CHIANG MAI, Thailand — A power struggle seems to be behind the sudden withdrawal of the Karen National Union (KNU) from the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) this week.
Before suspending its membership in the ethnic bloc on Monday, the KNU submitted a proposal calling for a review of the bloc’s policies and structure. The proposal was opposed by many of the UNFC’s 11 other member groups and finally rejected by the bloc’s chair, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO).
A Burmese-language version of the 10-page proposal, obtained by The Irrawaddy, criticized the UNFC administration for limiting the independence of member groups. Specifically, it accused bloc leaders of forbidding member groups to individually sign bilateral ceasefire deals with the government.
However, Saw Mutu Say Poe, the chairman of the KNU, who walked out in the middle of the UNFC congress in Chiang Mai, Thailand, on Sunday, later clarified that his group had no intention of signing the ceasefire accord alone.
The 10-page proposal added that UNFC leaders dominated talks with the Burmese government about political concerns, and that all financial support and humanitarian aid for the ethnic groups had to be channeled first through the bloc. It described the UNFC’s administration as top down and called instead for a “parallel cooperation structure.”
The KNU also warned the bloc to “be aware of activities that may slow or delay the peace process,” referring to a series of bomb attacks in several cities of Burma last year, including at a luxury hotel in Rangoon. The proposal said the UNFC should be aware of the bomb blasts because there are allegations that the UNFC was responsible for them. However, the police blamed a Karen businessman for masterminding the attacks, and one of the businessman’s associates who allegedly orchestrated the bombings was arrested and is still facing trial.
Khun Oo Reh, vice-chairman of the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), who was elected at the congress to serve as the UNFC’s new general secretary, defended the bloc’s administration. “We don’t feel that UNFC leaders control all the authority,” he said. “But the KNU might feel that way because different organizations have different opinions.”
Sources inside the UNFC, requesting anonymity, said the UNFC was not consistent in policies to recruit leaders. Members of its central committee are supposed to also be on the central committees of their respective organizations, but this is not always the case, the sources said.
Some ethnic Karen sources say the KNU is not satisfied with the UNFC leadership, which is dominated by the KIO as well as the New Mon State Party (NMSP).
The sources—both from within and outside the UNFC—say KNU leaders have painful memories of when the Kachin and Mon groups signed bilateral ceasefire accords with the government in the mid-1990s, leaving the Karen to bear the brunt of the government’s large-scale military offensives. At the time, the KIO and NMSP were accused of signing the accords to benefit from lucrative business deals. The KNU has faced similar accusations since agreeing to its own bilateral ceasefire in 2012, one year after the KIA went back to war with the government.
The KNU proposal questioned whether UNFC leaders believed in cooperation with other ethnic groups within the bloc, or whether they preferred to dominate without debate. “The decision to suspend our participation in the UNFC resulted strictly from our disagreements over sovereignty of decision-making authority,” Mutu Say Poe, the KNU chairman, said in a statement.
Saw Kwe Htoo Win, general secretary of the KNU, said the Karen had fought for too long to give away their decision-making power so easily. “Karen policy has been based on the tenet that the Karen people will decide their own political destiny,” he said. “We will not give that authority to another organization or people. This isn’t something new—this has been a guiding principle in Karen politics since Saw Ba U Gyi’s presidency in the late 1940s.”
The KNU has not made a final decision about whether to permanently withdraw its membership from the UNFC. The KNU’s vice-chairman, Naw Zipporah Sein, and her followers want to remain a part of the bloc, and discussions between both sides are ongoing.
The UNFC, which elected 12 new leaders during the congress over the past week, says it will reserve two leadership positions for the KNU, should the Karen decide to assume them.
Khaing Soe Naing Aung, vice-chairman of the Arakan Liberation Party (ALP), which is not part of the UNFC, speculated that the KNU was considering withdrawing from the bloc to speed up negotiations for a nationwide ceasefire accord with the government.
“The Karen National Union wants to sign a nationwide ceasefire agreement [NCA] as fast as possible. They worry the NCA will never be achieved. They think the government is giving us a chance that we didn’t have in the past. But we want the NCA to happen only when our ethnic demands are met,” he told The Irrawaddy.
Mutu Say Poe denied these claims. “The KNU does not intend to sign a separate nationwide ceasefire accord with the [Burmese] government,” he said in the statement. “The NCCT will continue to negotiate the terms of the NCA, and when ethnic armed organizations are ready to sign the NCA, then we will move forward together.”
Nai Hong Sar, elected as vice-chairman 1 of the UNFC, said he did not believe that the KNU wanted to sideline the UNFC and promote the NCCT instead. “They said they needed to discuss their [proposed] cooperation strategy among their leaders because a majority [of UNFC members] did not accept their proposal,” he said.
Asked about the KNU’s criticism of the UNFC leadership, N’Ban La, the new chairman of the UNFC, and vice-chairman of the KIO, said, “It is just a disagreement within the organization.”
“If we are like a dictatorship, our members would have also resigned from the alliance. The majority [of UNFC members] are united. And the KNU didn’t resign—they just suspended their membership,” he added.