Countless Karen have sacrificed their lives over the course of six decades of civil war. Leaders of the Karen National Union (KNU) once said that if the bodies of those who died in this battle were gathered together, their bones would stand as high as a mountain and their blood would flow like a river.
The Karen pride themselves on their commitment and their patriotism, and yet there have been many setbacks in their struggle for greater autonomy. Their conflict with the Burmese majority has also seen divisions, factional battles and assassinations within Karen society.
In 1995, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) split from the KNU, resentful that Buddhist Karens had not been allocated more senior positions in the organization’s leadership. The resulting battle between the two forces led to massive losses on both sides, while the Burmese military made huge territorial gains. As always, it was the civilians caught in the conflict that suffered the most, the victims of gunshots, forced labor and flagrant human rights abuses.
Once again, the Karen political leadership is facing down internal problems. The KNU Central Executive Committee is divided between those who want to move faster towards a nationwide ceasefire agreement and those who are urging caution. Its leadership has come under fire for its lack of transparency, the latest example being KNU Chairman Gen. Mutu Say Poe’s early departure this week from a three-day civil society conference without informing attendees.
Reliable sources within the KNU have told The Irrawaddy that top leaders seldom consult each other before taking decisions, and the organization is hampered by personal hostilities and overbearing egos. In this climate, proposals to reunite disparate Karen armed groups under the banner of the Kawthoolei Armed Forces appear increasingly remote.
These rivalries and factional battles are a distraction. The KNU’s primary grievances are with Naypyidaw and the Burma Army, and it is imperative that the Karen leadership discards its personal enmities and recommits to the cause of its people.
It may well be time for some of the older generation, who have dominated the Central Executive Committee for decades, to make room for younger people with fresh ideas. There are many untapped sources of support for the Karen struggle, which could be exploited if such a generational change were to occur. Karen people overseas could be encouraged to return with their educational and entrepreneurial expertise. Millions of Karen are living abroad—each with their own capabilities, talents, intelligence, wealth and networks—and they should be presented with an overture to participate in a reinvigorated Karen cause.
Above all, a dedication to professionalism and a commitment to unity is necessary, in order to secure the best possible outcome in the peace negotiations to come. The KNU, recognized as the main political body representing the Karen, must put aside its differences and work for the future of its people.