A new chapter for the Karen movement

The recent vote to remove the de facto opposition from the KNU’s leading bodies adds to continued uncertainty for the largest group to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement.


FOR FOUR weeks in March and April, over 300 representatives and observers from Karen communities across Myanmar took part in elections for the leadership of the Karen National Union, Myanmar’s oldest ethnic armed organisation.

Saw Mutu Say Po retained his position as KNU chairperson and was handed a mandate to lead the ongoing political negotiations with the Myanmar government and armed forces. Joining him at the top of the organisation are several younger, all male leaders who have spent many years serving in social and community development roles.

The election highlighted tensions within the KNU however, as a faction of conservative leaders representing some of the most powerful and autonomous KNU regions, and led by outgoing vice president Naw Zipporah Sein, were effectively ousted, following tactful canvassing by Mutu Say Po and his allies.

The new leadership will now guide the KNU through a period of uncertainty. Following sixty-two years of continuous armed conflict with the central government, ceasefires signed in 2012 have brought much-needed stability and respite to war-torn communities, and have allowed the KNU to re-engage with Karen communities under government control.

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But the sustainability of these deals depends on a much more comprehensive political settlement, something that remains elusive as the government struggles to move the peace process forward, and while the military retains significant power and autonomy.


Kim Jolliffe

Meanwhile, ceasefire arrangements such as territorial demarcations have yet to be properly established, and some KNU personnel have become increasingly distracted by local business opportunities. Due to ongoing militarisation, conditions remain highly volatile for the nearly one million people under full or partial KNU governance. Strong leadership will be needed to maintain unity within the KNU and make tangible progress towards long-term political change.

Factionalism in the KNU has been a topic of much discussion in the Myanmar-focused media in recent months, and is often over-simplistically characterised as a battle of “progressives vs hardliners” or “sell-outs vs idealists” depending on the writer’s political sympathies.

Indeed, there are two broad factions at the top of the KNU. The current leaders, Mutu Say Po’s faction, have built strong relations with the Tatmadaw, arguing that the KNU needs to be a central player in the region’s economic development.

Meanwhile the de facto opposition, led by Zipporah Sein, has focused on relations with the National League for Democracy and other EAOs. Her faction has repeatedly called for restraint in cooperating with the Tatmadaw and in engaging in business projects and large scale development.

Saw Mutu Say Po has been re-elected as the KNU's chairperson. (AFP)

Saw Mutu Say Po has been re-elected as the KNU’s chairperson. (AFP)

These divides relate greatly to local level politics. Since 1976, the KNU has effectively operated as a federation of seven relatively autonomous districts, each with their own elections, local revenue, and subordinate military brigades.

Broadly speaking, Mutu Say Po’s faction gains its support from districts and smaller localities that have lost much of their autonomy, and have historically been more integrated with other ethnic groups and the rest of Myanmar.

Zipporah Sein’s faction is most popular among leaders from more autonomous regions, which have been more isolated throughout history, have fewer non-Karen people, and have had less interaction with the state of Myanmar, even through the British colonial era. Her faction also has significant support from refugee and diaspora communities, who tend to favour continued resistance against the central government.

A unified goal, divergent approaches

Both sides have remained deeply committed to the same broad political agenda, as approved at successive KNU congresses. Since it was founded in 1947, the KNU has sought self-determination of the Karen people via greater political autonomy of Karen areas and meaningful representation in the Union government.

Since the 1970s, the KNU has stated a commitment to solving “political problems through political means” and has demanded broad-based political dialogue to create a democratic, federal system. It also has a long history of mobilising and leading other EAOs towards this vision, and at its 2012 Congress committed to achieving a nationwide ceasefire.

Despite agreement around these broad strategic principles, differences have emerged around the most effective way to achieve them, and have been exacerbated by personal rivalries. Before 2012, Zipporah Sein and her father, Saw Tamla Baw, who died in 2014, had led the KNU and maintained a staunchly pro-NLD stance, announcing a “total rejection” of the 2010 general election, which was boycotted by the NLD, while demanding political dialogue explicitly aimed at an overhaul of the military government.

However, Mutu Say Po, who was then the head of the armed wing and had a number of followers in the civilian wing, was more open to incremental engagement and trust building, and saw Myanmar’s political transition as an opportunity for rapprochement.

He and his faction began backroom talks, which led to a ceasefire in January 2012 but were then temporarily ousted from the KNU by the leaders, as they were deemed to be moving too quickly. They recovered, however, and Mutu Say Po won the chairmanship in the October 2012 elections, entering a de facto coalition with Zipporah Sein and others loyal to her.

