CHIANG MAI - The Karen National Union's struggle for autonomy from Myanmar's central government, now in its sixth decade of armed resistance, is widely recognized as the world's longest-running insurgency. Now, a split within the KNU's senior ranks threatens to weaken its armed front and undermine its negotiating position at a time when President Thein Sein's push for peace with ethnic armies gains greater international recognition.
Three top KNU figures - military chief General Mutu Say Poe and central executive committee members Roger Khin and the late David Taw, who died last week - were sacked by the KNU's central committee on October 2 for breaking organizational protocol in their individual bids to strengthen ties with Naypyidaw through a Norwegian government-sponsored Myanmar Peace Support Initiative (MPSI). Thein Sein has received firm backing and tangible support from Western countries, including Norway, for his ceasefire initiatives.
The three senior officers were nominally dismissed for opening a liaison office with the government, as called for in the MPSI, without permission from the group's central command. While the move represented a significant breach of the KNU's chain of command, it also masks an important subtext that links any ceasefire to potentially destructive state development projects that would ultimately draw Karen State under greater central government control and strike at the heart of the Karen's long battle for self-governance.
The three dismissed senior officials represent a "moderate" KNU faction that favors negotiation of a ceasefire agreement with the government in exchange for development assistance. Such a deal would open the way for large-scale investment in the resource-rich eastern state, an accommodation that a competing "hardline" KNU faction and many among the Karen population who have suffered from decades of military persecution are not yet prepared to back.
Led by General Secretary Zipporah Sein, the hardline faction has taken a more tentative, circumspect tack in negotiations with Thein Sein's quasi-civilian government. The faction has consistently pointed towards the dangers of opening too much, too fast to outside investment before a lasting political solution of the grievances of the Karen population have been achieved. Although not elected, the KNU view themselves as representative of the interests of the Karen people.
The experience of the ethnic Kachin, whose 17-year ceasefire with the government ended last year amid renewed armed hostilities, was marked by environmentally destructive, often state-led development projects, including hydropower, logging and mining ventures in Myanmar's north. The accompanying militarization of the areas targeted for development has provided a cautionary tale for the Karen. Their mountainous eastern state bordering Thailand is likewise rich in gold, hydropower potential and possibly shale gas.
Karen State has already faced the downsides of resource extraction-led development. Physicians for Human Rights, a US-based rights group, said in an August report "that people who lived near a mine, pipeline, hydroelectric dam, or other economic development project promoted by the [Myanmar] government [in Karen state] were… almost eight times more likely to have been forced to work for the army and over six times more likely to have been uprooted or had restrictions placed on their travel."
With such reports and the Kachin State precedent, KNU leaders have debated over the extent and on what terms they should allow outside investors into their territory. At the center of the debate is the massive US$50 billion Dawei port and industrial project scheduled for development on Myanmar's southern coastline. If completed as designed, the Thailand-backed project will represent Southeast Asia's largest industrial site.
Access highways connecting the port to Thailand are already under construction through territory controlled by the KNU's 4th Brigade. Other KNU battalions close to the project and its extended infrastructure have resisted the roadwork. In December last year, fighting broke out between the KNU's 4th Brigade and government troops tasked with protecting a stretch of the highway near the town of Myitta. Similar clashes erupted sporadically throughout 2011.
Zipporah Sein was quoted by the Karen News Group in July 2011 as saying that companies who entered the region without KNU permission "will be regarded as military dictatorship-backed companies".
Yet the multi-billion dollar, foreign-invested Dawei project is central to the government's push for peace in Karen state. Early ceasefire talks last year between government and KNU representatives were also attended by delegates from Dawei Princess, a Myanmar partner in the Dawei project led by Thai engineering giant Italthai.
In an earlier incarnation, Dawei Princess operated under the name Hein Yadana Moe Company and had been granted logging concessions in the Dawei region by the KNU's 4th Brigade. This relationship, coupled with managing director Ngwe Soe's one-time post as a colonel in the Myanmar army, means the company is uniquely positioned to mediate between the government and KNU.
Dawei Princess' own interests in an end to the fighting are substantial. Italthai signed an agreement with Dawei Princess in April 2011 that gave the company the lead role in the construction of the project's Thailand-Myanmar access highway. The KNU's control of territory along the route, however, has been a significant obstacle to progress.
The company's involvement in the ceasefire talks has not been publicized by either the government or KNU. Company officials, including managing director Ngwe Soe, however, have been photographed at several rounds of talks alongside Aung Min, the Myanmar government's chief peace negotiator. The recently dismissed General Mutu Say Poe and David Taw reportedly pushed for a quick ceasefire agreement at the talks.
But with an estimated 30,000 civilians, including a large number of Karen, facing displacement and the prospect that large numbers of Myanmar troops will be deployed to protect the project close to KNU-controlled territory, many KNU officials are concerned about the potential environmental, social and political impact of the Dawei project.
