The visit of the Karen National Union’s (KNU) top-ranking leaders to Naypyidaw this week has been highly publicized in Burmese media and on social networks, with the atmosphere of the talks indicating the growing friendship between the two long-time foes.
Naypyidaw has given its warmest welcome to the KNU, one of the longest-running ethnic insurgencies in Burma.
All the key figures in the government, from President Thein Sein to Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann to Burma’s armed forces commander-in-chief, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing—who seldom meet with the country’s ethnic rebel leaders—received the KNU delegation. Min Aung Hlaing even gave presents to the KNU leaders, handed over with a friendly smile.
But, apart from speculation on social media, nobody knows clearly what the interests are behind this growing friendship.
Naypyidaw’s interest in the KNU might go beyond regular meetings, as tensions and on-and-off conflicts are heating up in northern Burma. Questions linger about whether the Burmese government wants to keep southern Burma—where insurgencies including the KNU are still active—quiet while it wages war against the northern ethnic groups, the Kachin and Palaung.
Saw Kwe Htoo Win, general secretary of the KNU, said that the KNU and Naypyidaw have agreed to meet regularly—once every two months—for talks. However, there is no clarity about the purpose of the meetings, and unannounced informal meetings between the two parties have taken place several times.
Sources inside the KNU said that even some within the rebel leadership do not know clearly the purpose of the current visit to the capital. The KNU appears to be divided into two factions, with poor communication between the two sides.
Some also believe that the government wants to give some kind of “carrot” to ethnic armed groups in the south before it gives the “stick” to insurgencies in the north, including the biggest ethnic rebel group, the United Wa State Army, based in eastern Shan State and well-equipped with modern arms.
The Burmese government has reportedly reinforced its troops and sent military supplies, including planes and armored trucks, to Kachin and Shan states since last month, and local sources worry about a large-scale offensive soon in the north.