By Roland Watson
June 14, 2014


The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) was the name of Burma's military junta during the period from 1997 to 2011. From 1988 until 1997, it was the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). However, even though these names have been abandoned, the junta remains firmly in control of the country, through armed force as well a self-drafted national constitution that effectively can never be amended. Junta chief for this entire period, Than Shwe, has retreated into the shadows, but he continues to dominate the country through his subordinates, President Thein Sein and Burma Army Commander in Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Because the so-called power changes inside the country since 2011 have actually only been cosmetic, I will continue to refer to the regime as the SPDC.


The Karen National Union (KNU) is the political organization for the Karen ethnic group of Burma. It was forced to begin a revolution against rule by members of the country's largest ethnic group, the Burmans, on January 31, 1949.

The founder of modern Burma, Bogyoke Aung San, was a friend of the Karen. Unfortunately, in a tragedy for the entire country, he was assassinated in July 1947. Then, during Christmas 1948, the Vice Chief of Staff of the Burma Army, General Ne Win, used his pocket army troops to attack Karen villages in Taninthayi (Tenasserim) Division. In quick succession, the Karen quarters in Ahlone of Rangoon, and satellite towns Thamine and Insein, were burned down. Further, when the Karen revolution started in response to this aggression, Ne Win used it as an excuse to remove the Chief of Staff of the Burma Army, General Smith Dun, who was Karen, as well as a number of other high-ranking Karen military officers and civil servants.

The Karen had also been subjected to attacks during World War II. Ne Win was one of the founders of the Burma Independence Army, and fought alongside the Japanese. Resentful of perceived favorable treatment for the Karen during the period of British colonialism, he organized these early attacks. However, the Japanese, recognizing that it was simply for revenge, stopped the carnage. He then went on to seize state power on March 2, 1962, and became the country's first dictator.

The Karen people have further been a primary target of the military regime since this time, including during the period under Than Shwe. Burman military rule has had a clear racist element, which further was imposed systematically through the Four Cuts program, which effectively made Karen areas Black Zones, where villagers could be shot on sight. Thousands of Karen villages were destroyed, and countless women raped, and men, women and children killed. Hundreds of thousands fled to become IDPs and refugees. While Four Cuts also targeted Burma's other ethnic nationality groups, notably the Kachin and Shan (the war against the ethnic groups began after the West and Japan gave Ne Win sizable military and financial assistance), no group has suffered for longer than the Karen, whose period of abuse now exceeds seventy years.

Recent KNU meeting with the dictatorship

Because of this history, the events that occurred last week between the KNU leadership and the regime were nothing less than astonishing. Current KNU Chairman Mutu Say Poe, Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) Commander in Chief General Johnny, and KNU General Secretary Kwe Htoo, traveled to Naypyidaw and concluded their fifth meeting with Thein Sein and sixth with Min Aung Hlaing. Other than brief comments, the content of these discussions has not been revealed.

This secrecy has also characterized National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's own series of meetings with Thein Sein. Significant - historical - discussions are underway in Burma, but the people of the country have no idea of their nature and import, much less an ability to participate.

Following their latest meeting, the KNU leaders made the following statements:

- They will sign a new ceasefire agreement by August 1st, which matches the regime's own timetable for a "nationwide" ceasefire. Through doing so, the Karen leaders agree with the dictatorship that a ceasefire should come before: Real peace; the initial release of the national census results; political dialogue between the regime and the ethnic nationality groups; and constitutional change.

- They will lobby the other ethnic armed resistance organizations to sign as well, apparently with no concern for the continuing Burma Army aggression towards some of the groups, and their respective peoples.

(Karen villagers are under threat as well, since the BA has increased its number of camps in their areas, and fortified them with concrete structures. Though rumor has it that Min Aung Hlaing has agreed to withdraw some troops from Karen areas, it should be remembered that the dictatorship rarely keep its promises.)

- They further would like to see Thein Sein stay as President for another term, under the election scheduled for the end of 2015.

