The Karen National Union (KNU), Myanmar’s oldest ethnic armed organisation, convened its 17th congress on Monday after facing multiple delays and setbacks, two district-level KNU officers have confirmed.
The officers, who are both taking part in the congress, said that they could not disclose the location or scheduled length of the gathering, which typically lasts about 45 days and is held once every four years.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, they also declined to identify their fellow participants in the congress due to security concerns amid ongoing clashes with Myanmar’s military.
Under normal circumstances, the 17th congress would have been held in 2020. However, it was postponed that year due to the Covid-19 pandemic and put on hold again over the next two years after the military staged a coup in February 2021.
Earlier this year, the group abandoned a plan to hold the congress online after Brigade 5 of its armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), declined to participate.
The congress is usually attended by members of the KNU’s executive committee as well as representatives from the KNLA’s seven brigades and the Karen National Defence Organisation, its other armed wing. A major purpose of the congress is to select senior leaders.
Since Myanmar’s military seized power two years ago, there has been some internal disagreement within the KNU over its stance on the takeover, which has met with widespread popular resistance.
While the group has spoken out publicly against the coup and offered material support to anti-regime forces, some leaders have been more reticent about siding with groups opposed to the junta.
According to the KNU officials who spoke to Myanmar Now, the current congress is expected to resolve some of these issues.
“I believe the leaders who are most compatible with the goals of the Spring Revolution will succeed,” said one, referring to the nationwide movement to overthrow the military regime.
“Although this is just a change of top leaders within the KNU, it will have a major impact on the Spring Revolution. It is very important for the oppressed forces to unite,” he added.
The current chair of the KNU is 90-year-old Padoh Saw Mutu Say Poe, who in 2015 signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), formulated by the administration of then-president Thein Sein to end decades of civil war in Myanmar.
The vice-chair is Padoh Saw Kwe Htoo Win and the general secretary is Padoh Saw Ta Doh Moo.
Despite being a signatory to the NCA, a number of KNLA brigades under the KNU’s command have joined forces with the People’s Defence Force, the armed wing of Myanmar’s civilian National Unity Government, in KNU territory.
The alliance has resulted in the capture of a number of military bases in Karen (Kayin) State, but has also triggered devastating junta airstrikes that have taken a heavy toll on the local civilian population.
In addition to its territory in Karen State, the KNU also controls parts of neighbouring Bago Region and Mon state.