The leaders of the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) held a meeting on Sunday to discuss a reunification plan for Karen armed groups.
The DKBA’s general staff officer, Maj. Tun Tun, said the meeting addressed last week’s formation of the Kawthoolei Armed Forces (KAF), which was ostensibly created to unite all Karen armed groups—a goal which the KNU had already decided to work towards at its 15th Congress in December 2012.
In an interview with DVB, Tun Tun said, “The meeting [on Sunday] focused on the proposed formation of the Kawthoolei Armed Forces. The KNU has issues it needs to discuss internally, but we met with them to discuss these issues in order to ensure we’re all on the same page.”
The DKBA general staff officer said several Karen armed groups and other concerned parties have planned a meeting for 29 October to discuss the KAF proposal, which was announced in a statement released on 13 October.
“We are planning to invite every group we can reach, including: the KNU/KNLA; the Karen National Defence Organisation (KNDO); the KNU/KNLA-Peace Council (also called the Karen Peace Council or KPC); the Myanmar Peace Centre; and concerned government officials,” he said.
At its 15th Congress in 2012, the KNU laid out an objective of reuniting the various Karen factions and set up a “reunification committee”. But last week, a statement that was supposedly signed by high-ranking officials from the KNLA, KNDO, DKBA and KPF was released which claimed that all these groups have agreed to reunite under the KAF banner.
The authenticity of the letter has been called into question, however, and shortly after the statement was released the KPC said their leadership denied knowledge of the statement.
The KNU quickly distanced itself from the KAF proposal, indicating that it was a “personal choice” by the individuals who signed the agreement. The KNU released a statement on 14 October which said that both the KNDO and KNLA “fully accept the political leadership of the Karen National Union.”
Paul Keenan, a senior researcher at the Burma Centre for Ethic Studies who is a noted expert on ethnic issues, told DVB that the KAF proposal was merely political posturing by certain KNU factions ahead of the KNU’s upcoming central standing committee (CSC) meeting:
“The creation of the KAF at this particular juncture suggests a political manoeuvre to influence the KNU’s forthcoming CSC meeting on [the issue of] whether the KNU will withdraw from the United Nationalities Federal Council,” said Keenan.
The KNU is scheduled to hold its CSC meeting on 23 October, and it’s expected that CSC members will focus on the KAF proposal and whether to part ways with the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), an alliance of armed ethnic groups formed in February 2011.
Over the past few years, the UNFC leadership has engaged in various negotiations with the Union government on behalf of Burma’s armed groups, but recently the ethnic bloc has appeared divided over the organisation’s leadership structure, which has been dominated by the Kachin Independence Organisation.
On 31 August, a group of KNU representatives walked out of a UNFC meeting, saying they needed to consult their leadership. A press statement released later that day by the KNU said the armed group had “temporarily suspended” its participation in the UNFC.
The letter was signed by KNU Commander-in-Chief Mutu Say Poe, who led the dissenting KNU representatives as they left the UNFC meeting on 31 August. The letter also said that “No KNU representative will be sent [to the] UNFC [in the] coming term,” and that the KNU central committee “will decide [later] whether the KNU will join the UNFC or not.”
In an interview with DVB shortly after the incident, Gen. Mutu said: “This [UNFC] organisation is costing us our autonomy. It is a top-down structure where we are expected to hand over our fate to the leadership. We cannot accept that. We must continue to represent the Karen people, and the UNFC is not always considering their best interests.”