‘We are deadlocked’: KNU general-secretary talks war and peace-making

Karen National Union general-secretary Saw Ta Doh Moo speaks to Frontier about recent clashes in Kayin State, Tatmadaw intransigence and the National League for Democracy government’s handling of the peace process.


Four and a half years after the Karen National Union signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, Kayin State is seeing renewed violence sparked by Tatmadaw road-building in areas defended by the KNU’s Brigade 5. The two sides are also struggling to reach a common understanding of central provisions in the ceasefire accord before the next 21st Century Panglong Union Peace Conference, planned for April or May. Frontier reporter Naw Betty Han spoke with KNU general-secretary Padoh Saw Ta Doh Moo about the state of the peace process and the recent fighting. This interview, originally in S’gaw Karen, has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How do you assess the progress of the peace process under the National League for Democracy government?

A peace process ought to be based on equality and requires that both sides understand each other. The previous [Union Solidarity and Development Party] government listened to what we had to say and was willing to find common ground. That’s why the NCA could be signed [in October 2015]. But in the term of the current government, we’ve had to deal with leaders who resemble bureaucrats more than negotiators.

It’s as if we have to simply follow their policy because they are the government. During the time of the previous government we had many informal meetings but the current government is very sensitive about informal meetings. They demand that every meeting be formal and we cannot make any progress.

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[State Counsellor] Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has not focused enough on the peace process and she is only perusing a path to amend the 2008 Constitution through parliament. I’m inclined to assume that she doesn’t really know what a peace process means, and doesn’t have a sense that national reconciliation can be achieved through it. But the constitution could in fact be amended through the peace process, in a process parallel [to the parliamentary effort].

Though 51 agreements have been reached [on articles to be included in the Union Peace Accord], the peace process is stalling. However, there are some improvements [in communication]. We’re going to meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on February 28. But she only has bureaucrats around her. We want her to assign an able person to the job. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi can’t play a regular part but she hasn’t really assigned anyone.

There are 10 armed groups that have signed the NCA but the only really strong groups are the KNU and the Restoration Council of Shan State, and to some extent the New Mon State Party. Many of the more powerful groups in the Northern Alliance have not signed the accord. Does this make the NCA fundamentally weak?

I don’t see it like this. There were 16 groups that negotiated the NCA, including the northern groups. However, the NCA was supposed to be based on equality, with everyone included and political problems solved using political means. When we sat down to sign, they [the government] started to say who can or cannot sign and take part [in the peace process]. Failure began here.

If the Tatmadaw and government really want to proceed peacefully, they can simply announce a nationwide ceasefire [that applies everywhere] and then we can all start negotiating. Now, because we 10 signatories are making no progress, non-signatories are not interested in signing the NCA. The Tatmadaw and government need to be broad-minded and reduce military pressure.

The government cannot easily influence the Tatmadaw, but would you say they have different positions on the peace process?

This is half true. The government and Tatmadaw do have different opinions but their attitudes towards ethnic minorities are the same. Opinions in this country are broken into pieces. Ethnic groups scorn each other. This originated in the colonial period when [the British] imperialists used a divide and rule strategy.

As a result, Myanmar now lags behind other countries in the world. While other countries are developing unity through diversity, in Myanmar, the powerful oppress the weak. We must reform the education system. In text books, the [Bamar] kings Bayintnaung, Kyansittha and Anawrahta are described as heroes and empire-builders, but the Mon see Bayinnaung as the king who invaded their country and the Rakhine see Bodawphaya as the king who annexed their kingdom of Mrauk-U and took away their cherished Buddha statue.

Fighting recently broke out in Hpapun Township between the Tatmadaw and the soldiers from KNU Brigade 5.  How did it happen?

One of the main causes of the fighting is the failure to fully implement the NCA. Clause 3 of the NCA says that the Tatmadaw and signatory ethnic armed groups must meet and draft a ceasefire implementation plan [with “exact timeframes”] within 14 days of signing the accord, but we have been able to meet with the Tatmadaw [to discuss this] only once over more than four years. We tried to meet again on January 28 but couldn’t. It’s not enough. We can’t get a proper [shared] understanding of the problems on the ground. It’s like looking at an iceberg – many things aren’t visible.

They [the Tatmadaw] want to take advantage of the NCA. They avoid discussion and they put pressure on us, using force. We want to go ahead based on the NCA. But we believe we have the right to defend ourselves. Finding a solution through negotiation and discussion is the correct way, we believe.

However, the Tatmadaw has a top-down system. If its top officials make an order, junior officials and privates must follow it. They must not think about whether or not it violates the NCA. Regarding the road-building in Hpapun, when we approached the Tatmadaw [field] commanders, they said they simply have to do as they’re ordered.

The real problem lies with the policy of the Tatmadaw commander-in-chief. Whether or not these problems continue or can be solved through negotiations depends on the attitude of the commander-in-chief.

[In Hpapun] the Tatmadaw has fired randomly since January using heavy guns. More than 100 rounds have been fired to date. People living in the area did not dare to go on with their lives and so have become displaced.

We have to put the blame [for the fighting] on those who haven’t implemented the NCA as agreed and discussed, mainly the Tatmadaw and the government. For our part, we see that the Tatmadaw violates the NCA. Whenever we even try to explain the NCA to the [Karen] public, the Tatmadaw comes and obstructs us.

We had to rebalance [our approach to the peace process] because they began to violate [the NCA]. Perceptions differ, but rather than arguing with one another we need a constructive discussion. The current dialogues sponsored by the government and the Tatmadaw are just for show and so we are deadlocked.

TOP PHOTO: The KNU’s Saw Ta Doh Moo says “we see that the Tatmadaw violates the NCA”. (Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe | Frontier)

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