RANGOON — The Karen National Union (KNU) has raised concerns with Minister Aung Min, the government’s lead peace negotiator, about fighting in northern Burma.
Zipporah Sein, vice chairperson of the Karen rebel group, is leading a delegation this week to meet with the government’s peace negotiation team.
According to a member of the delegation, the KNU vice chairperson told Aung Min on Monday that clashes between government troops and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in northern Burma could hamper efforts to achieve a nationwide ceasefire accord.
“She said at the meeting that she was very worried about fighting in the north. It’s not good to use force while trying to have a nationwide peace agreement,” delegation member Susanna Hla Hla Soe, director of the Karen Women’s Action Group (KWAG), told The Irrawaddy.
Susanna Hla Hla Soe added that Aung Min responded by saying the government had ordered its infantry division troops to withdraw from Kachin State. Some troops have already done so, he reportedly said.
“The fighting greatly disturbs the peace process in our country. Ethnic groups have tried to trust them and make peace, even though we never trusted them in the past,” Susanna Hla Hla Soe said, referring to the government.
The KNU is a major ethnic armed group that signed a ceasefire with the government in 2012. The Karen rebel group has played an important role in talks working toward a nationwide ceasefire. Its chairman, Mutu Say Poe, has met several times in the past with President Thein Sein as well as Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of the government army.
However, the chairman did not join the KNU delegation in Rangoon this week, nor did the group’s general secretary. Both men are described as “pragmatic” leaders who have been known to compromise with the government on a number of issues during peace negotiations.
Zipporah Sein, the group’s vice chairperson, is known as more of a “hard-liner,” who has approached the peace process cautiously and continues to express doubts about the government’s intentions. Since taking her position in 2012, she has been absent from many of the peace talks.
Her participation in the delegation this week has been seen by some observers as indicative of a power struggle between the “pragmatic” and “hard-liner” factions of the KNU. Some analysts suggest that she is attempting to gain more support from the Karen community.
During her meeting with Aung Min on Monday, she called for more participation in the peace process by civil society groups, according to Hla Maung Shwe, a member of the government-affiliated Myanmar Peace Center (MPC), which was represented at the meeting.
“She said the peace process should be more concrete and that political dialogue should be discussed,” Hla Maung Shwe told The Irrawaddy. “She highlighted the role of civil society because she herself came from a civil society background.”
Before becoming the KNU vice chairperson, Zipporah Sein served for several years as chairwoman of the Karen Women’s Organization (KWO).
Aung Min agreed that civil society should play an important role in peace negotiations but did not discuss particular ways of incorporating them into the discussion, according to Hla Maung Shwe.
“The KNU alone is not enough. All concerned organizations should come to the table and get involved in political dialogue,” the MPC member said.
In addition to government officials, Zipporah Sein is meeting with Karen youths and organizations during her trip.
After departing from KNU territory on the Thai-Burma border on April 30, she met with Karen communities in Pa-an, the capital of Karen State. In Rangoon and Pathein, a town in Irrawaddy Division, she will also meet with Karen youths and Karen organizations to discuss methods of rebuilding unity among the Karen people and preparing for a conference in 2015 that will include Karen political parties, armed groups and community-based organizations.
In Rangoon, she also met with non-Karen civil society groups, including the Rangoon-based 88 Generation Peace and Open Society.
“The role of civil society organizations is very important in building peace,” she told reporters at the MPC office in Rangoon. “Leaders alone are not enough, all concerned civil society organizations should get involved. That’s why I came to meet with and listen to civil society organizations.”
She will return to KNU territory on May 12.
The Karen people make up about 7 percent of Burma’s 60 million or so population. They live not only in Karen State, but also in Rangoon, Irrawaddy and Pegu divisions.
When the KNU was founded in 1947, it established a base in Insein, Rangoon Division. The base was later moved to Taungoo, Pegu Division, and finally to Manerplaw, on the Thai-Burma border.
Nang Seng Noom contributed to this report.