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Kawthoolei Army: How a broken system and a disrespect for the rules of law in the KNU gave birth to another armed group in Karen State

On July 17, Karen community worldwide- both inside and outside the Karen State- was awoken to the bad news that Gen. Ner Dah Mya, the former head of the Karen National Defense Organization has formed his own militia, the Kawthoolei Army.

By Saw Greh Moo*

Gen. Ner Dah Mya was sacked last year by the Karen National Union over the alleged killing of 25 suspected Burmese military spies in one of his KNDO-controlled areas in southern Karen state. Gen. Ner Dah Mya has vowed to fight the military regime independent of the Karen National Union. The announcement brought a swift response and rejection from the KNU and its military, the Karen National Liberation Army. Within days Gen. Ner Dah was kicked out of the KNU. Within the wider Karen community there have been mixed reactions to Gen. Ner Dah Mya’s sacking. Many Karen people, especially supporters of the former KNDO’s chief, have expressed support for him and his Kawthoolei Army as a way to break free from KNU’s control and pursue his own course of actions to fight the Burmese military regime. Bur for many others, the formation of a new Karen armed group, independent of the KNU, has brought disappointment and concerns that the Karen struggle- politically and militarily – will be further divided and weakened at a time when Karen people need unity to fight and defeat the new military regime, at least in Karen territory.

Who is responsible for the formation of a Kawthoolei Army?

Currently, there are divided opinions on both sides of the debate as to who is responsible and who is to blame for the formation of the new armed group? Was it KNU leaders or Gen. Ner Dah himself? Regardless of which side you are on, there is no right answer, because both sides are responsible for bringing about this division within the KNU and Karen community. First, it is important to look at the origins of this internal conflict. As guardian and mother organization of the Karen people and Karen political movement, the KNU has supreme power over its military wings – the Karen National Defense Organization and Karen National Liberation Army.

Anything that breaks its laws within its jurisdictions must be investigated, and if people are found guilty, they must be held accountable and punished according to the laws. But from the very beginning, the KNU did not manage the investigation into the alleged killings of the 25 suspected Burma military correctly. It was reported the KNU’s leaders only started the investigation after they were informed and pressured by the Burmese military government about the alleged killings. As a result, many viewed this as a way for some leaders in the KNU – especially the pro-National Ceasefire Agreement faction – to maintain good relations with the military regime, despite of it’s coup.

Second, the KNU never made public the outcomes of its investigation – particularly the status of the 25 people killed. Many questions were left unanswered. Were they civilians as the military regime claimed or were they military personnel as the KNDO argued? If they were truly civilians then it was justifiable to hold someone accountable for the killings. But if they were military spies as claimed by the KNDO, then their deaths will be up for debate.

Third, it is premature and unwise to sack a general in time of war, especially a war against a brutal regime that has no respect for the lives of its people. The regime has killed thousands of its people brutally and has terrorized Karen community and villages with indiscriminate airstrikes that resulted in many deaths and large displacement in Karen state.

For many Karen people, it’s hard to sympathize with the 25 suspected military spies, allegedly killed by KNDO’s troops when your own people are suffering.

It’s harder to win an argument if you are seen as associates of the military regime responsible. This is now the reality for some of the KNU pro-NCA faction. For many Karen people, their pro-NCA stance does not qualify them to remove Gen. Ner Dah from his position – this is like a drunken father beating his unruly son for being drunk.

Despite the shortcomings of the KNU and how it has poorly handled the killings of the 25 suspected military spies, Gen. Ner Dah himself is not blameless. As a subordinate to the civilian leadership, he should respect and at least cooperate with the KNU’s investigation team to clear himself of any wrongdoing. By cooperating, he will also set a good example for other military officers in the KNDO and KNLA to follow rules and obey the civilian leadership – no matter how inconvenient – and not to take things into their own hands. Otherwise, if all the military leaders in the KNLA and KNDO take matters in their own hands and do what they want, it reduces the KNU and Karen struggle as meaningless. According to credible sources inside and outside the KNU, Gen. Ner Dah repeatedly refused and was unwilling to meet and cooperate with the investigation team by claiming that he had done nothing wrong or it was not safe for him to meet. This has not only angered the KNU leaders, but also upset some top KNLA officers who are not necessarily pro-NCA but have little tolerance for Gen. Ner Dah’s disrespect and insubordination.

Had Gen. Ner Dah cooperated with the investigation team and showed some respect to KNU and KNLA leadership, the matter could have been resolved satisfactorily and his removal from the KNDO top position would have been avoided. He did not order or have a direct role in the killings of those suspected spies, but as a leader he should try to resolve the case wisely. And by refusing to cooperate with the investigation team and his superiors, Gen. Ner Dah may have also played into the hands of some pro-NCA leaders who are eager to remove him from his position. Due to their uncompromising stance, both sides ended up further apart, with the removal of Gen. Ner Dah from his position. As the chief of the KNDO, under investigation, Gen. Ner Dah should have refrained from speaking to media and news groups during the investigation in order to avoid complicating the matter. He should have referred all matters to a designated KNDO’s spokesperson or the investigation team to answer any questions related to the case. However, reckless as he is, he and his subordinates were all over the media and news groups, each giving out conflicting information about the event. In any situation like this, so as not to complicate the matter and be trapped, the last thing you want to do is talk to the media on your own. But Gen. Ner Dah has handled that poorly by talking to media that did not necessarily have his best interests. Once the media and human rights groups began to pay attention to the case, the KNU was left with no choice, but to take the matter seriously.

