this week dismissed its military chief, Gen Mutu Say Poe, and two other influential leaders, David Taw and Roger Khin, for violating the organization’s protocol.
Soon after the dismissal, the KNU appointed a new acting commander-in-chief, Brig-Gen Baw Kyaw Heh, the commander of Brigade 5 of the KNU’s military wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA).
Karen military sources have told The Irrawaddy they they expect the KNLA to splinter into two rival factions—with Mutu Say Poe leading Brigades 1, 3, 4, 6 and 7 while Baw Kyaw Heh maintains command over Brigades 2 and 5, which are loyal to the KNU central committee.
Of the KNLA’s total troop strength, estimated at 10,000 fighters, Mutu Say Poe’s faction would boast more troops then Baw Kyaw Heh’s two brigades. However, for the time being at least, no one is playing up the possibility of the two factions fighting against each other.
David Taw, widely seen as a pragmatic negotiator for the KNU, is suddenly being portrayed as impulsive in his pursuit of a peace deal. KNU General-Secretary Zipporah Sein, on the other hand, has been much more cautious, some would say “inflexible.”
Brig-Gen Saw Johnny, the commander of KNLA Brigade 7, has called for cool heads and dialogue, and said that “this is not the time to engage in bloodshed.” Regarding the peace talks with Naypyidaw, he said, “The battle must only go on at the table.”
History shows that the KNU is not immune to internal power struggles and a culture of plotting—the most significant incident in recent times being the assassination of then General-Secretary Mahn Shah, committed by two hit-men who were allegedly hired by Karen breakaway group, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA).
“I am worried that the KNU will resort to resolving this internal conflict the only way they know—using guns. If they could avoid using violence to resolve internal divisions, I think it will benefit the whole country,” said Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese analyst who is deputy director of the Vahu Development Institute, a Thailand-based think tank.
Other observers speculate that the Karen rebels may fracture into several small groups now that the country is in transition. The groups may form, some say, simply by way of ideological camps—the pragmatic camp, the conservative, the politically driven, the economic opportunists.
Most agree that the dismissal of the KNLA’s commander-in-chief raises the immediate specter of a north-south divide with Mutu Say Poe ruling the southern part of Karen State while those loyal to the central committee hold the north.
Frustratingly for those supporters of the KNU resistance, this is just another chapter in a history of splinter groups and wayward allegiances—the DKBA, the Karen Peace Force, the Karen Peace Council, and the Karen Border Guard Force. All are armed militias made up of ethnic Karen blood.
Some Burma watchers look “outside the box” and comment that the heated divisions in the Karen leadership could well be flamed by Naypyidaw, which they say will be using its influence to “divide and rule” the Karens—an old military junta strategy inherited from British colonial rulers—while offering financial and business incentives to Karen leaders.
The multi-million-dollar Dawei Deep Seaport project in Burma’s southern Tenasserim Division is partly controlled by KNLA Brigade 4 whose commanders, observers say, must be rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect of such rich dividends.
Many Karen civilians are urging their leaders to learn from the KNU’s past mistakes. They say that a division within the KNU not only weakens the Karen resistance, but strengthens the Burmese government’s hand.
One source close to government peace negotiator Aung Min, said that he [Aung Min] repeatedly advised the KNU not to be divided during peace negotiations, arguing that it would be difficult to move the peace process forward if various dissenting voices were aired.
Many ordinary Karens shake their heads in dismay. Several have told The Irrawaddy that they regard the KNU power struggle as sad—even shameful.
On Thursday, the Rangoon-based Kayin Peoples Party sent an open letter to the KNU, expressing concern over the internal rift, and urging the various characters to “work together in unity.”