Wanted: Reform that Benefits Karen Citizens

By Saw Yan Naing 31 March 2017

Burma’s longest running ethnic armed organization, the Karen National Union (KNU), began its struggle with a clear political purpose. It was starting a “revolution,” and under revolutionary circumstances, all members were required to serve for free, and even sacrifice their lives if called upon.

More than six decades later, the KNU’s revolution is no longer looking so black and white.

The KNU today is of course not an official government, but it has many of the characteristics of one, with an army (which is believed to receive the lion’s share of its budget), and active—if relatively ill-funded—departments for health, education, the economy, forestry and others.

To fund itself, the KNU collects taxes from civilians and traders in the territory under its control, with the income contributing the most to its finances.

Since its beginnings in the 1940s, the KNU has retained a definite legitimacy—one whose exact extent is hard to quantify—among some, or even many, in the Karen community.

Throughout, it has also suffered successive losses, if never outright defeat, over many generations at the hands of the Burma Army.

The losses over long years of countless battles—of people, financial resources and territory—have been many.

Karen leaders have sacrificed their time and family life. Leaders of the armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), have lived in conditions of poverty and danger to devote their lives to the cause of Karen freedom.

The toll of all the conflicts on the affected communities has been incalculable.

It is also true that the KNU leadership enjoyed a strong relationship with the Thai authorities throughout the era of its charismatic, late chief Gen Bo Mya.

Liberties afforded to the KNU’s top brass even spread to people with KNU-approved travel documents, who were allowed to visit some towns inside Thailand.

Now some KNU leaders and their families are based in northern Thailand’s Mae Hong Son and Chiang Mai provinces, and in border towns such as Mae Sot, in Tak Province.

Some own land, houses, luxury cars, and businesses, wealth that at times allegedly overshadows the possessions of their Thai neighbors. Others own assets through proxies, it is widely rumored. The children of some families are educated in Thai universities and abroad, and there are opportunities for some to gain permanent residency in Thailand.

It has been alleged, though not proven, that some leaders connected with foreign donors have been able to buy land and property with money earned through manipulating differences in currency exchange rates. Concerns have been expressed that cash donations from the Karen diaspora have been misused.

It needs to be said that it seems likely that the relative wealth of some Karen leaders does not compare with the kind of enormous, ill-gotten riches amassed by many other leaders and players in Burma’s long-running wars.

But in Karen terms, the gap that has arisen between the personal situations of the leaders and that of their followers is significant and has given rise to considerable resentment, and to the raising of questions on the matter.

Before the KNU suffered one of its biggest defeats—the fall of its former base in Manerplaw in 1995 at the hands of the breakaway faction then called the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army—the KNU’s main revenue came from logging and tax on cross-border trade.

After the disastrous split, the splinter group took over much of the income-stream of these sources, as well as new streams of income from illicit drug sales, and began trading in goods from Thailand such as cars.

Other breakaway groups that arose amid Karen disunity, such as the KNU/KNLA Peace Council and the Karen Border Guard Force also became involved in business ventures.

After the KNU signed a bilateral ceasefire in 2012, it increased its business interests. These now include transportation and tourism—the KNU is behind the Moe Ko San Tour and Travel Company Ltd in Myawaddy town, and is said to have involvements in gold and tin mining. It reportedly owns a casino in Myawaddy town.

It held a signing ceremony in December last year for an MoU (Memorandum of Understanding) with the Sun and Rainbow Company Ltd which is involved in real estate and development projects, and Power China International Group in Dawei, Tenasserim Division.

Critics within the KNU have targeted the organization’s handling of its budget, saying the process is muddled and there is a lack of transparency in how funds are distributed. Corruption, bribery, and misuse of finances have been alleged.

There have been complaints from soldiers that they are sometimes not paid, being told instead that since they are part of a revolutionary organization they should contribute their services for free, for the sake of the cause.

A high-ranking KNU official who asked for anonymity said, “If I was chairman of the KNU, I would declare a new policy that seized all properties in Thailand belonging to KNU leaders and their families. Or, I would demand they share half of the profit they make from their businesses.”

Meanwhile, the main improvements under the current leadership for civilians in conflict-torn Karen areas have been more freedom of movement and better communications over the last few years, according to sources on the ground.

These signs of progress are not nothing for people who have spent generations suffering in conflict zones. But they can’t be said to amount to a huge gain in the quality of life of ordinary Karen yet, either.

Such small improvements arguably pale in comparison to the benefits that some of the organization’s leaders and officials have accumulated in Burma and Thailand. The gap suggests that there is a need for major reform which works for everybody in the KNU’s territories. That sort of reform should be on the agenda during the organization’s on-going congress.