By THE IRRAWADDY
The Karen National Union, which has no ceasefire agreement with the Burmese military regime, has grown gradually weaker since the loss of Marnerplaw in 1995, the headquarters of the armed group. This is perhaps the KNU’s weakest moment in its history.
Recent key events include the death of the armed group’s leader, Gen Saw Bo Mya in 2007; the assassination of General-Secretary Phado Mann Shah in Thailand in 2008. the loss of important KNU-controlled areas; and various battalions that defected from the KNU to join the military regime. Although the KNU has conducted ceasefire negotiations with the junta, it has yet to reach any agreement. The KNU has had close relations with Burmese opposition groups in exile and increasingly relies on outside support for its survival.
Phado David Htaw, a member of the KNU Central Executive Committee, talked to The Irrawaddy about where the KNU finds itself today.
Question: Recently KNU leaders living in Thailand on the border have been ordered back to KNU-controlled areas in Burma. How is that affecting the leadership?
Answer: A change came after the KNU conference in 2008. When we were clear that the SPDC [State Peace and Development Council] didn’t want to continue ceasefire negotiations, we closed some offices of the KNU. For example, Maj Soe Soe’s liaison office with the SPDC. Thailand misunderstood and thought we were closing a window of opportunity offered by the SPDC.
After the conference, there were armed clashes in the area of Brigade 6, where Battalion 201 and 203 were stationed. At the request of the Burmese regime, Thailand blocked some roads, resulting in the loss of some areas from the KNU. In some cases, the KNU couldn’t send food to the battalions and encountered attacks by the regime’s army at the rear of KNU positions.
In February, we received a letter from the Thai authorities. The letter said that Thailand would not allow KNU commanders to command their troops from Thai soil. It said that the KNU commanders who were giving orders to their troops must leave by February 25.
Another reason that the letter was sent is that there was a bomb blast in Myawaddy (opposite Mae Sot) during the visit of Tomas Ojea Quintana, the United Nations’ Human Rights Special Envoy to Burma. They accused us of the bomb blast. When the regional commander of the Burmese army’s Southeast Division conducted an investigation, Thailand seemed to be concerned and increased pressure on us. When anti-KNU propaganda by the Burmese regime increases, Thailand worries about another assassination like that of the KNU leader Phado Mann Shah.
Speaking frankly, we had a decision before the assassination of Phado Mann Shah. We decided to live together with our troops in the KNU-controlled areas in order to receive their respect as well as the people’s respect. But the actual implementation of that idea didn’t materialize after the death of Phado Mann Shah.
As the command center is now in Mae Sot, the Karen people never see the KNU leaders and it can erode our reputation. They see us only when they receive our yearly calendar. In fact, we should have gone back to our previous homes after the conference made the decision. We should be with the troops and encourage them as much as we can. We should meet with the villagers who left their villages and sought refuge in areas controlled by the troops. When leaders like us live and work from this bank of the river (from Thai soil), other commanders want to live here. The other commanders who can’t stay in Thailand become depressed by seeing our separation from them.
Q: If the KNU concludes a ceasefire agreement [with the SPDC], would you maintain control of your own area?
A: The regional commander of the Southeast Division said that they would give us an area located north of Three Pagoda Pass during a ceasefire discussion in 2005. They said that all KNU troops would have to be stationed within that area in Karen State.
The DKBA [Democratic Karen Buddhist Army] and New Mon State Party (NMSP) are also stationed in that area. There may be less threat to the SPDC, but we will fight against each other for the control of the land. The other armed groups don’t want to see that. They are satisfied with possessing a tiny bit of land for their survival.
Q: If some of the KNU’s battalions negotiate a ceasefire with the SPDC on their own, what is your position?
A: We have no such problems in our battalions. But if there were such a problem, it would be from the Special Battalion formed by Gen Bo Mya. They believe that they are Gen Bo Mya’s royalists. The problems started with this different viewpoint. In fact, the troops should be under the control of one loyal KNU commander.
Some officers like Tikhal, who was dismissed by Brigade 6, were reassigned by Gen Mya. He also has a relation with the DKBA. Bo Maha Swe, living in the camp of Gen Mya, has no connection with us.
Due to these factors, the formal structure of our troops has become weaker. Since we have focused more on Brigades 3, 4, 5, and 6, and less on Special Battalions, it appears like they are Gen Mya’s troops. And Gen Mya only lets his sons lead the Special Battalions, which makes it look like a family army; others don’t like that situation. Gen Mya has also recruited soldiers from Marnerplaw and other battle zones.
As we have two kinds of troops with some stationed in central command and others stationed in outlying areas, it is difficult to control them all. Sometimes we don’t know whether we have to take actions [against a commander] or make concessions to them. We are breaking up one by one: first the breakaway of the DKBA and then the Bo Htein Maung group— two separations for different reasons. The KNU army is not united.
Q: How many soldiers does the KNU have now?
A: No more than 3,000. The strongest is Brigade 5. Although we have troops, like Battalions 9, 10 and 11 in the Tavoy and Mergui areas, we don’t have any conflict there. According to the statistical data, we have X number of troops, but we can’t say accurately how many soldiers we have in reality.
Q: Could the SPDC defeat the KNU in an all-out attack?
A: In my opinion, they need us to continue to fight against them. They can point their fingers to us and justify their grip on power due to our existence. On the other hand, the mentality of our troops is still strong, and they fight the Burmese army with mines and ambush attacks.
Q: Politically, are there real differences between the ceasefire and non-ceasefire groups?
