Myanmar’s military is the chief barrier to resolving the country’s decades-old “existential political crisis,” the new leaders of the Karen National Union (KNU) said at a press briefing last week.
Padoh Saw Tah Doh Moo, the ethnic armed group’s new secretary general, said during the online press conference, held on Thursday to mark 100 days since the new leadership was elected, that Myanmar’s military continues to cling to false notions of nationhood.
“The Myanmar army has been implementing its own version of nation-building that is based on military supremacy since 1962, using race and religion to enforce their ideas,” he said, referring to the beginning of military rule in the country.
“Myanmar is facing the loss of democracy and a lack of ethnic rights. I want to stress that we can’t resolve these problems one after another, but must address them at the same time. But the key barrier is the army,” he added.
He also called the current armed resistance movement—dubbed the Spring Revolution—the climax of a crisis resulting from the failure of successive regimes to adopt a more viable system of governance.
“It’s most important to implement a solution to this primary problem and its root cause, which is to build a federal democracy and get the army out of politics,” he said.
At the press briefing, the new KNU leaders also acknowledged the group’s need to address its own internal issues.
Among the concerns raised was the alleged involvement of senior KNU members in a controversial “new city” project in Karen (Kayin) State’s Myawaddy Township suspected of being an illegal gambling hub with links to Myanmar army officials.
In late February, more than 60 Karen civil society organisations called for the resignation of all KNU central executive committee members with links to the venture, which they widely oppose.
Following elections held at its 17th congress, which ended in May, the KNU formed an 11-member committee to investigate the charges.
“This committee was formed within a short period. Now it has begun its work. What I mean is that it has not reached the stage where we can come to any conclusions about the allegations,” said the newly elected KNU chair, Padoh Saw Kwe Htoo Win.
He also noted the role of Karen civil society groups in pointing out the KNU’s weaknesses, which he said reflected the fact that democracy is thriving in the Karen community.
“I believe that they are pushing the KNU to become a better and cleaner institution,” he said.
The KNU’s 17th congress was the first held since 2016 due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the 2021 military coup. It took place in three phases, with the first one starting early last year.
Nearly 200 representatives attended the congress online from five of the seven district-level brigades of the KNU and its armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA).
Delegates from Brigade 2 and Brigade 5, which are among the most militarily and strategically important in the KNLA, did not participate in the congress or the voting.
“My understanding is that two brigades not participating in the congress was a signal to every one of us that there needs to be reform within the institution,” said Saw Kwe Htoo Win.
The KNU/KNLA has condemned Myanmar’s 2021 coup and supported the anti-dictatorship movement by offering combat training to those joining the resistance and providing refuge to citizens wanted by the junta for arrest.
There have been clashes between the military and the KNLA in all seven of its brigades, territory which spans Karen State, as well as parts of Mon State and Bago and Tanintharyi regions.
Many members of the People’s Defence Force (PDF), the resistance army of the shadow National Unity Government, have been fighting alongside KNLA forces and also under the supervision of KNLA commanders.
Secretary General Saw Tah Doh Moo also emphasised the need for PDF fighters and ethnic revolutionary forces to be reorganised as part of a security reform process, in line with a federal union system under a new constitution.
“We must start working on a genuine federal democracy system during the current interim period,” he said.