Myanmar: Ethnic minority’s struggle for peacemaking

The KNU should solve its internal problems – its disunity could harm peacemaking deals and the dreams of its people.

Thousands of displaced Karen people - the ethnic minority in Myanmar - have taken refuge in nearby Thailand due to the ongoing civil war waged by Karen rebels against the government of Myanmar [EPA]
Thousands of displaced Karen people - the ethnic minority in Myanmar - have taken refuge in nearby Thailand due to the ongoing civil war waged by Karen rebels against the government of Myanmar [EPA]

The Karen National Union (KNU) – one of the best-known southeast Asia rebel groups due to its commitment in fighting for freedom on behalf of ethnic Karens against its government – is about to achieve its goal.

Due to the deeply-rooted and blood-based hatred and distrust on the ethnic Myanmar-dominated government, they call their government an “enemy”. Their war for freedom and justice is sometimes referred to as an “endless war”; it has lasted for more than six decades, resulting in countless deaths.

However, its historic ceasefire with the government on January 12, 2012, amazed everyone and is seen as “the beginning of the end of its civil wars” with the government.

An unexpected major internal conflict within the rebel group erupted on October 2, resulting in the KNU dismissing its military wing’s boss, General Mutu Say Poe, and two other top leaders for allegedly violating the organisation’s protocol.

This power struggle within the KNU’s hard and soft factions could have led to instability among their leadership, which could have ultimately delayed – or even possibly derailed – the peace process with the Myanmar government. Although other ethnic rebel groups – such as the Kachin, Mon, Wa and others – have been signing peace treaties with the central goverment since the late 1980s, the KNU has yet to follow suit, standing firm in its belief.

On-and-off ceasefire agreements between the government and other ethnic rebels were lessons and the KNU – formed at a Karen Congress attended by 700 delegates in early February 1947 – became a role model due to its committed armed resistance.

Now, if the KNU fails to reunite and continue peace with the government, the peace deals of the other ethnic groups may be in jeopardy. 

Internal problems

The KNU’s mistakes in the past hurt the group, making its enemy (the government) happy. The KNU was divided into two factions in 1995, resulting in a war between the Buddhist-led faction Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and the Christian-led KNU. 

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The war between the two factions claimed several innocent lives: Karen freedom fighters lost their lives, women became widows, children became orphans. Many lost their loved ones and thousands were caught in the crossfire and displaced.

To make things worse, after 1995, smaller Karen militias broke away from the KNU. Now, there are six Karen militias – Karen National Union (KNU), Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), Peace Council, Karen Peace Force (KPF) and Karen Border Guard Force (KBGF), and a small Karen militia led by defected KNU official Phado Aung San. 

There have been plots and assassinations between the splinter groups and the KNU, the biggest one being the assassination of KNU general secretary Mahn Sha, who was gunned down by two armed men in Mae Sot on February 14, 2008. 

Since then, attacks have claimed several dedicated freedom fighters, making the KNU’s military weak.

The Karen people have been thirsty for peace after enduring a civil war for more than 60 years. During my recent trip to the areas of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), Karen relief workers told me, “Many Karen civilians have started to enjoy the result of a peacemaking process. Some have got ID cards and can freely travel without any fear.”

Some Karen people are concerned about the breakdown of the ceasefire and told relief workers that “it was a chance of a lifetime and would never want to lose it again”.

They have been dreaming of coming home, and this is the right time for the displaced Karen civilians and refugees in foreign soil to return to their homeland, to live and work without any fear.

The Myanmar government now needs to gain the trust of the KNU and avoid repeating “divide and rule” tactic. In 2004, General Bo Mya, the KNU’s influential chairman, reached a verbal ceasefire agreement with former Prime Minister Khin Nyunt in Rangoon.

A few months later, the agreement was breached and the government army launched a major offensive against the KNU – thousands of Karens were displaced and several took refuge in nearby Thailand. 

Peacemaking efforts

Since Myanmar has opened up for peacemaking with the ethnic minorities, it has to look into the issues of pragmatic and conservative-minded stakeholders on both sides. The KNU is also riddled with leadership issues, and the Karen community overseas has a greater influence in its decision-making. As such, there are chances that the problems of those who suffered and are suffering in the war-torn regions can get neglected. 

“The KNU was divided into two factions in 1995, resulting in a war between the Buddhist-led faction Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and the Christian-led KNU.”

A very influential KNLA commander seemed upset at the fact that “some Karen overseas live a happy life but talk about policies, while the local civilians bear the brunt”.

“Look at those who are active to fight for freedom; most of them live abroad and work for foreign countries. Those who urged us to fight, they and their families live in cities while we live in the jungle,” he said. 

I have seen the food several KNLA soldiers eat – it will cost no more than $1 a day. They get no salary.

Several Karen child soldiers told me that they want to go to school. Some even blamed their higher officials for not giving them a chance to study.

I have also come across some defected Myanmarese child soldiers who revealed that they were forced at gunpoint to serve in the government army.     

There are always mixed feelings and opinions when a country is in a transition period. Some even want to see the pragmatic KNU faction split from the conservative faction. If this happens, the KNU will be split into two factions – the North and the South – the biggest split since its inception in 1947. 

Both the KNU and the government must think about the sufferings of people in the war-torn region if they really love peace.

If the KNU fails to solve its internal problems, it must at the very least not fall into another Karen on Karen civil war.. It should move forward with the peace process in the respective regions for the sake of civilians who support them.

Else, the KNU’s disunity could harm the peacemaking deals and the dreams of suffering civilians.

Saw Yan Naing is ethnic Karen journalist from Myanmar and now working as senior reporter at Thailand-based Irrawaddy Magazine

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