KNU starts congress without Brigade 5 representatives

The Karen National Union (KNU) launched its long-delayed congress on Monday, as the group attempts to set a new political course amid Myanmar’s ongoing post-coup crisis.

The congress, which is being conducted online, is the first to take place since 2016. Normally held every four years, it has been repeatedly postponed since 2020 due to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic and the February 2021 military takeover. 

It comes at a key moment for the KNU, which has become deeply involved in the anti-regime resistance movement, even as some of its senior leaders urge restraint.

While the outcome of the gathering is still far from clear—the proceedings are expected to last about a month—there are already signs that it is off to a rocky start, with one brigade of its armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), declining to send representatives.

A senior leader from KNLA Brigade 5, who spoke to Myanmar Now on condition of anonymity, confirmed the decision but did not offer a reason for the move.

In an interview on Monday, the KNU’s secretary general, Padoh Saw Ta Doh Moo, also said that he would not comment on the matter.

KNLA Brigade 5 leader General Saw Baw Kyaw Heh seen at the 2015 Karen Revolution Day ceremony (Atid Kiattisaksiri/ LightRocket via Getty Images)

Brigade 5, led by the KNLA’s deputy commander-in-chief, General Saw Baw Kyaw Heh, controls Hpapun District, a strategically important area where the group enjoys strong popular support.

Post-coup disputes

The current leader of the KNU is 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.

On May 10, 2021, Padoh Saw Mutu Say Poe released a statement saying that the group must continue to abide by the NCA, meaning that it should stay out of the conflict triggered by the military takeover three months earlier.

However, the KNU later dismissed this as his personal stance, and not a reflection of its own position as an organisation.

Since then, it has publicly condemned the coup and offered strong support to resistance groups formed in its wake, offering military training for those who want to fight as well as asylum for political dissidents and Myanmar army defectors.

The result has been nearly two years of relentless airstrikes and other attacks by the military that have displaced more than half a million civilians throughout KNU territory, according to the latest figures compiled by the Karen Peace Support Network.

As the conflict drags on, many in the KNU are calling for a change in leadership to address the current realities that it faces.

“We want a leader who is firm and decisive—someone who will stand strongly by the organisation’s policies and values and who practices accountability and transparency,” said Naw Se Se, a permanent central committee member of the Karen Women’s Organization (KWO).

Casino controversy 

More than 60 Karen civil society organisations, including the KWO, released a joint statement late last week calling for the resignation of all KNU central executive committee members with ties to so-called “new city projects,” including illegal casinos and other gambling businesses.

In response, the KNU released a statement on Sunday denying that it had issued any permits for illegal businesses in Karen (Kayin) State.

KNU congresses typically last about a month, and are attended by central executive committee members and representatives from each brigade.

Padoh Saw Liston, the district secretary for KNLA Brigade 6, said he didn’t expect the current congress to last any longer than usual, despite being the first to be conducted online—an innovation, he said, necessitated by the risk of airstrikes.

He added that the Karen public also hopes to see more “political integrity” in the group’s leadership.

“I think the public feels that the leadership’s behaviour should reflect the KNU’s political integrity, so I think there may be some changes. However, everything depends on the representatives’ skills,” he stated.

More than 50 representatives are slated to be elected as members of the KNU’s central executive committee during the congress. The elected representatives will then choose the group’s chair, vice-chair, and secretary general.

KNU territory is divided into seven districts, each one controlled by a different brigade of either the KNLA or the Karen National Defence Organisation, another armed wing under the KNU’s command.   

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