The New Challenge for the Karen National
Htun Aung Gyaw
February 2, 2004
The current cease-fire agreement meeting between the Karen National
Union and the Burmese military regime in Rangoon seems to be going
well. But reaching a real peace for the Karen state and its people
seems distant. The Thai government is pushing an agenda that would
devour Burma’s rich natural resources for its own benefit
and it would ignore the suffering of the Burmese people. In addition,
KNU faces a new challenge from its splinter group, the Democratic
Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), as well as pressure from Burmese regime.
Behind the cease-fire agreement, there are many difficulties that
the KNU leadership needs to overcome. First the KNU has to negotiate
with the Burmese regime for its territorial control. How much area
they can control is a big question because KNU, DKBA and SPDC territories
overlap each other. The tricky part is that even though they may
reach an agreement with the regime, KNU still needs to make a deal
with the DKBA, which controls the inner part of the Karen state.
DKBA is also fully supported by the regime.
DKBA leaders were once KNU fighters, who split from KNU because
of religious discrimination against the Karen Buddhist majority.
Mistrust and hatred between KNU and DKBA is not going to evaporate
over night. If KNU reaches a cease-fire agreement, these two rival
groups would need to build trust and work together for the sake
of the Karen people. If not, SPDC will play those two sides against
each other and reap the benefits.
DKBA’s and KNU’s infighting is only weakening their
cause for self-determination. DKBA is supported by the regime, yet,
they dislike the regime’s ill treatment of the Karen people.
The Karen people have been harassed and killed, villages have been
burned down and the population forced to work as porters by the
Burmese troops. Some of the DKDA leaders want to rejoin with the
KNU but KNU does not trust them. Both groups need a mediator who
they can trust and count on. The best mediators are former Karen
leaders and National Democratic Front (NDF) leaders who live in
exile or in Thailand.
KNU needs to issue a statement that they want reconciliation with
DKBA. This step is crucial for the KNU and the Karen people as a
whole to rise again.
Many Burmese pro-democracy groups are operating inside Karen-controlled
territory. Their revolutionary tasks are mainly dependent on how
much freedom they have within the Karen area. Karen leadership is
quite generous to help pro-democracy groups operating in the Thai-Burma
border inside Burma. If the Karen signed the cease-fire agreement
with the regime, KNU would have to restrict the anti-regime movement
in their domain. It would be very difficult for both the Karen and
the pro-democracy groups to continue their struggle.
Burmese and other ethnic groups that operate in the Karen area
need to find ways to continue their struggle for democracy outside
the Karen-controlled territory. They have to understand the difficulties
that the KNU faces right now. We do not need to blame KNU for its
move; instead we should look at the reasons why KNU has tired to
reach a cease-fire agreement with SPDC. At the same time, democratic
forces need to find other ways to continue the struggle for democracy,
if they cannot operate effectively within Karen territory.
When we look at the cease-fire groups, we see their influence becoming
weaker and weaker. Over the past decade, cease-fire areas have steadily
been occupied by Burmese troops. In Kachin state, many Kachin Independence
Army troop-controlled areas are now mixed with occupying Burmese
troops. Their headquarters is not safe because it is surrounded.
Kachin leaders became corrupt, much as the Wa and Kokang. KIA soldiers
have lost their spirit for continuing the fight for democracy and
self-determination. The results are shocking. Drug trafficking,
deforestation and environmental damage is rampant.
After the cease-fire agreement with SPDC, the Chinese, who pressured
the Kachin and Wa to reach a cease-fire agreement with the regime,
got lucrative logging concessions. Within the past ten years, valuable
hardwood forests were systematically slashed down by the Chinese.
As a result, precious wild life in that area was diminished over
night. These are the results of the cease-fire agreement in Kachin
In Karen state a cease-fire agreement is technically not yet signed.
It will take some time, and possibly, negotiations might break down.
The main task for Karen leadership is to start reconciliation with
their Buddhist Karen brothers despite their different religious
background. They speak the same language, eat the same food, drink
the same water and dress alike. In the past, they have worked together,
successfully thwarting the Burmese offensive against the Karen territory.
The Karin headquarters in Manaplaw was never occupied by the Burmese
army, like it is now, when the Karin people were united. .
If the Karen manages to reunite, they will rise up again. Not only
can they successfully oppose the Burmese army but also the one-sided
pressure from the Thai Prime Minister.
Htun Aung Gyaw
Civil Society for Burma