Again, that the KNU leadership's objectives now coincide perfectly with the regime's, is nothing short of breathtaking. One wonders if - what - they have been promised in return. It gives every appearance of a complete betrayal of the Karen people and their trust, not to mention all of the other ethnic groups and the entire country. Treason is not too strong a word.

Karen/Kachin relations

The political organization for the Kachin people of Burma, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), agreed to a ceasefire with the dictatorship in 1994. This ceasefire persisted, even in the face of widespread abuse of the Kachin people and their interests, until 2011. At this time, the regime demanded that the Kachin, and the other ethnic armies including the Karen, restructure as Border Guard Forces (BGF) under Burman officer control. When the KIO refused to do this, the Burma Army launched a series of attacks, breaking the ceasefire, and which attacks continue now three years later.

The KIO ceasefire was a disaster for the KNU, since it enabled the Burma Army to redirect units in Kachin State against the KNLA. This led to a period of greatly increased abuse of the Karen population. The BA also increased its forces against other ethnic groups that refused to sign ceasefires, notably the Karenni National Progressive Party and the Shan State Army - South. It is natural that the Karen and these other groups would be distressed - to say the least - at the actions of the KIO (and other groups that signed ceasefires at this time). But it is notable that the KIO did not actively join the regime, such as by sending Kachin soldiers to fight the Karen. The KIO deal was signed - supposedly - to offer relief to Kachin villagers.

The new actions of the KNU, though, represent an even greater betrayal. The KNU has effectively turned its back not only on the Karen people, but the Kachin as well, through saying that the KIO should sign a new ceasefire by August even though it remains under daily Burma Army attack. Coupling this with the fact that the KNU leadership does not even support Suu Kyi - Than Shwe's sworn enemy - as a Presidential candidate, it is not an exaggeration to say that the KNU has now allied with the regime - the SPDC.

Karen factionalization

That such a turnaround has occurred raises the questions of why, and how.

Also in 1994, the KNU suffered a major split, and through it control of its main base at Manerplaw. A dictatorship-aligned Buddhist monk sowed dissent among Buddhist KNU soldiers, who deserted to form the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), and which successfully attacked Manerplaw. This was the first major disruption of Karen unity after Than Shwe seized power.

As an aside, it was also an example of the divergence of Burma Buddhism from the country's democratic aspirations. Leaders of the Buddhist Sangha - the State Sangha Maha Nayaka - had allied with the dictatorship for years, receiving alms and other rewards and keeping the young monks in line. Monks in general are meant to be apolitical, but given the oppression in the country many naturally hoped for democratic change. This became evident during the 2007 Saffron Uprising. However, this positive step has now been reversed, through persecution of the Uprising's leaders and participants, and through the rise of the racist monk-backed 969 movement, whose goal is to "cleanse" Burma of Muslims. Interestingly, Suu Kyi, who refuses to speak out for the Muslims, notably the persecuted Rohingya, is also opposed by the 969 monks.

Returning to the DKBA, it became a rogue militia allied with the Burma Army, and assisted with the abuse of Karen villagers. The DKBA also became involved, with regime support if not direct involvement, in the narcotics trade; human trafficking; cutting old-growth hardwood timber and exploiting other natural resources; and border gate taxation. For the first, the following link is a photo exhibit of the narcotics trade, including a seizure of ten million methamphetamine tablets. Its source, a KNU intelligence officer - the KNU formerly worked with Thai narcotics agents - some years later was murdered by the drug lords.


KNU corruption

It is natural in a long struggle for some people to become disenchanted and tired. Even rebel soldiers may give up the fight, if only temporarily. The yearning for freedom, though, is never-ending.

It is also natural that different people will advocate varied approaches. For Burma, some - including this writer - have argued that the only route to real democratic change is through revolution, while others - such as Suu Kyi - have promoted engagement and negotiation. The latter group, though, includes not only individuals who want to try less confrontational approaches, e.g., pacifists. It also comprises people who in their hearts have surrendered. They recognize that their strategy will never succeed. They simply want to position themselves to get regime scraps. (I would place Suu Kyi both in this group and with the pacifists.) Finally, the "soft-approach" side is also populated by regime spies and allies, who receive money and other benefits in exchange for arguing for less pressure against the dictatorship and for sowing dissension. (Here, we might place the officials of the Myanmar Peace Center - MPC, as well as the foreign supporters of "constructive engagement.")