A: For the non-ceasefire groups, we can still be involved in the fight for political change in cooperation with other democratic opposition groups in the process of mobilizing international pressure [on the SPDC]. Politically, we still have hope for change.
For the ceasefire groups, although some of them aren’t satisfied with their current status, their ceasefire with the regime can effectively reduce deaths [in battles]. But human rights violations [by the Burmese army] may still exist in their area. Another advantage of these groups is that they have a chance to become associated with the people. I see it as very beneficial to them. They can share their beliefs and opinions with their people.
For us, we can’t effectively talk to the people whenever the SPDC does propaganda against us. Although we use media to communicate with the people, it ends up usually as a statement. We can’t gather the people in the villages and talk about the situation because the SPDC’s troops are now stationed everywhere. Now, our villagers gather with us in some activities, and they can still support us when we want them to do something. But in the past, we could easily gather villagers and explain to them what was happening.
Q: How deeply have you discussed the cease fire issue with the current regime?
A: In our last meeting with Gen Khin Nyunt, we discussed our fundamental needs. But since he was sacked 2004, we haven’t discussed such matters with the new authorities. They just said that if we come in [to the legal framework], then we could have such discussions. If you are not happy with it, then you can return to the way you were before.
After that, they attempted to split the KNU into smaller groups and persuaded them [some units] to break away from the KNU. If I were the SPDC, I would use a similar method. The reason we can’t have a ceasefire with them is due to our political beliefs. Although there may be some troops in the KNU willing to have a ceasefire with them, they have to follow the political policy adopted by the KNU conference.
Q: Do you think some of the ceasefire groups will ever again fight against the SPDC?
A: To put it simply, they don’t want to fight again. They can fight [the SPDC] with political means or mass movements. The SPDC has to consider carefully if they wage a battle with the UWSA [United Wa State Army] ceasefire group because they are now receiving support from China. China can control the UWSA and their exit door also is China. Once what was a forest in Kachin State has now become a town, and the KIO [Kachin Independence Organization] invested in the economy there. So, they won’t consider another battle against with the SPDC.
There are many soldiers in these groups because there are no battles to fight. If there is a battle, maybe the soldiers won’t go to the battle field.
Q: What is your view of the KNU, the democratic opposition groups and the Alliance Front?
A: Currently, the KNU has a leading role in the alliance fronts. When the NCUB [National Council of the Union of Burma] prepared to form a new parallel government, the KNU supported whatever way they chose if it is to fight against our enemy.
But they didn’t consider the consequent problems and the situation become complicated. It is not possible for the ceasefire groups to get involved in this move. Their way is different. Can they give up the current opportunities that they get [from the SPDC] to follow our way which doesn’t have a clear outcome?
Q: Did assassinated KNU leader Phado Mann Shah have many enemies?
A: There were disagreements with Phado Mann Shah because he was general secretary of the KNU and was responsible for guiding KNU’s policies. Before his assassination, there were letters distributed by the DKBA and the SPDC. The car bomb blasts and the death of Ko Kyi Linn [a KNU Lt-Col who went to the SPDC for negotiation] were attributed to plots of Mann Shah. He had a very high profile in the KNU. Moreover, he denied road building and dam projects [in Karen State] carried out by Thailand, in accordance with the KNU policies. In this way, Mann Shah was portrayed as a difficult KNU leader to deal with. I don’t think that he had many enemies. Finally, he shouldered the burden of the KNU as a whole.
Q: What do you think the position of the ethnic armed groups will be after the 2010 election?
A: Will the SPDC use its armed forces to force the ceasefire groups to surrender their arms? Or will they use the ceasefire groups to fight against the non-ceasefire groups? That depends on the policy of the new government.
Although we believe that we will be in a status quo, we don’t know what the new government will do. After the 2010 election, the SPDC will face more challenges. We may face more difficult situations than we do now. The KNU is living in a crisis situation. We have financial difficulty and it is difficult to recruit—many difficulties.
Q: It’s difficult to provide for the soldiers?
A: Of course! Currently, our Karen people are becoming refugees. They can’t support us as they did before. A family can struggle for themselves, but we need support for the troops. We are now trying to cope with assistance from international organizations.
Although we have money, it is difficult to buy arms and ammunitions. Thailand started to stop such assistance in 1990. Due to the arms left before that time, we have sustained our fight to date.
Q: Do you think the KNU’s political policies could change in the near future?
A: They could. To prevent further splits, the KNU could change its policies. It is likely to be a peaceful co-existence policy between those who left the KNU and those who remain in it: that is, the DKBA broke away and fights the KNU; so did Htein Maung.
Another factor is that due to the increasing fragmentation of the various control areas, some groups couldn’t break away as easily as previous groups did. They may choose to join other groups. It depends on the policy of Thailand as well. Before, Thailand wanted us to make a ceasefire from a united position. If we broke into various groups, it would be difficult to control the situation. But now their policy is just to get a ceasefire by any means.
Q: What is your opinion? Should the KNU enter a ceasefire agreement or not?
A: I don’t want to show my hand. In any case, it would require meetings with the SPDC. In the past, that was possible. But now, even we wanted to meet the SPDC, it is difficult.
Q: If the KNU made a ceasefire agreement [soon], would it enter into the 2010 election?
A: No. We don’t see any significance to our joining the 2010 election. We need to do a lot of public organization. The reality is we can’t even put up ballot boxes. If we want to do election politics, we have a lot of work to do. We have to rebuild the KNU.