During their joint term in office, the two factions had many further disagreements, particularly around the so-called Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, which the KNU signed alongside seven other non-state armed groups in October 2015. Mutu Say Po was keen to cooperate with then-president U Thein Sein and push the process forward as quickly as possible ahead of the 2015 general election.

He was criticised for getting too cosy to the Tatmadaw top brass, leading the withdrawal of the KNU from an EAO alliance, and engaging too readily in business and development without guarantees for meaningful political change.

Kim Jolliffe | Frontier

Meanwhile, Zipporah Sein’s faction was accused of defying the constitution, by pursuing peripheral relations with other EAOs, and at one stage attempting to form its own military bloc in alliance with dissenting factions from other Karen armed actors. 

In 2015, all EAOs involved in the peace process agreed to the text of the NCA, but the Tatmadaw then blocked several groups from signing, and stated that only signatories to the accord would be allowed to join the political dialogue.

This generated great scepticism among EAOs and the most influential groups refused to sign the deal during Thein Sein’s term. Zipporah Sein’s faction favoured solidarity with other EAOs on this strategy, while Mutu Say Po’s insisted on pushing ahead in order to commit the Tatmadaw to the terms of the NCA and to entering political dialogue.

The KNU Central Standing Committee, which represents all seven KNU districts, subsequently agreed to sign the NCA and even the sceptics agreed that the decision had been made according to protocol. However, disagreements continued, particularly as other EAOs became increasingly detached from the peace process amid heightened conflict in other parts of the country.

The 2017 election

The 2017 KNU election saw a dramatic and decisive victory for Mutu Say Po, as Zipporah Sein and 10 of her followers were not voted onto the 55-member CSC. While Mutu Say Po’s re-election came as little surprise, few could have predicted such a dramatic ousting of his rivals. Indeed, given the importance of maintaining support from the KNU’s most autonomous and powerful regions, it was extremely bold for Mutu Say Po to even attempt such a wholesale bid for control.

Nonetheless, it appears that the election was carried out according to constitutional rules, with ballots being cast anonymously and freely by the 217 or so delegates who had voting rights. A list was distributed by Mutu Say Po’s faction with their preferred candidates, and a large majority of the delegates seemingly followed instructions. However, the KNU constitution allows for open campaigning, and according to KNU general secretary Saw Tadu Moo: “There has always been a campaign list from each opposition with their preferred leaders from each side.”

Thus far, there have been no formal allegations of fraud or foul play.

Tadu Moo believes many representatives were tired of the confusion emanating from a leadership with “two heads” and wanted to see more consistency and executive action.

Nevertheless, according to an attendee at the congress: “Many people … were surprised and shocked at the results, including some in the winning faction. [They] expected at least there will be some sort of negotiation and compromise so that all voices and views are represented.”

Encouragingly, Zipporah Sein was quick to issue her “best wishes to the new leaders”, while rebutting claims that she and her faction are “hardliners” and encouraging continued cooperation towards the “national causes” and peace.

Going forward

Mutu Say Po and his allies will now be under great pressure to deliver tangible progress towards political dialogue, to maintain unity and common purpose within the KNU, and alleviate the highly militarised and volatile conditions on the ground.

For supporters of the recent shift, there is hope that the KNU will be able to take more decisive steps forward, unrestricted by internal politics and disagreements.  According to Tado Moo the KNU’s political agenda will focus on: fully implementing the provisions in the NCA, such as a joint code of conduct to ensure stability; using political dialogue to amend the Myanmar constitution to build a federal union; building up the internal capacity of the KNU to ensure good governance in the interim, while strengthening political knowledge; and collaborating with NCA signatory and non-signatories, democratic forces within Myanmar and the international community.

However, some Karen observers fear that the move will be bad for unity within the organisation and could even raise chances of a long-avoided split. Close attention should be paid to Mu Traw and Taw Oo District administrations, which have kept their areas closed to state interference and now appear to be poorly represented at the central level. These districts oversee the most powerful and well-supported KNU military units but have barely been engaged in negotiations in the peace process so far.

One Congress attendee explained: “The future of KNU unity is in the hands of the new leadership… if they push the [other faction] aside and completely ignore them, I think it is possible that KNU will split. Right now, everyone is watching what the new leadership will do and how far they can go before the other group says ‘no’.”

Nonetheless, as Zipporah Sein’s post-election message suggests, if the leadership can manage these issues diplomatically and ensure inclusivity, it will be able to regain the trust of remaining opponents and make further progress towards peace.

TOP PHOTO: Karen National Union soldiers talk with villagers ahead of the 63rd anniversary of the Karen Revolution Day at Oo Kray Kee village in Kayin State. (AFP)

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