The top commander of the Karen rebel forces fighting for self-rule in eastern Burma and two prominent peace negotiators for the ethnic minority group were sacked Wednesday for allegedly opening a liaison office in collusion with the government without informing the group’s political wing, sources said.
The Karen National Union (KNU), dismissed General Mutu Say Poe, the commander-in-chief of its armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), along with central committee members David Taw and Roger Khin for “repeated violations of KNU rules and regulations,” a KNU source told RFA’s Burmese service.
The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, did not elaborate on what the “repeated violations” were, but said that the three men had established a KNU central-level liaison office in Hpa-An—the capital of Karen state—without obtaining permission from KNU and KNLA headquarters.
Karen state has seen decades of fighting between the Burmese military and KNU troops, with the two sides unable to agree on a ceasefire despite an initial peace agreement signed in January.
The KNU had not confirmed the dismissals as of Wednesday, but the order was given in a letter signed by Joint-Secretary Hla Ngwe and 10 other central committee members, the source said.
Mutu Say Poe, David Taw, and Roger Khin are seen to have pushed for greater collaboration with the Burmese government in negotiating a peace agreement, while many other leaders in the Karen minority group have remained cautious.
When reached Thursday for comment by RFA’s Burmese service, General Mutu was unwilling to discuss the matter.
The Irrawaddy, a Burmese online newspaper, quoted sources close to the Karen rebels on Thursday as saying that commander of the KNLA Brigade 5, Brig-Gen Baw Kyaw Heh, had been appointed acting commander-in-chief of the KNLA in Mutu Say Poe’s place.
It cited KNU official Say Say as confirming the dismissal of the three men for allegedly leading a faction of the KNU last week to Hpa-An to open the “unauthorized” liaison office.
It said that an official appointment would be made during the next meeting of the KNLA.
KNU Joint-Secretary 2, Daw Lay Mu, will reportedly take over David Taw’s position in the Justice Department.
KNU sources said that Mutu Say Poe and his followers had ignored several meetings called by the central committee, which is currently led by General-Secretary Zipporah Sein, and reports suggest the dismissed general was engaged in a move to split from the organization.
A Karen military source estimates that Mutu Say Poe will garner support from KNLA Brigades 1, 3, 4, 6 and 7—an estimated 10,000 fighters in total—while Brigades 2 and 5 would stay loyal to the central committee.
Reports suggest that a split in the KNU would result in a northern faction led by Baw Kyaw Heh and a southern faction commanded by Mutu Say Poe. Such an internal conflict could lead to a postponement of the KNU’s 15th congress, which is due to elect new leadership later this month.
Internal conflict amongst the Karen leadership surfaced last month after a third round of peace talks with the Burmese government, with some Karen representatives accused of rushing into peace negotiations and others of remaining too cautious.
Observers of that round of peace talks said that the government delegation, led by Aung Min, Minister in President Thein Sein’s office, wanted to quickly resettle thousands of Karen internally displaced persons and refugees from Thai border camps.
Some Karen groups living abroad say they have serious misgivings about the sincerity of the Burmese government to formulate a peace agreement following the recent developments.
The European Karen Network (EKN), in a statement released Thursday, accused government peace negotiators of seeking to split the Karen leadership.
“By seeking to divide the KNU and encouraging some members to set up an unauthorized liaison office, the government of Burma is not acting in an honest and constructive manner that will create trust,” the statement said.
“The government of Burma appears intent on continuing to use divide and rule tactics against the Karen. The use of such tactics can threaten the entire peace process.”
The KNU was formed in 1947 and, following Burma’s independence from British colonizers in 1948, created its armed wing, the KNLA. In 1949, the Kachin went to war with the central Burmese government seeking autonomy.
Reported by RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.