Prior to the split with the DKBA, the KNU and the Karen people were unified behind the Karen Revolution. Given the violent attacks they suffered, armed self-defense was the only option. They stayed true to founding and regime-assassinated KNU leader Saw Ba U Gyi's four principles:

- Surrender is out of the question.
- The recognition of Karen State must be complete.
- We shall retain our arms.
- We shall decide our own destiny.

However, in light of the rewards that the DKBA warlords received, including a respite from Burma Army attacks in their areas of control, as well as financial gains from narcotics sales and other dealings, this unity began to fail. It appears that the temptation was too great for some. A split developed within the remaining KNU leadership, and which split prevails today. Furthermore, other breakaways occurred, including such groups as the Karen Peace Force (KPF) and KNLA 7th Brigade deserter General Htein Maung's Peace Council.

It is also noteworthy that the southern 4th Brigade, which due to geography is out of easy contact with KNLA HQ, became corrupted as well, engaging in business deals including reportedly narcotics both with the regime and Thai mafias. While KNLA brigades to the north fought on a daily basis with the Burma Army, there were few clashes in the 4th. Current General Secretary Kwe Htoo was formerly District Head for the area. 4th Brigade Commander General Oliver, whose son Mu Kay was - and is - leading the business deals, became KNLA Deputy Chief of Staff.

As I have said, that a split developed within the KNU leadership is not surprising. That it led to the current situation, though, with secret dealings with Than Shwe's trusted subordinates, only became possible through the assassination in 2008 of another senior Karen leader, General Secretary Padoh Mahn Shah. Under his strong day-to-day leadership, the KNU stayed true to Saw Ba U Gyi's principles and the Revolution. However, following his death - at the hands of DKBA agents - the opportunists within the KNU were able to get the upper hand.

The opportunist faction at the time was headed by Joint Secretary Htoo Htoo Lay. He is known to have close contacts with the Shan powerbroker Harn Yawnghwe's EuroBurma Office (EBO), which receives its funding from the nations of Europe, notably Germany and Norway. These countries, as with the Obama Administration, as a policy objective want "peace" in Burma at any cost, including if need be a continuation of Burman racist oppression of the country's ethnic nationalities, to achieve a complete opening to commercial development. EBO has been a major driver behind the last few years' spate of individual ethnic group to regime ceasefires (including the KNU in January 2012), not to mention the push for a nationwide ceasefire as soon as possible and no matter the consequences. It is not only the KNU that is now fundamentally corrupted at the leadership level. Htoo Htoo Lay is also a member of the EBO funded Pyidaungsu Institute for Peace and Dialogue in Chiang Mai, whose interests are closely aligned with those of MPC.

The rise of the KNU opportunist faction

Even with the murder of Padoh Mahn Shah, the opportunists had a difficult time achieving dominance. Upon his death, an emergency Congress was called (in 2008). Htoo Htoo Lay's late follower, David Taw, ran for the post of General Secretary, but lost. Mahn Shah's allies retained control.

This situation, though, was only temporary. The opportunist faction expanded to include Mutu Say Poe, formerly Commander in Chief (technically, General Officer Commanding - GOC), who on the death of longstanding KNU leader General Bo Mya and the desertion of Htain Maung was able to gain overall command of the KNLA. Joining him was General Johnny, also from the 7th Brigade, and their cohort.

This group now forms a mafia. Ordinary Karen people are afraid to speak out about their corruption. Indeed, my sources say that General Johnny allowed the DKBA to occupy the 7th Brigade camps and KNLA HQ in 2009, without firing a shot. However, the DKBA tricked him, and retained control of the bases for years even though their agreement was that their stay would only be temporary. That he did not lose his position for this treason, but actually rose to become KNLA GOC, is due to his loyalty to General Mutu.

