In an exclusive interview with Karen News, General Baw Kyaw Heh, the KNLA’s Vice-Chief of Staff, explained his decision to back the formation of a united Karen armed force called the Kawthoolei Armed Forces (KAF).
Gen. Baw Kyaw explains his decision, stating that a united Karen armed forces was the best way to “reform the Karen security sector.”
“In this current political context, we found that KAF is the best neutral platform to bring together the different armed forces to cooperate and seek out the best solutions to support Karen national political aspirations, including how to best fit into the changing political landscape. The first step is the reunion and then the reform will follow,” Gen. Baw Kyaw said.
In a statement released this week, the KAF asserted it spoke on behalf of the four major Karen armed organisations, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the Karen National Defence Organisation (KNDO), the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA), and the KNU/KNLA Peace Council.
The alliance agreement was co-signed by General Baw Kyaw Heh, the KNLA’s Vice-Chief of Staff, General Ner Dah Mya, Chief of KNDO, General Saw Lah Pwe, DKBA’s Chief of Staff and Colonel Saw Tiger, who was Tactical Commander for KNU/KNLA – PC’s border security and development tactical command – at the time of signing, but who has since been reportedly ‘sacked’ or resigned.
The KAF statement did not detail out who would lead the KAF or to what political organisation it would owe its allegiance, and Gen. Baw Kyaw said that these details were still being discussed.
“Details of the structure and authority/leadership will be announced later. At this stage, KAF means a collaboration, coordination and reunion of different Karen armed forces. Each unit and command will be led by its current commander as usual,” he said.
The KNU was quick to distance itself from the decision to form the KAF, and stated that it had been made on the personal choice of the individuals involved in the signing of the agreement. In a statement released on October 14, the KNU reaffirmed that both the KNDO and KNLA still came under the political leadership of the KNU.
The KNU’s Department of Defence also stated that according to KNU policy, the KNLA”s Commander-in-Chief, General Saw Johnny, was working towards the reunification of the Karen armed forces.
General Baw Kyaw admitted that the decision was not made with the full backing of the Karen National Union.
“As everyone can see, none of the different groups is monolithic, and this is due to internal and external political factors and geographical locations. This is the reason why we need KAF as an umbrella institution which they can turn to in times of military and/or political crisis,” he said, adding, “In the current extreme political climate, it is really challenging for the different armed group leaders to bring all groups on board in a short time.”
The General argued that those opposed to the decision would come around with time: “However, the joint agreement which we have initiated now represents an initial success in bringing some armed groups which have split from the KNU over the last two decades to reunite. The reunion can eventually lead us to better understanding and cooperation, and thus a true representation of all the members under the umbrella of KAF will emerge.”
In spite of the lukewarm reception received by the KNU, General Baw Kyaw maintained that the KAF would seek the to represent the political organisation, except that now members of the other Karen armed groups would also participate.
“Well, all armed groups recognize the political leadership of the KNU, as well as its political goals. So, it is really important for the KNU to do more to truly represent the interests of all armed groups politically. This will be a work in progress because we must acknowledge that there are differences among and within the different groups. KNU, KNLA/PC, and DKBA have all signed separate ceasefire agreements with the government…so, they each represent their own organization.”
General Baw Kyaw concluded that, in order for the Karen people to attain peace, they must stand united, referring to the latest fighting as an example.
“The government always pushes to ‘accelerate development projects in tandem with peace’ in conflict areas. Dividing, fighting, and crushing ethnic armed groups is the Burmese army’s shortcut on the road to peace and development,” Gen. Baw Kyaw said, adding, “Militarily, the Burma Army knows that the Karen armed groups are trying to reunite under the leadership of KNU. When one of the armed groups is attacked and the other groups fail to respond and assist, it means the BA can divide and rule the armed groups like they always do. The recent BA attack on the DKBA illustrates this.”
KAF members were once enemies. The DKBA fought with the KNU/KNLA for more than a decade following a split in 1994, when it joined the government side. Also of note is that a large number of the government led Border Guard Force (BGF) which has been fighting in Karen State against DKBA forces in recent weeks is ethnically Karen.