On Tuesday, some commanders of units of different Karen rebel groups publicly vowed to begin military cooperation in the face of growing of Burma Army operations in southeastern Burma. But since then, cracks have begun to appear within the leadership of the various groups.
On Wednesday, a Karen National Union (KNU) leader sought to distance the organization’s political leadership from the cooperation agreement signed by two of its military commanders.
Saw Roger Khin, chief of the KNU department of defense, said in a statement that the KNU leadership was not involved in the agreement signed by the vice-chief of staff of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and the commander of the Karen National Defense Organization (KNDO), two military organizations of the KNU.
Saw Roger Khin said the cooperation agreement “was signed by the KNLA vice-chief of staff and the commander of the KNDO…through their own ideas.”
On Tuesday, KNLA Vice-Chief of Staff Gen. Baw Kyaw Heh and KNDO leader Col. Nerdah Mya signed an agreement with Gen. Saw Lah Pwe, the head of the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA), in which they pledged to cooperate militarily. Col. Tiger, a commander of a small Karen splinter group, the KNU/KNLA Peace Council, also joined the agreement.
The commanders, who can muster a combined force of an estimated 4,000 fighters, said they were seeking military cooperation because of an increase in Burma Army operations in their areas. In recent weeks, fighting has erupted in Karen and Mon states between the DKBA and the Burma Army. The KNLA has not been involved.
The agreement is potentially significant as it would further cooperation between the KNU and the DKBA. The latter is a Buddhist Karen group that broke away from the KNU and joined the government in 1994 after falling out with the KNU’s predominantly Christian leadership. The KNU/KNLA Peace Council was until recently a pro-government Border Guard Force.
Saw Roger Khin could not be reached for comment on why he and the KNU leadership had distanced themselves from the agreement.
It has been known for some time, however, that there are divisions within the KNU leadership. Baw Kyaw Heh, who has support of KNLA “hardline” brigades 2 and 5, and KNU vice-chairperson Zipporah Sein have expressed doubts over the direction of the KNU’s ceasefire negotiations with the central government and the Burma Army.
The KNU signed a bilateral ceasefire with Naypyidaw in early 2012 and the group has since maintained relatively good relations with the government.
On Thursday, KNU secretary Mahn Mahan sought to downplay the public differences over the recent agreement and insisted these were not signs of internal divisions.
“I don’t see it is a sign of a split within the KNU, because we all want to [unify] one way or another” with other groups, he said. “We are not against each other, although the two statements seem different.”
He added that a recent KNU congress decided to try to bring the disparate Karen rebel groups together, as the Karen public desires.
A source within the KNU leadership, who was speaking on condition of anonymity, said Saw Roger Khin was angry because he had not been informed of the cooperation agreement. The source added that he had not been informed because some KNLA commanders believe he is close to a pro-government Border Guard Force commander named Col. Chit Thu.
In another sign of a lack of unified leadership within the Karen rebel groups, the KNU/KNLA Peace Council also put out a statement on Wednesday saying that Tiger had been removed from the group’s command and had no authority to sign an agreement on the group’s behalf.
Tiger told The Irrawaddy that he had not been informed of the decision.
Paul Sein Twa, director of Karen Environmental and Social Action Network, a local NGO, said he welcomed Tuesday’s initiative of the Karen commanders to seek closer cooperation, adding, “It definitely meets the desire of the Karen people, especially those who are caught in the middle. They have been calling for this for a long time.”
Asked about the subsequent public quarreling among Karen leaders, he said, “We are not afraid of unity, but of disunity or more divisions.”