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New Karen leadership signals party shift

The Karen National Union (KNU) has elected pragmatic new leaders for key party positions at its 15th quadrennial congress, which analysts say will speed up peace negotiations with the central government.

On Monday, the KNU confirmed that General Saw Johnny – a known pragmatist and close ally of his controversial predecessor General Mutu Say Poe — would take over as army chief.

It follows news that Mutu Say Poe would take over as chairman of the organisation, less than three months after being ousted by the party’s leadership for allegedly colluding with the government.

The group’s aging former leader Tamla Baw, 93, announced his resignation at the beginning of the congress in late November.

On Friday, Naw Zipporah Sein took over from David Takapaw as Deputy-Chair, Kwe Htoo Win became the new secretary-general, while Thaw The Bwe and Saw Mahn Mahn secured senior secretarial positions in the party’s central executive committee. David Takapaw and former secretary-1 Saw Hla Ngwe were not included in the new administration.

Much of the congress, which kicked off in the state-capital Hpa-an in late November, has been dominated by infighting between soft and hardliners within the KNU. It comes after months of disagreements within the party leadership over how to approach peace negotiations with the central government.

General Mutu Say Poe, Saw Johnny and Kwe Htoo Win are understood to favour closer collaboration with the government, while Zipporah Sein and David Takapaw have previously taken a more cautious approach. Lt-Gen Baw Kyaw Heh, who on Monday took over as deputy commander-in-chief of the KNU’s armed wing, is known to be more of a hardliner.

Analysts say the promotion of Mutu Say Poe and his allies could signal speedier progress on the KNU’s peace negotiations with the government. In October, he was controversially ousted from the organisation after allegedly opening an unauthorised liaison office with the government in the state-capital Hpa-an. Roger Khin and the late David Htaw were also dismissed for their role in the affair, although all three members were later reinstated.

Karen civil society groups have repeatedly urged its leadership to show unity. The new party leadership will be tasked with ongoing peace negotiations, the possible repatriation of tens of thousands of refugees, as well as economic development projects, demilitarisation and demining.

The KNU was formed on 5 February 1947 under the leadership of Saw San Poe Thin and was declared an unlawful organisation by the civilian government two years later. The group has been locked in a battle for self-determination for over 60 years, before signing a historic ceasefire agreement with the government in early January this year.



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