Guest Column

What We Can Hope For From the 70th Anniversary of Karen National Resistance Day

By Joe Kumbun 24 January 2019

The Karen National Union (KNU), the oldest ethnic armed group in Myanmar and a signatory to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), plans to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Karen National Resistance Day at its headquarter in Law Khee Lar, Karen State, on Jan. 28-31.

For the first time, the KNU will mark the event with a military parade joined by its splinter groups: the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA); Karen National Liberation Army-Peace Council (KNLA-PC); and Border Guard Force (BGF). The KNU has been observing the anniversary for decades, but this is the first time the Karen armed groups will mark it together.

The decision to celebrate the anniversary together came about when they met on Oct. 8, when they agreed to work together on securing self-determination for the Karen people.

According to a senior KNU official, the group has invited all ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) to the ceremony. It has also invited the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, the Union government, political parties and some foreign diplomats. Surprisingly, U Aung Min, head of the Myanmar Peace Center and a peace negotiator under ex-President Thein Sein, is among the invitees as well. All those invited are expected to attend.

The KNU’s reasons for inviting them all boil down to two reasons.

First, the KNU wants to solve the many territorial disputes among the EAOs. Clashes over territory continue to occur between the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) and Shan State Progress Party (SSPP), the RCSS and Ta’ang National Liberation Army, and the KNU and New Mon State Party. The RCSS and SSPP are engaged in heavy fighting right now; they are expected to discuss their dispute at the anniversary.

Second, the KNU wants to talk about the stalled national peace process and set it on the right track. The KNU temporarily pulled back from the peace process in October, and the RCSS followed suit the next month. They said a recent high-level meeting with the government and Tatmadaw had failed to achieve a breakthrough on key obstacles.

It appears that all NCA signatories are disappointed with the peace process. After several meetings with the government and Tatmadaw and three rounds of the 21st Century Peace Conference, signatory EAOs now believe that the current trajectory will get them little.

The fact is that the NCA also cannot guarantee any ceasefires between the Tatmadaw and signatory EAOs. Recent clashes between the Tatmadaw and KNU, over the Tatmadaw’s alleged deployment of patrols to facilitate a road upgrade, highlight the weakness of the NCA.

General Yawd Serk, a leader of the RCSS, accused the Tatmadaw of not abiding by the terms of the NCA after the Myanmar military attaché in Bangkok blocked a meeting of the Committee for Shan State Unity in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in 2017. The Tatmadaw and RCSS clashed the same year.

As all the EAOs — NCA signatories and non-signatories alike — share a common vision to build a federal union, they will surely discuss the stalled peace process and at least try to devise a new strategy to move it forward.

It appears the KNU also wants U Aung Min to give them some advice on how to do that, and possibly even broker future negotiations. In 2015 the KNU signed the NCA with seven other EAOs after several dialogues with a negotiating team led by U Aung Min. The NCA signatories and U Aung Min undeniably used to have good relations; the KNU now wants to revamp the relationship.

It is also undeniable that Myanmar’s peace process is faltering. Achieving peace and ending the conflict in the near future seems impossible, in spite of a four-month unilateral ceasefire the Tatmadaw called in late December.  Heavy fighting between the Tatmadaw and Arakan Army continues in Rakhine State.

Meetings between the EAOs and Tatmadaw are key to ending the conflict and solving the problem. But before any meaningful peace talks can happen with the Tatmadaw and government, the EAOs must settle the territorial disputes between each other. Thus, we hope all EAOs attend this year’s anniversary and meet in order to solve their disputes and forge a new path to peace.

Joe Kumbun is the pseudonym of an analyst based in Kachin State.