When Karen National Union (KNU) representatives held an emergency meeting earlier this month at their jungle headquarters along the Thai-Myanmar border, the ethnic group’s leaders weighed their continued participation in the government’s peace process.
The KNU, along with its armed wing the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), have battled against the central government since 1949 – a year after the country achieved independence from British colonial rule – marking one of the world’s longest-running civil wars.
So when the KNU agreed to accede to a previous military-backed government’s so-called Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in 2015, the pause in hostilities lent the peace initiative a degree of credibility while wars still raged with other ethnic armed groups across the country.
But the KNU’s recent decision to temporarily withdraw from the process, now known as Panglong 21 under de facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government, means an initiative that many observers already saw as faltering could now be on its last wobbly leg.
The KNU and its affiliated KNLA represent the largest signatory to the NCA in terms of numbers and geographical influence, meaning its decision to pause its participation will effectively bring the stalled process to a complete standstill.
The NCA’s second largest signatory ethnic armed organization, the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), also recently withdrew from the NCA, casting new doubt on the legitimacy of an agreement which nominally aspires to be but is not even remotely “nationwide.”
Of the remaining eight NCA signatories, only the New Mon State Party has a significant military and political component. The other seven groups have relatively small to virtually non-existent armed wings and limited political reach to ethnic minority groups.
Indeed, the two other main Karen organizations – the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA), and the KNU/KNLA Peace Council (KPC) – have largely ceded their political direction to the KNU and are likely to follow its example on the peace process.
KNU leaders interviewed by Asia Times emphasized that the pause is not a definitive end to the talks, but rather an opportunity to reevaluate aims, reaffirm mutual trust, and bring the talks back on the track laid out in the original NCA, which aimed at ending decades of civil war through the creation of a federal union.
Crucially, the KNU’s withdrawal has lent credence to the objections of other ethnic armed organizations active in the country’s north and northeast that view the NCA as deeply flawed on various fronts and have refused to sign.
Those groups include the country’s two largest ethnic armed groups, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), currently in open conflict with government forces in the north, and the United Wa State Party (UWSP), which controls a vast geography in the east and maintains a tenuous ceasefire with the state but is not a party to the NCA.
Until now, the KNU’s participation in the NCA represented a major symbolic coup for the government. Previously active across much of the Ayeyarwaddy Delta in the country’s lower central region and throughout the southeast, the KNU once represented a geographically near threat to the old capital of Yangon.
By the 1980s, however, the KNU was largely pushed back and confined to a long swath of territory along the Thai-Myanmar border encompassing much of Karen state, parts of Mon state and the southern Tanintharyi Region bordering Thailand.
The KNU’s fortunes and power took a heavy hit after losing much of its controlled areas and the last of its major border tax gates in 1995 after a mutiny of hundreds of its soldiers split into the Myanmar military-allied Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA).
Today, the renamed Democratic Karen Benevolent Army has re-allied itself with the KNU after defying the previous military government’s demand that they fold themselves into the national military as a “border guard force.” The armed group is also a signatory to the NCA.
Despite these internal divisions and strategic reversals, the KNU is still widely seen as the most organized and arguably legitimate representative of Karen ethnic nationalism in Myanmar. The Karen are one of the country’s largest and most influential ethnic groups.
The KNU signed a bilateral ceasefire agreement with the government in 2012 and was an inaugural signatory to the NCA in October 2015. Those agreements achieved the first appreciable period of peace in southeast Myanmar since 1949.
It’s recent decision to withdraw from the NCA follows a period of diminishing trust between the agreement’s ethnic signatories, the civilian-led government and the autonomous military, known as the Tatmadaw. Whether that trust can be rebuilt is an open question.
Misgivings reportedly came to a head at an October 15-16 meeting in the capital Naypyidaw, where military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing demanded a pledge of “non-secession” from the assembled ethnic armed groups.
He also restated the military’s controversial stance that ethnic soldiers must hand over their weapons and effectively surrender before being integrated into the national army and substantial political issues are addressed through talks.
