Pragmatic leaders who won the Karen National Union’s (KNU) recent elections are expected to accelerate peace talks with the government and business development projects, but some Karen observers are urging caution to ensure benefits for local communities and not just the ethnic group’s leaders.
Three policy makers with close ties won key positions in the elections, which closed on Tuesday after a nearly month-long congress to choose new leaders.
Mutu Say Poe, the KNU’s former military chief, is now the organization’s chairman, while Gen Saw Johnny, a pragmatic commander, was elected as the military chief. The new general secretary is Kwe Htoo Win, who is known for being practical, friendly to ethnic alliances and knowledgeable about international affairs.
The three leaders are believed to have good relations with members of the government’s peace team, who are negotiating with the KNU after decades of war between the government’s army and ethnic Karen rebels fighting for greater autonomy and basic rights. The two sides signed a ceasefire in January.
In addition to speeding up the peace process, the KNU’s new leaders are expected to accelerate development projects in the region, including efforts to clear away land mines and resettle internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees.
But some observers say the KNU should proceed cautiously in the coming months.
Thierry Falise, a veteran Bangkok-based journalist and author who has covered Burma for more than 25 years, said that although the new leaders may want a quicker peace process, they should take time to guarantee the safety of civilians, the repositioning of government troops in rebel-controlled territory, and the implementation of the organization’s code of conduct.
After speaking with several KNU leaders and Karen civil society organization, Falise, who travels frequently in Karen State, said the code of conduct was seen as crucial for attempts to negotiate with the government peace team.
The KNU and government peace negotiators led by Aung Min, a minister of the President’s Office, signed the code of conduct in the Karen State capital Pa-an on Sept. 4 this year.
The code comprised 11 chapters and 34 detailed points which also consider the safety of civilians.
According to the agreement, the KNU and government must obey the code to cement a permanent ceasefire.
Saw Htoo Klei, secretary of the Karen Office of Relief and Development, a Karen relief organization that provides assistance to IDPs in KNU-controlled areas, said he was optimistic about the new leaders because they offered a range of experience in military, political and international affairs.
But some concerns have also surfaced that the KNU leaders will focus more on economic development than politics, as they are believed to have close ties with businessmen such as Ko Ko Maung, the managing director of Dawei Princess Company, a Burmese partner in the Dawei deep-sea port project led by Thailand’s largest construction company Italian-Thai Development.
The KNU’s former peace negotiator, David Taw, who passed away recently, was reportedly well connected to Hla Maung Shwe, a Burmese peace broker and vice chairman of Myanmar Egress, a leading Rangoon-based NGO.
Hla Maung Shwe is also vice chairman of the Myanmar Fishery Federation and an executive of the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry.
David Taw, who was close to KNU chairman Mutu Say Poe, reportedly spoke with Hla Maung Shwe on the telephone after almost every peace talk. Some Karen sources speculate the discussions focused on development, businesses and NGO projects.
Karen sources also say that as peace talks continue, land has been purchased and seized on a large scale by Karen and Burmese businesspeople in southern Karen State, especially in Pa-an and Tenasserim Division, where the Dawei port is being built.
The multi-billion-dollar port project includes an overland route connecting it to Thailand that passes through territory controlled by a brigade of the KNU’s armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), and some local sources have speculated that KNLA leaders are eager to benefit.
Community-based organizations have complained that development projects and business investment are not transparent and lack the input of concerned civilians. As these projects continue, they point out, government troops remain in KNU-controlled territories and Karen civilians do not feel safe enough to return to their abandoned homes.
But if KNU leaders push forward quickly with these projects, one newly elected leader, Lt-Gen Baw Kyaw Heh, may present some resistance.
As the KNLA’s new deputy military chief, Lt-Gen Baw Kyaw Heh leads a group of 1,500 well-trained fighters and is known as more of a hardliner. Karen sources on the Thai-Burmese border said he would likely ignore KNU leaders if they tried to focus on development and business.
The KNU has dealt with internal divisions recently, with concerns that the group might split into two factions. Baw Kyaw Heh was reportedly ready to lead KNLA troops in northern Karen State and break away from the south, which was led by Gen Saw Johnny and Mutu Poe.
The leaders compromised, local sources say, for the “sake of the Karen people.”