Karen factions look to reconcile
by Daniel Pedersen on Apr.12, 2009, under Burma reportage
April 13, 2009
A secret plan to hatch reconciliation talks between splinter groups of Burma’s Karen people is gaining momentum.
The Norwegian government has been approached to host talks between the Karen National Union, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army and the KNU/KNLA Peace Council.
The DKBA and the Peace Council have joined forces with Burma’s ruling military junta, the State Peace and Development Council.
The DKBA’s split with the KNU in 1994 lead to the fall of the KNU’s jungle stronghold of Mannerplaw in early 1995, home to myriad opposition groups from various ethnic minorities and considered a nursery of dissent by Burma’s military junta.
The KNU/KNLA Peace Council split in early 2007 further weakened the Karen resistance, which has fought against successive Burman-dominated military regimes since 1949.
The KNU is now considered to be at its weakest since formation more than 60 years ago.
The potential bid to reconcile these groups comes at a time when Thailand has proposed itself as a potential mediator of peace to preside over talks between the KNU and Burma’s ruling military junta, the State Peace and Development Council.
Sources within the Karen movement have confirmed a low-key visit by Norwegian officials is planned soon.
The first step, said the source, would be a “sounding-out” process of all parties individually, to establish the likelihood of success.
The visit will be unofficial. A reunified Karen front is not in the SPDC’s interests, barring the unlikely abandonment of key principles by which the KNU has abided for more than six decades.
Current KNU vice president David Thackrabaw, the organisation’s late secretary-general Pado Mahn Sha and KNA Colonel Nerdah Mya have all lamented to this correspondent the division of the Karen “revolution”.
“They [the SPDC] always work on a divide and rule system,” said Colonel Nerdah.
“They are very smart, they work to make the Karen fight among themselves.”
While dubious about the prospects for such agreement between disparate Karen factions, describing them as “possibly unrealistic”, David Thackrabaw believes there is great disenchantment within the DKBA.
“They were told by the SPDC in 1994 that if they helped take Mannerplaw they would be the rulers of Karen State,” said Mr Thackrabaw.
“Has this happened? No, it has not. They know they’ve been lied to.”
Mr Thackrabaw said some of the very senior DKBA commanders had become accustomed to substantial wealth distributed among very few and that they now considered themselves “elite”.
He said DKBA soldiers were welcome to re-join forces with the KNU and that “they should bring their weapons”.
The fact that the SPDC has already swayed some sections of the Karen community will not have been lost on Thailand.
That the DKBA and the KNU/KNLA Peace Council switched sides more than 10 years apart means SPDC resolve to split the Karen movement is gradually paying dividends.
This fact will not have been lost on neighbouring countries signing lucrative trade deals hand over fist with the ruling generals.
That Thailand would present itself as a potential peacemaker when it has already signed memorandums of understanding with Burma’s junta on projects as diverse as hydro electricity-generating dams, deep sea ports and contract farming in border regions has left some observers questioning Thailand’s real motives.
One foreign NGO worker lamented the fact so many neighbouring countries were looking for cross-border deals.
“The more and more you hear about Burma, the more you realise it’s not a logical government, it’s just a paranoid junta that doesn’t base any of its decision-making on economic rationality, social welfare or even good policy on resource development.
“It’s madness, I can’t even find any terms to describe it, I mean, then again, you’re still getting governments cutting trade deals with these guys.
“Thailand’s becoming a little, well I wouldn’t say dependent, but I mean, the dams and electricity, the resources, the gas . . .
“Economics is definitely the rationale, the common denominator, so I mean there’s complicity in this human suffering in my mind.
“Of course governments have to retain relations on one side and try the slap on the wrist on the other, but I mean this is beyond a joke.
“It is a disgrace, I mean it’s sad,” he said.
The lying game
Colonel Nerdah believes the DKBA knows it is being lied to.
“It is a deception by the SPDC,” he said.
“In the beginning they [the SPDC] came up with misinformation, false information and they spread it through the community and we were late to counter it. Then we had a misunderstanding between the Christian groups and the Buddhist groups. Everyone was betrayed by the SPDC.
