The participation of Myanmar’s Karen National Union (KNU) in a key coalition of ethnic armed groups negotiating a nationwide cease-fire agreement with the government is in doubt amid infighting in the organization.
KNU chairman Mutu Say Poe said in a statement that the group had suspended its membership in the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), a coalition of 12 armed groups, and was considering a full withdrawal.
The statement on Monday came a day after Mutu Say Poe and several of his subordinates walked out of internal UNFC talks held in Chiangmai, Thailand.
However, a second statement also issued on Monday by a faction under the KNU’s deputy chairman Zipporah Sein said the group intends to continue working with the UNFC.
Zipporah Sein, and former KNU vice-president and current UNFC deputy chairman David Thackabaw, continued to participate in the UNFC talks, ignoring the walkout by the group’s chief, according to reports.
KNU secretary Pado Kwel Htoo Win, who is linked to Mutu Say Poe’s faction, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that the KNU had to suspend its membership because the UNFC leadership was unwilling to consider his group’s recommendations on the coalition’s strategy for government negotiations.
“We suggested ways to make the UNFC stronger and to make decisions without lessening any group’s position, but the system in the coalition is one of ‘from the top down,’ so it seems we all must follow [the leadership’s] decision,” he said.
“It appears that the UNFC is unwilling to discuss and accept our suggestions and [the leadership] simply does what it wants. That’s why we decided to suspend our membership in order to consider our future collaboration with the coalition.”
The walkout and decision to suspend the KNU membership came as a shock to other members of the alliance, who local media said had expressed concerns that their own negotiations with the government for a nationwide cease-fire might be affected.
The Irrawaddy online journal, citing a well-informed KNU source who spoke on condition of anonymity, said it was clear that the strategies of the KNU and its armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), were heading in different directions.
The source speculated that disagreements could even lead to a coup by the KNLA.
According to Mutu Say Poe’s statement, the KNU— the country’s oldest armed ethnic group —will not participate in any UNFC talks or activities pending an internal meeting “in coming weeks” when the group will decide whether it will formally end its membership in the coalition.
The statement said that the decision would not affect the KNU’s participation within the National Cease-fire Coordination Team (NCCT), an alliance of 16 armed ethnic groups which has been negotiating the cease-fire deal with the government’s Union Peace Working Committee (UPWC).
UNFC sources believe the KNU chairman wanted to withdraw from the coalition because other UNFC member groups were not yet ready to sign a peace deal, the Irrawaddy said.
KNU sources said even the group’s deputy chairman and her followers are not yet ready to sign, according to the report.
Observers have suggested that KNU’s decision to suspend membership is due to its disagreements with the Kachin Independence Organization—the UNFC’s largest member and a staunch supporter of the alliance.
The KIO is believed to have focused on political dialogue with the government that would follow the signing of a cease-fire agreement, while the KNU under Mutu Say Poe has largely pushed for the peace deal which would bring about an end to its 65-year-old conflict with Myanmar’s military.
However, KNU secretary Pado Kwel Htoo Win denied that the group’s decision was based on any differences with the KIO.
“We have no reason to disagree with the KIO. We didn’t participate in the UNFC because of them, we did it to work together with all ethnic groups,” he said, adding that the KNU also recognizes the need to work with all stakeholders, including civil society groups, towards political reform.
“We aren’t exclusively working towards resolving the military conflict—more than 60 years of fighting hasn’t solved our problems in the country. But we have to protect ourselves so that we don’t compromise our political attitude.”
Ready to sign
Pado Kwel Htoo Win said that despite the suspension of membership in the UNFC, the KNU’s efforts to sign the nationwide cease-fire would continue through the NCCT.
According to the Irrawaddy, some UNFC members predict that the KNU and non-UNFC groups such as the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) and the United Wa State Army (UWSA) will likely sign the nationwide cease-fire agreement.
They predict that if the government can secure signatures from these three groups—each of which has a strong military—while opening the door for other ethnic groups to sign later, it might be enough to please the international community without actually appeasing all ethnic stakeholders.
The government expects to sign a nationwide cease-fire agreement this month and to begin a series of political dialogues with the ethnic groups within 60 days of the signing, officials have indicated.
Reported by Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.