It is also noteworthy that the KNU Executive Committee explicitly forbade these officers from signing any agreement when they traveled to Rangoon in early 2012. Nonetheless, they signed a "preliminary ceasefire agreement" anyway. Since that time, not only has a final agreement not been reached, but many of the important conditions of the preliminary agreement related to Burma Army bases and codes of conduct have not been satisfied.

Then, in late 2012, at the next Congress, this group perpetrated electoral fraud and gained absolute control. The Election Commission Head, Pastor Robert Htwe, diverted from standard KNU election procedures. He counted the ballots personally and without an independent review and verification (young Karen activists videotaped this); then burned the ballots; announced that the opportunists had won; and immediately left the Congress. The results were clearly cheating - fraudulent. This effectively comprised a coup within the KNU, and which I described in detail at the time in the following two statements.


In summary, while many KNU officials, and KNLA officers and soldiers, not to mention the Karen public, remain true to their Revolution, and seek real freedom and self-determination, they have been betrayed by the leadership clique that has grabbed power. These individuals - General Mutu, General Johnny, Kwe Htoo, Htoo Htoo Lay, Pastor Robert, and their co-conspirators - have abandoned the four Karen principles. Instead, they are making secret deals with the top SPDC generals. Therefore, the Karen cause - for the moment at least - is lost.

It is essential that this situation be reversed, as soon as possible, and moreover that the other ethnic nationalities of the country deny the KNU traitors' attempts to force them to surrender as well. The KNU opportunists have united with the SPDC, as has Aung San Suu Kyi (beginning in 2010, when she ended her support for U.S. sanctions, which capitulation she confirmed by cancelling the NLD election boycott and running for Parliament in the 2012 by-elections). Any additional defections will doom the country for years to come.


Just to be sure that everyone understands what exactly is at stake, it is worth considering Burma's neighbor, China. Just this month, China passed the 25th Anniversary of its own Tiananmen Uprising. Tiananmen was the Chinese people's one concerted attempt to win their freedom, and it also came during the opening stages of economic development, triggered by Deng Xiaoping's "modernization." The Communist Party cracked down on the uprising, and it failed. As with Burma, the International Community gave the Chinese people no help at all.

Now, twenty-five years later, China is much more developed, but the people are just as enslaved. Moreover, the one thing that the communists had provided, an "iron rice bowl," meaning guaranteed food and more deeply a sense of common equality, has been broken. Party cronies have done fabulously well (many are immigrating to America), but the vast public is impoverished, and China's natural environment is devastated. A recent study concluded that a full sixty percent of China's water supply is severely polluted. The rate for its atmosphere is even worse.

The Chinese people missed their chance, and it is difficult to see when they will get another. The people of Burma still have theirs.

Since Suu Kyi in her lust for power has given up, the only real hope for freedom rests with the ordinary Burmans, and the ethnic nationalities. For the first, it appears that most Burmans are in thrall to "the Lady," and are following her like sheep to slaughter. There are also many traitors in their midst, and other than on local issues such as land thefts and worker and resource exploitation, it is unlikely that they will once again as a group rise up. The Buddhist monks certainly aren't going to lead the way.

For the ethnic nationalities, the key is to avoid a nationwide ceasefire, as under the terms now demanded by the dictatorship and its propaganda organs like MPC, it constitutes a unilateral surrender. To accept the agreement as it stands would be equivalent to signing their own death certificates.

The other ethnic groups should refuse to follow the KNU. Instead, they should insist on a real, sustainable peace, and also obtain material concessions from the regime, before signing. It is ludicrous to believe that they can sign now, and that Than Shwe will then change his spots and honestly negotiate through political dialogue. Instead, he will do what he has been doing for years: delay and stall and refuse to compromise on anything. Also, when his day does come, all the people of Burma should never forget that there are many subordinate officers in the Tatmadaw who are more than eager to take his place as the country's supreme ruler. Billions and billions of dollars are going to be made - stolen - and the closer you are to the top, the bigger share of the pie that you will get. Luxury condos in Singapore after all are getting more and more expensive. Finally, the ethnic nationalities shouldn't agree to anything until after the regime publishes the census numbers. They need to see just how many of their people the dictators are willing to say exist.