The Karen National Union (KNU) finds itself once again at a crossroads in its 63-year resistance against the Burmese government. A major internal division over how to proceed in peace talks threatens to escalate. Some observers worry about plots and counter-plots within the Karen leadership, and that the power struggle will quickly lead to a split in the party.
The KNU this week dismissed its military chief, Gen Mutu Say Poe, and two other influential leaders, David Taw and Roger Khin, for violating the organization’s protocol.
Soon after the dismissal, the KNU appointed a new acting commander-in-chief, Brig-Gen Baw Kyaw Heh, the commander of Brigade 5 of the KNU’s military wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA).
Karen military sources have told The Irrawaddy they they expect the KNLA to splinter into two rival factions—with Mutu Say Poe leading Brigades 1, 3, 4, 6 and 7 while Baw Kyaw Heh maintains command over Brigades 2 and 5, which are loyal to the KNU central committee.
Of the KNLA’s total troop strength, estimated at 10,000 fighters, Mutu Say Poe’s faction would boast more troops then Baw Kyaw Heh’s two brigades. However, for the time being at least, no one is playing up the possibility of the two factions fighting against each other.
David Taw, widely seen as a pragmatic negotiator for the KNU, is suddenly being portrayed as impulsive in his pursuit of a peace deal. KNU General-Secretary Zipporah Sein, on the other hand, has been much more cautious, some would say “inflexible.”
Brig-Gen Saw Johnny, the commander of KNLA Brigade 7, has called for cool heads and dialogue, and said that “this is not the time to engage in bloodshed.” Regarding the peace talks with Naypyidaw, he said, “The battle must only go on at the table.”
History shows that the KNU is not immune to internal power struggles and a culture of plotting—the most significant incident in recent times being the assassination of then General-Secretary Mahn Shah, committed by two hit-men who were allegedly hired by Karen breakaway group, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA).
“I am worried that the KNU will resort to resolving this internal conflict the only way they know—using guns. If they could avoid using violence to resolve internal divisions, I think it will benefit the whole country,” said Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese analyst who is deputy director of the Vahu Development Institute, a Thailand-based think tank.
Other observers speculate that the Karen rebels may fracture into several small groups now that the country is in transition. The groups may form, some say, simply by way of ideological camps—the pragmatic camp, the conservative, the politically driven, the economic opportunists.
Most agree that the dismissal of the KNLA’s commander-in-chief raises the immediate specter of a north-south divide with Mutu Say Poe ruling the southern part of Karen State while those loyal to the central committee hold the north. Continue reading “Burma_Myanmar:Power Struggle KNU”