The commanders of units of different Karen rebel groups in southeastern Burma announced on Tuesday that they will begin military cooperation in order to deal with an increase in Burma Army operations in their areas in recent months.
Gen. Saw Lah Pwe, the head of the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) and Gen. Baw Kyaw Heh, deputy commander-in-chief of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), who has support of KNLA brigades 2 and 5, agreed to work together. They are joined by two smaller rebel groups, the Karen National Defense Organization (KNDO) of Col. Nerdah Mya and the KNU/KNLA Peace Council of Col. Tiger.
The KNLA is the armed wing of the Karen National Union (KNU), the largest and oldest Karen ethnic armed group, and has a total of seven brigades.
The commanders said in a joint statement that they signed an agreement to begin military cooperation under the name of the Kawthoolei Armed Force. “In accordance with the wishes of the Karen people, we, the forces of KNLA, KNDO, DKBA, KNU/KNLA Peace Council, have unanimously reunified as the Kawthoolei Armed Forces,” the statement read.
Kawthoolei is the Karen name for the independent state that the Karen people have been aspiring to and fighting for since the 1940s.
The DKBA has about 1,500 fighters and KNLA brigades 2 and 5 can field an estimated 3,000 fighters. The KNDO and KNU/KNLA Peace Council are smaller groups with several hundred soldiers each.
Under the agreement, the armed groups will keep their current uniforms, insignias and flags, but they promised to cooperate and help each other in operations against the Burma Army.
Saw Roger Khin, chief of the KNU department of defense, said in a statement that the KNU leadership was not involved in the agreement signed by the vice-chief of staff of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and the commander of the Karen National Defense Organization (KNDO), two military organizations of the KNU.
Saw Roger Khin said the cooperation agreement “was signed by the KNLA vice-chief of staff and the commander of the KNDO…through their own ideas.”It has been known for some time, however, that there are divisions within the KNU leadership. Baw Kyaw Heh, who has support of KNLA “hardline” brigades 2 and 5, and KNU vice-chairperson Zipporah Sein have expressed doubts over the direction of the KNU’s ceasefire negotiations with the central government and the Burma Army.
The KNU signed a bilateral ceasefire with Naypyidaw in early 2012 and the group has since maintained relatively good relations with the government.
On Thursday, KNU secretary Mahn Mahan sought to downplay the public differences over the recent agreement and insisted these were not signs of internal divisions.
“I don’t see it is a sign of a split within the KNU, because we all want to [unify] one way or another” with other groups, he said. “We are not against each other, although the two statements seem different.” see statement knu english