"On the government's side so far they are pushing for development," KNU Vice President David Takapaw told the Democratic Voice of Burma in January, days after the first of the ethnic army ceasefire deals with the government was struck. "We see it as a trick, a treacherous offer, because development will corrupt our people and environment by bringing in international companies to make our people laborers."
A statement released by the KNU in February said that "ceasefires alone will be insufficient to bring about … lasting peace." Zipporah Sein later said, "If development projects are set up in KNU areas and if the military sends more troops for security then there will be more human rights violations. That is why we only want to see development when there is peace and stability."
Around the time of the first ceasefire deal brokered earlier this year, despite persistent denials that a split of the leadership was imminent, tempers reportedly began to flare inside the KNU. David Takapaw and David Taw, both influential veterans of the KNU's struggle, were reportedly at loggerheads over the pace at which the group should move closer to the government.
Takapaw had the backing of KNU chief Zipporah Sein, while Taw's side reportedly had developed ties with moderate elements in Thein Sein's government through the Norwegian government's MPSI. In recent months, Norway has channeled millions of dollars worth of aid to Yangon-based groups to facilitate post-ceasefire development in Karen state.
Initially involving small-scale landmine clearance projects, MPSI has been designed to branch out into more substantial economic initiatives that aim to help rehabilitate the war-torn state. Those have included the creation of "community development committees" and government and ethnic army liaison offices in each other's controlled territories to improve communications.
While the initiative has been supported by the United Nations and received the endorsement of other ethnic armies such as the Shan State Army, it has also courted controversy.
First and foremost, Norway has used only government-approved organizations as local partners, despite the existence of many independent community-based organizations in Karen State and along the Thai border. Those independent organizations have repeatedly stressed that the MPSI must win the trust of grass roots groups, many of which are still suspicious of the motives behind Yangon's peace-for-development offer, to succeed.
Some Karen fear the Norway-backed initiative will ultimately coerce grass roots groups into joining hands with a government they still distrust acutely, while paving the way for state-led economic development before Karen State is stable enough to distribute effectively the benefits of investment to a grass roots level.
MPSI representatives have denied that the multi-million dollar project has created divisions within the KNU, yet its work in Karen state has been placed on hold until the KNU resolves its current internal crisis. Since its inception, MPSI representatives have been accused of dealing solely with those in the KNU sympathetic to its proposals, while bypassing those known to be resistant to the initiative.
Zipporah said in May a few months after the MPSI was launched that the initiative should not go beyond a pilot stage until the KNU had reached a "political settlement" with the government. It was a call from the KNU's top that the Norwegians apparently ignored in their push for peace through development.
Since news of the split broke last week, analysts have highlighted the Myanmar government's continued use of divide and rule tactics with ethnic groups. Those tactics are certainly in play - indeed, by some estimates there are now at least five native Karen armies with varying degrees of affiliation to the government - but overlook the fact that differences of opinion inside the KNU have not been well managed at the top.
A similar incident occurred in 2006 when the late Karen leader, General Bo Mya, met with Myanmar officials in Thailand to discuss a possible ceasefire deal without the permission of the KNU's central command. He retained his post, but angered the armed group's senior ranks in the process.
KNU veterans are wizened to the government's tactics, including the frequent extension of olive branches only to exploit the ensuing calm to fortify their positions before new fighting. Yet the more war-weary among the KNU's leadership apparently see the lure of development and a tentative political role in the country's future as a viable way ahead. The recent split may ultimately be more about negotiation tactics than divergent end goals.
Elsewhere in the country, namely in Kachin state, recent events suggest there are still substantial risks to engagement with the government. While rhetorically promoting peace with ethnic groups, Thein Sein has failed to rein in the army, which continues bruising and rights abusing offensives against the ethnic Kachin in the country's remote northern region.
Despite a tentative ceasefire, armed hostilities also continue in Karen state. The Free Burma Rangers relief group said in a September bulletin that despite the ceasefire, Myanmar troops continue to "supply their camps beyond the normal supply rate and continue to use forced labor" in Karen State. The relief group, which often works undercover in conflict areas, also said that Myanmar troops are building new camps and launching military assaults in declared ceasefire areas.
Those reports raise questions about the sincerity and coherence of the government's peace overtures towards the KNU. They also raise doubts about whether Norway and other Western countries now eagerly backing Thein Sein's peace initiatives are aware of the fragility of a reform process that is driven primarily by the Myanmar elite's hunger for business opportunities in resource-rich ethnic territories.
At the same time, a KNU divided into "moderate" and "hardline" camps bodes ill for peace prospects in Karen state. Influential power-broker David Taw's death last week, after a long battle with illness, will further complicate the KNU's internal dynamics. The government's divide and rule tactics have again contributed to a split of the leadership of a rival ethnic army. But a fragmented KNU will be more difficult to deal with than a unified one. By Francis Wade Joyo News - Francis Wade is a freelance journalist and analyst covering Myanmar and Southeast Asia.