“We still have a lot of Buddhists with us, fighting hand-in-hand, so there’s nothing wrong between the Buddhists and the Christians, the SPDC used the name DKBA just for show.
“But the DKBA is completely under the control of the SPDC. The DKBA take their orders from the SPDC.”
Colonel Nerdah said the reason the DKBA had held together as a fighting force was a complex issue, as deception often demanded.
“Sometimes it’s business opportunities [why the DKBA allies itself with the SPDC].
“And some people have families on the inside – if they come back here it’s not easy if you don’t want to live in the refugee camps.
“Better to live inside – and sometimes they pretend to be DKBA, they work for the DKBA, but not wholeheartedly.
“Some people are really working for the DKBA. But there are two types of people, they work because they don’t want to come into the refugee camps, because DKBA dominates the whole area – well they dominate with the SPDC troops – but they work basically for their living, but not because they want to get involved.
“Some want to get involved because of business interests and the benefits.
“You have to know that this is not a division.
“Those who are working with the SPDC, they are SPDC soldiers, but then they’ve come up with a different name and that has confused the international community into thinking that the Karens are fighting each other.
“But those who are trapped inside and cannot come out, they have to work for the Burmese government, which in this case is called the DKBA.
“But actually some people still have a heart for the Karen struggle, but for many different reasons they have to work for the DKBA and sometimes they have to listen to the orders of the DKBA and the SPDC.”
Nerdah said there was no confusion among young men about the alleged religious divisions in Karen society – he said he didn’t think young men fought with the DKBA just because they were Buddhist.
“No I think they know very well [there are no true divisions], after 10 years of fighting with the DKBA, but I also think they know very well that they are trapped and it’s not easy to come back because they have their families inside.
“The SPDC keeps records of all the families of DKBA soldiers, where they go to school, where they live inside.
“In fact if they were to come back [to the KNLA] they would have to bring their entire family, otherwise the family would be put in jail and it would be very bad for the family, there would be all kinds of torturing.
“So some people, even though they want to come back, they are just sitting back to wait and see whether they should come back or not.
“I think after 10 years of fighting most people can differentiate between what is right and what is wrong.
“And they know one day the SPDC will disarm them and they cannot carry on.”
Colonel Nerdah said the decisions the SPDC was forcing upon DKBA soldiers hinged on the very foundations of Karen society and the SPDC knew that very well.
If the men wanted to keep their families in their homeland then they had to fight with the DKBA.
If they fought with the DKBA then the SPDC had their number and gave them their orders and the only way to keep their families safe was to continue fighting with the DKBA.
And that meant attacking their KNLA brethren.
Colonel Nerdah said once again, it all came back to family for the Karen, and that fact was being cynically manipulated by the SPDC.
“It’s a great dilemma for those who are stuck, they know if they leave they will be killed, their families will be killed, but then also it is not easy for them to stay for a long time because they know one day the Burmese will squeeze them again.
“If we can get rid of the SPDC everyone can come together.
“They are using their iron hands to control everybody ‘If you don’t listen to me, I will kill you, so you want to listen’, that is the rule they are playing by.
“Get rid of the SPDC, it is easy, very easy, to talk to the DKBA, we are brothers we can talk, they’re not scared, they have nothing to be scared of, then they can come back,” said the Colonel.
These sentiments were echoed by Myat Thu, an ethnic Burman who fought with All Burma Students’ Democratic Front alongside the KNLA after the 1988 student uprising in Rangoon.
“You see any Burmese who joins the army, they have families they must leave behind and that makes it very difficult to believe that any uprising would be significant, it makes it very difficult for soldiers to deny their orders [when their families are left vulnerable].
“That’s a problem, in fact that’s the main problem.”
He said the DKBA were under no illusions about what they were fighting for.
“I think they know, I think they know very well [that they are being used]. They own their lives now and they have to make a decision, I think they know very well about the situation. They also suffer.”