February 09, 2007

Karen Destiny

To Dismiss and Split: A Karen Destiny?

By - Saw Kapi

Htain Maung, a long time Karen rebel commander, who fought alongside General Bo Mya against the Burmese army since his birth, was dismissed last week from the Karen National Union (KNU) for his unauthorized peace deal with the Burmese military regime. Many Karen and non-Karen alike wonder what have gone wrong with the KNU leadership. Observers of the Burmese politics anxiously await to see how pages of history will turn for the sixty year old resistance group.

How could this lifetime revolutionary, who commands one of the strongest brigades of Asia's oldest resistance force – the Karen National Liberation Army, suddenly betray the creed of his own organization and believe that he will be able to make peace with the regime he has fought against for more than half a century? This is a puzzling question that the Karen people from all over the world and the Burmese opposition forces seek to find an answer.

Betrayed by its once well-respected commander, the KNU leadership attempts to explain the disgraceful political fallout by quickly denouncing Htain Maung as a turncoat who repeatedly deviated from the principles laid down by the 13th Congress of the group. The alternative view is that Htain Maung, being a soldier with no formal education background, was simply deceived by the Burmese regime, and as a result his political judgment was scarred by the possible business opportunities and territorial control allegedly offered to him by the military regime. But then this is not the first time that Htain Maung is going to engage in the border business, nor is he the only high-ranking KNLA official involved in business as such. Certainly, Htain Maung does not need to abandon the KNU to do so. All these mining and logging business opportunities have always been there for him and he has been doing that all along. The problem seems to be much deeper and more serious than one man's selfishness and betrayal.

On the one hand, if the crux of the issue is to uphold the political strategies laid down by the 13th KNU Congress, the bloodless but perhaps apt dismissal of the disgruntled general signifies that there exists a superiority of politics and political ideology over military in the KNU. Current top KNU leaders such as Saw Ba Thin, Mahn Sha, David Tharkabaw and David Htaw, for instance, are all civilian leaders with no combat experience, while Htain Maung is widely regarded as a capable military commander. On the other hand, it could well be that the recent turn of events are grave consequences of lacking open and honest political debate within the KNU. Aside from accusing Htain Maung and his followers of being selfish, there seems to be no other serious, substantive review of policies and strategies of the organization.

The dismissal of the general, no matter how disgraceful it is, may have been a political necessity for the KNU in order for it to remain relevant in Burma's political landscape. But obviously Htain Maung’s breakaway has robbed the already troubled KNU of one of its few military commanders with reputable combat experience.

At the moment, the political scene along the Thai-Burma border is rather poignant and even evocative of worries that a weakening KNU means a weaker Burmese opposition overall. For the Burmese generals from Naypyidaw who closely follow this political development, they have reasons to suppose that decades of brutalities that they impose upon Karen and other ethnic nationalities may have destroyed not only the livelihood but the hopes, and in some cases the convictions, of some of those who have fought against them over half a century. For the time being, the future of the sixty year old Karen resistance movement, as it continues to dismiss and split, is rather less assured.

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