Burma Link | July 7, 2016
Located in the depths of Burma’s southeastern jungle, the Fifth Brigade of the Karen National Union (KNU) remains a stronghold of the ethnic resistance movement. On a visit to the basecamp, Burma Link met with three members of the Karen National Defense Organization (KNDO) to hear more about the situation on the ground, including ongoing Burma Army expansion. The commander of the first battalion, Kyaw Mu, has been working for the Karen Revolution since 1975—altogether 41 years. He has been with the Fifth Brigade for eight years, and his current position is the head of the KNDO Battalion Number One. Dom Na Htoo is the 33-year-old landmine survivor who he lost his leg in the explosion but continues serves with the Fifth Brigade. Eh Paw Shee is a 19-year-old woman serving with the Fifth Brigade.
Background: Since Burma gained independence from Great Britain in 1948, fighting has been an intermittent norm for the Karen State. The Karen National Defense Organization (KNDO) was founded in 1947 to protect the Karen people and territory, and remains under its mother organisation Karen National Union (KNU). After more than half a century of armed conflict, U Thein Sein Government initiated a peace process after coming to power in 2011, and in January 2012, the KNU signed a preliminary ceasefire with the Government. Meanwhile, armed conflict and displacement has continued in other parts of the country throughout peace talks, and new conflicts have erupted since eight Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAO), including the KNU, signed the so-called ‘Nationwide” Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in October 2015. So far the peace process has been exclusionary and non-transparent, and Burma Army has continued its attacks in the north. Whilst conflict has reduced since the 2012 ceasefire in the Karen areas, many are doubtful about the Burma Army’s motivations as they not only continue to attack ethnic nationalities in other parts of the country, but also expand their military reach in the Karen ceasefire areas. Furthermore, according to Commander Kyaw Mu, the Burma Government uses service provision such as education and health sectors to expand their territorial administration into Karen areas, further exacerbating the situation. Tensions run high; “They are putting people in our territories, so sometimes we have some conflicts on the front line,” says Kyaw Mu and urges international assistance to be conflict sensitive and closely follow the peace process. Whilst plans are currently under way for the 21st Century Panglong Conference, for many, the peace process comes across as empty rhetoric given the military’s actions as of late.
KNDO 1st Battalion Commander Kyaw Mu spoke to this seeming insincerity and the development of the peace process:
Currently, our leaders are having a peace process with the Burmese government and we have to see the result of the peace process afterward. On the ground here, we have not seen any political solution. And, based on the military activity here, it doesn’t look like they are going to give up because they have put up more outposts. They also reinforce and resupply their troops; so it seems like they are not going to give up easily and move out of our territories. But, we have to wait and see.
In our KNDO battalion area, the Burma Army has ten military outposts. Just in our battalion area since 2006 they have increased [their outposts by] one, one more outpost, but in some other brigades and in some other battalions, we don’t know how much. Just in our area here they have increased by one outpost. According to the Burmese military activities in our area, finding real peace is not that easy; obviously for us we cannot see anything [that indicates to us that] we are going to have a real peace, a real peace in the future.
Currently in the fifth brigade, the Burmese government wants to put its administration in our territories and they are doing this in many ways: through education, by putting their administration in our territories, and through health care. They are putting people in our territories, so sometimes we have some conflicts on the front line. They are trying to get more territory by using medical assistance, by using educational assistance, and by trying to help out in our administrative areas. We don’t like that, so we try to resist but still sometimes there is a conflict between the two groups and the two administrations.
This doesn’t mean that we don’t want to receive all the assistance coming to our territories, but we have to look at the political situation and the political dialogue. When everything is solved in a political way and we agree with it, when we have true peace and real federalism, then we won’t try to block or stop all of the assistance coming into our territory. Since we have not received any productive results and since they have come to the peace talks with our organization we cannot make any conclusions at the moment. So we would rather stand with our principles than rely on any administration beyond our own. When peace comes and everything is OK and we have democracy, then OK, we can accept all of the assistance from the Burmese government.
Recently, Aung San Suu Kyi announced that more ethnic groups should be involved in the peace agreement’s process. At the moment with the new government she has very good intentions for everybody, but we cannot feel really certain about her political goals and her political objective; we have to wait and see how it goes and how she carries out her political objective step by step. We cannot just say whether she is good or she is bad; we have to wait and see and we cannot be so sure and certain about what she is going to do. We have to wait and see because their political activities sometimes are very high up, and for us the people on the ground here we can’t really catch up with what they do. We need to see a good result on the ground before we can say something.
On a final note, Kyaw Mu explained part of the psyche of perseverance that inhabits those involved in the fifth brigade:
We really want to see stability and real peace in the country but right now people think of us as stubborn; people consider us stubborn and we are not stubborn. We don’t want to fight either; the only thing we want to see is real peace. The current situation we are facing right now is that we see the Burmese activities in our area and we don’t really see peace. And then we are very suspicious about what they are trying to do, but not because we oppose assistance or peace. We are very happy with the peace process, but we want to see something productive. We also want to say openly to other people that we don’t trust the Burmese but maybe sometimes it’s too hard. It’s going to be hard to say that, but in reality from what we have seen on the ground here they are not really making a change and they are improving their military activities. So it’s sometimes very hard to say that we don’t trust them. It may be politically incorrect, but sometimes we speak our mind and about what the truth is in the area here. And hopefully there is going to be a change in the future and we will all stay together and live together.
You know, when it comes to trusting the new government, I don’t really trust the new government because all of the experiences that we have had throughout the revolutionary period and from working for the revolution for more than sixty years. Even though we are not very bright in intelligence, the people can figure out what is going to happen next. So most people know how to think and know how to evaluate the outcome.
Dom Na Htoo also addressed how stepping on a landmine did not alter his motivation in the resistance movement:
After I stepped on the landmine and even though I recovered, it’s not like before. We are relying on the leaders and the state to have a strong motivation for the revolution and to stay working for the revolution, to never give up. The only thing is that nothing has changed, no real motivation. Nothing has changed for the revolution, but when I travel it’s not like it used to be anymore. I’m not as fast as I used to be and it gets a little bit harder; it’s not that easy like before. When I travel in very difficult terrains, it’s not that easy to go to the front line like before and right now I am staying at the back.
Eh Paw Shee, 19-year-old woman serving for the fifth brigade, also echoed the same hopes for her community and the motivation that led her to join the Fifth Brigade and remain within its ranks:
I am the only one from my family serving the revolution. I want to see freedom for the country and also rights for the Karen people. Personally, I want to serve the country and want to start the revolution.
Dom Na Htoo’s sentiments mirrored those of Eh Paw Shee:
We are hoping that we will have peace, freedom, and rights for the Karen people and that everybody becomes unified. We always think about our revolution and freedom for the Karen people and now we have to carry on with whatever we can do. If this generation cannot achieve it, the next generation will. We have to carry on and work on it. Now we are sticking together, staying together, and helping one another in the military base camp. And we do the best that we can do.
I want to say something personally. Right now our leaders are having peace talks, having peace negotiations, peace dialogue with the Burmese government, but I don’t really trust the government. All along, we have not seen anything that will bring peace to the country through what the Burmese government has been doing. So for me, I don’t trust the government. Peace talks don’t mean anything to me because the government is not reliable. Throughout history, they have not shown a thing that would make me trust that they are going to do a good job for peace.
When asked about the possibility of working together with different ethnic groups, Dom Na Htoo spoke positively on the prospect of working together:
If all of the groups have the same mission, we are happy, we are happy to work together. We are happy to be united to achieve our goal.