Prominent ethnic armed organisation KNU elects new leaders for top offices

Sources within the Karen National Union (KNU) named several newly elected officials in the organisation’s leadership this week to Myanmar Now, while an official announcement remains forthcoming. 

At the institution’s 17th Congress, which began on April 24 and continued into early May—the first since 2016 due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the 2021 military coup—former vice-chair Padoh Saw Kwe Htoo Win was chosen through an anonymous vote to serve a four-year term as the KNU’s new chair. 

He replaced 90-year-old Padoh Saw Mutu Say Poe, who was in attendance but did not participate in the election. 

Padoh Saw Hser Gay, the previous Kler Lwee Htoo (Nyaunglebin) District chairperson—known as Brigade 3—will be the new vice-chair. He also replaced Saw Roger Khin as defence department head. 

Along with other high-ranking KNU members including Padoh Saw Kwe Htoo Win, Saw Roger Khin has been accused of involvement in the development of a so-called “new city” project and suspected illegal gambling hub with Myanmar military links in Karen State’s Myawaddy Township. 

In late February, more than 60 Karen civil society organisations called for the resignation of all KNU central executive committee members for alleged links to the venture, which they widely oppose. 

In response to an appeal from representatives of the KNU’s Brigade 5 territory, the attendees at the 17th Congress had approved a decision to take legal action against leaders of the organisation involved in this alleged corruption, as reported by the Karen news outlet KIC, which cited an April 27 KNU statement. 

Nearly 200 representatives attended the Congress from five of the seven district-level brigades of the KNU and its armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA); 56 of these individuals ran for office. 

From among all village, township, and district-level KNU candidates, some 50 representatives are normally elected to the permanent central committee at each Congress—this term, the committee is composed of 45 members, KIC reported. The positions of chair, vice-chair, and general secretary are in turn elected from this committee to form the 11-person central executive committee.

According to a high-ranking KNU official, delegates from Brigade 2 and Brigade 5, which are among the most militarily and strategically important chapters of the KNLA, did not participate in the Congress or the voting.

Yet with 75 percent of the KNU representatives in attendance, the organisation met quorum and was able to hold an election and confirm the results according to its rules.

Brigade 5, which is the territory under KNLA deputy commander Lt-Gen Saw Baw Kyaw Heh, also declined to send representatives to an online meeting held in preparation for the Congress in February of this year. 

However, following the Congress, Lt-Gen Saw Baw Kyaw Heh and KNLA commander Gen Saw Johnny will stay on in their positions.

Padoh Saw Baw Kyaw Heh, deputy commander of KNU’s armed wing KNLA (Atid Kiattisaksiri/ LightRocket via Getty Images)

Incumbent general secretary Padoh Saw Tadoh Moo was also said to have been re-elected, with Padoh Saw Thaw Thi Bwe chosen as joint secretary 1, Padoh Saw Hla Tun as joint secretary 2, and Padoh Naw Myaing Poe as the chief justice. Padoh Saw Taw Nee will also remain in charge of foreign affairs, one of 12 departments within the KNU’s governance structure.

Padoh Saw Taw Nee, who will continue to lead the KNU’s foreign affairs department (KIC)

There has long been talk of dissension within the KNU regarding the organisation’s decision to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with the Myanmar government and military in 2015. Particularly since the coup, the leadership is said to have been divided between those who favour upholding the accord and those who have deemed it defunct. 

In May 2021, now outgoing chair Saw Mutu Say Poe released a public statement arguing that the KNU should abide by the NCA, however, the organisation later characterised this as a personal stance. The KNU’s now chair Padoh Saw Kwe Htoo Win represented the organisation in peace talks with the Myanmar authorities prior to the NCA in 2011. He was elected general secretary the following year. 

The KNU/KNLA has condemned Myanmar’s 2021 coup, supporting 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. 

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