The military leader, now accused of war crimes for his command control of the Tatmadaw’s brutal military campaign against the Rohingya in Rakhine state, then left the talks venue never to return, a move ethnic representatives perceived as high-handed and in poor faith.
Ironically, the summit with the government and military was requested by NCA signatory groups to break a perceived deadlock in the talks. Ethnic leaders insist the military’s intransigence is the core problem holding back progress, including on federalism and constitutional reform, both key demands of the KNU and other ethnic groups.
Tied to the idea of federalism is greater political, economic, and cultural autonomy as well as control over natural resources in ethnic groups’ respective geographic regions. While many of the ethnic armed groups have never seriously embraced secession as a fighting aim, they see being forced to renounce it as a negation of their rights as ethnic nationalities.
The Tatmadaw has made it clear that it alone has the power to decide how the ethnic armed units will be integrated into its ranks and has made the disarmament and demobilization of ethnic soldiers a precondition for the military’s stamp of approval on any political settlement.
Ethnic armed groups have countered they should be intimately involved in security sector reform (SSR) that merges their troops with those of the Tatmadaw to create a so-called “federal union army,” wherein the ethnic armed units maintain some form of distinct identity within the larger military.
With the political process stalled if not stillborn, it is almost inconceivable that ethnic leaders would voluntarily disarm and demobilize their soldiers and subject themselves to the Tatmadaw’s control.
Another contentious issue is the inefficiency of the Joint Monitoring Committees (JMCs) set up by the NCA to monitor military affairs and ceasefire violations. The committees have frequently been unable to solve complaints related to ceasefire violations, diminishing confidence in the body.
For example, a crisis between the KNU and Tatmadaw in March of this year over a road being built by the military in Karen state was only resolved by direct discussions between the two sides rather than through the JMC.
The incident eroded trust that has ground down to conflict in the past year, witnessed in several months of heightened tensions and firefights between the KNLA’s 5th Brigade and the Tatmadaw in Karen state’s Papun township.
The clashes and their impact on the civilian population of the region were an important part of the KNU’s recent decision to put a pause on the talks.
Away from the negotiating tables in Naypyidaw, Yangon, and the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, the on-the-ground reality of the ceasefire is much different to villagers, political officials and KNLA fighters. Ceasefire violations have real meaning to those affected and there is now a genuine fear among many in Karen areas of a return to full-blown armed conflict.
KNU leaders are now weighing possible ways forward to avoid that eventuality. At an emergency meeting of the KNU’s Central Standing Committee held at the organization’s headquarters at Lay Wah between November 6-10, leaders sought to achieve a common understanding on how best to implement the NCA.
Significantly, the meeting brought together the organization’s central leadership, regional leaders, as well as representatives from its KNLA armed wing.
There are no signs yet of a power struggle or leadership split within the KNU, always a possibility considering the organization’s history. While there is a wide spectrum of views among the KNU’s central and local leaderships about the NCA and the optimal way ahead, the discussions are being held through the KNU’s own internal processes.
Those familiar with the discussions say the KNU sought to reach a consensus on implementation mechanisms, frameworks, and decision-making for the peace process moving ahead.
An informal meeting between the KNU and government representative Khin Zaw Oo in Chiang Mai on November 17 reconfirmed the KNU’s desire to remain in the NCA, while deferring its attendance at formal events in favor of informal meetings with government representatives to find solutions to the impasse.
One option outlined by Myanmar researcher Ashley South identifies the potential for building trust through fast-tracking local priority issues related to education, natural resource management and land ownership, as well as restitution for land seized by the military. That, South suggested in a recent article, would show the government’s willingness to cooperate and build confidence in the peace process at a ground level.
Bottom-up approaches to the peace process have never been very popular with negotiators who tend to view issues through big-picture lenses. Address the grass roots grievances and aspirations of ethnic area civilians would require an attitude adjustment that the government and military have shown little capacity or will to accommodate.
While many peace process supporters want the KNU back at the table, its temporary withdrawal presents an opportunity to address the NCA’s many flaws and recalibrate the government and military’s rigid negotiating positions. But by forcing or manipulating the KNU back into the process before these issues are addressed likely means they will resurface, with potentially more grave consequences in the future.