Fighting and COVID-19 Concerns Forces Karen National Union to Again Postpone its 17th Congress – Frustrating Critics Demanding Leadership Changes

The increase of COVID-19 cases across Burma has pushed the Karen National Union (KNU) to further delay its 17th Congress, initially planned to be held in March this year.

Padoh Saw Hser Pwe, the Congress implementation committee chairperson, who is also a KNU joint secretary, confirmed to Karen News that the surge of COVID-19 in KNU controlled territories has caused the six-month delay. Padoh Saw Hser Pwe said the committee is closely monitoring the pandemic to gauge when they can safely hold the Congress.

The Congress is held every four years, but armed conflict following the military coup on 1st February and COVID-19 concerns forced it to be cancelled. Padoh Saw Hser Pwe told Karen News the delays in holding the 17th Congress has been frustrating, but necessary.

“We are proposing the end of the rainy season, but current [COVID-19] transmissions are high in our districts and infection rates are up in many parts of the region – we are watching it closely. If possible, we would like to hold Congress. Most of our members have expressed strong concerns of holding it while we are in the grip of the pandemic.”

Padoh Saw Hser Pwe said Congress representatives have caught the virus and travel restrictions associated with COVID-19 have made it harder for the committee to come up with a fixed timeframe, but are considering holding it in November.

Karen communities, both in Burma and overseas have criticized postponement of the KNU Congress, and have voiced their dissatisfaction as they expect changes to the current leadership.

Critics told Karen News, the KNU should have provided explanations for the delays to the general Karen public earlier. Political analyst, Saw Kapi described the current situation as a growing political dilemma.

Speaking to Karen News, Saw Kapi, director and founder of the Salween Institute for Public Policy said.

“On the one hand, Congress cannot happen [because of COVID-19], while on the other hand the public wants Congress to go ahead because of the current political problems. KNU leaders must follow organizational guidelines when determining when Congress is going to be held or delayed. It is also necessary for KNU leaders to inform the public to avoid confusion and anxiety.”

A statement released last month by Karen communities called for changes to the KNU leadership because of concerns of the ‘soft’ political stand taken by some senior KNU leaders in regard to the military coup, the devastation it caused – killings, jailings, dissolution of the elected parliament, abuse of citizen human rights, the current socio-economic and political problems.

Padoh Saw Hser Pwe said the shift in leadership is not going to affect the existing political, military and governing paths that the KNU is currently pursuing.

“Whoever is in leadership will have to carry on with the plan. There are not many people who want to take this responsibility. And major changes will not be happening. But a change might be possible for the chairperson and secretary roles, but even this is uncertain.”

Under the KNU’s constitution, central, district and township level congresses are organized every four years and village level congresses are held every two years. However, depending on the political and military situation, a congress can be postponed up to two years with 70% approval of the KNU Central Standing Committee members, that serves as the legislative body of the organization. Current KNU leaders have expressed their willingness to hold the congress soon.

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