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The 10th Karen Unity Seminar wraps up on Saturday after three days of talks in Hpa-an focused on bringing together the various competing ethnic Karen factions.
Hosted by the Karen National Union (KNU) at its headquarters in Lawkheela, also known as Lay Wah, near the Thai-Burmese border, the meeting brought together some 500 to 600 Karens from Burma, Thailand and beyond.
In his opening speech on Thursday, KNU Chairman Mutu Say Poe urged the representatives to value diversity.
“We Karens have different languages, political beliefs, armed groups and geographical homelands,” he said. “It is important to express one’s own opinions but also consider others. By working on solutions together, we can bring unity to our people.”
KNU District Chairman Saw Eh Wah told the audience that the Karen people had long lacked unity as a result of instability in the country, the decades-long civil war, and the policy of divide and rule by the Burmese government. “Here and now is the time for the Karen to establish unity,” he continued.
Ethnic Karen in Burma make up about 5 million of the country’s estimated 60 million population. In addition to Karen State, many live in Rangoon, the Irrawaddy delta, and Pegu and Tenasserim divisions.
Led by the KNU, the Karen led many of Burma’s other ethnic groups into a civil war in 1949, fighting against the central government for autonomy; a war that has lasted until now.
However, in modern times the KNU was fractured by dissenting parties; a Buddhist faction, the Democratic Buddhist Karen Army split from the KNU in 1994, contributing to military defeat and the downfall of the KNU’s jungle headquarters in Manerplaw. Various other factions and sub-factions formed in recent years as commanders in each area looked to their own self-interests when business opportunities opened up.