How a broken system and a disregard for the rules of law within the wider KNU’s political structure contributed to this latest crisis?

The formation of the Kawthoolei Army is just one of many examples in the KNU’s history where respect for the rules of law and common interests are often avoided by individual and factional interests within the organization. Gen. Ner Dah is not the first person to form his own armed group as a result of disagreement with the KNU. Throughout KNU’s history, military leaders and some powerful commanders often broke away from the KNU when their wishes and interests were not met. In 1995, several Buddhist high ranking military officers in the KNLA split from the KNU and formed the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army to pursue its own course of actions as a result of perceived discrimination against Karen Buddhist soldiers who made up the major of KNLA’s rank and file soldiers. In 1997, Col. Thumu Hei, then a battalion commander of KNU’s Brigade 6th, also broke away from the KNU and struck a deal with the previous military regime under State Peace and Development Council after a slight disagreement with the commander of the then Brigade 6. The last most high profile split before Kawtholei Army was the KNU/KNLA Peace Council led by Gen. Htay Maung, who was then commander of the KNU’s Brigade 7th, in 2007. Against the advice of his KNU’s colleagues, the then KNU’s chairman Gen. Bo Mya initiated talks with the SPDC in order to find a peaceful solution to the long running conflict between the central government and the KNU. However, the talks did not last long and after Gen. Khin Nyut, who was then a prime minister and an architect of the SPDC’s peace process, was arrested and imprisoned by the then military dictator and supremo Gen. Than Shwe. After Gen. Khin Nyut’s arrest, it was clear that SPDC was not interested in real peace and a general understanding within the KNU was the peace talk should be discontinued. By then, Gen. Bo Mya’s health was already deteriorating and he was not in a position to focus on continuing the peace talk with SPDC. However, his protégé Gen. Htay Maung, wanted to continue peace talk against the wish and decision of the other top KNU’s leaders, including the popular and much respected former KNU’s General Secretary Padoh Mahn Sha. As divisions between the two factions were widening, meetings and discussion were held to find a compromise and prevent the split. Despite promising to obey the KNU’s leadership and to stop talking to SPDC, Gen. Haty Maung, encouraged by his inner circle, that included his son-in-law, Pastor Timothy and to some extent Gen. Ner Dah, continued to unilaterally pursue peace talks with the military government against the wishes of all the KNU leaders. Eventually, KNU had no choice, but to remove Gen. Haty Maung from his position, which led to him splinting from the KNU and forming his own army, the KNU/KNLA Peace Council.

In 2011, Gen. Mutu Say Poe, the chief of the KNLA and current KNU’s chairman, also disregarded KNU policy and decision by signing a state-level ceasefire agreement with the SPDC without the approval of the KNU. He was initially fired from his post but was later reinstated at the urging of Gen. Johnny, then commander of the KNLA Brigade 7th. In summary, the current conflict is another example of rules of laws and common interests being disregarded by another general in the KNU when their interests and wishes are not met.

Is There Justification for a Kawthoolei Army?

Was Gen. Ner Dah justified in forming his Kawthoolei Army independent of the KNU’s control? Did he form his army because he lost his position or because he is truly committed to fighting the military regime? Again, this depends on whose side you are on. Many Karen people, especially Gen. Ner Dah supporters – the majority of who are remote and overseas – believe he had valid reasons to form his own army and fight for the Karen people.

On the surface, it does look like Gen. Ner Dah was being pushed around and unjustly punished by the current KNU’s leaders, especially the pro-NCA faction. To some extent this is true. Even many of his critics think his removal was ill-advised, and not justifiable, especially in a time like this where KNU should focus on the threat of the military regime.

Gen. Ner Dah Mya said he needed to form his own army in order to fight the military regime and free himself from KNU’s stifling bureaucracy and control, especially since the KNU is still hampered by the NCA. If this is truly the case, he has very legitimate reasons to do so and he deserves our support, because we all want to see the swift fall of the new military regime, and any group that fights the regime should be commended. For many people, he is the kind of strong, brash and brave leader that we need to fight the Burma Army and lead the next generation of Karen revolutionaries and Karen armed movement. He is educated, strong, and is well-known in the Karen community due to his father’s legacy in the KNU. But to his critics and many of his military colleagues within the KNDO and KNLA, Gen. Ner Dah Mya’s rhetoric rarely adds up to his actions. To them, he is a loudmouth, an undisciplined, and a publicity loving general who has little meaningful military skill and fighting experience and who only rose through his rank due to his family’s background. For them, he is more a talker than a doer.

Not many Karen generals are as well-known and high-profile today as Gen. Ner Dah in the Karen community days, thanks partly to his family background and father’s legacy in the KNU. He is accessible, young, educated, English-speaking, energetic, engaging and has a good network and connections with many foreign friends who are sympathetic to the Karen cause. Many Karen people, especially in the diaspora’s community, love him and look up to him as one of their brave leaders to lead the future KNU and the Karen struggle together with Gen Baw Kyaw Heh. They love his rhetoric and admire his stance against the military regime. As a result, it’s not unexpected that he can attract followers. But as the saying goes, actions speak louder than words. To many of his critics, Gen. Ner Dah has been speaking out against the NCA and KNU leadership for the past 10 years, but has offered little and no alternative vision for the future of the Karen struggle. He never laid out any vision and concrete plan that’s drastically different from the current KNU’s leadership or how he would organize the struggle, fight the military regime, and unite the Karen people. While he continued to criticize KNU leaders for being corrupt and in it for their self-interest, his late younger brother, Gen. Tay Lay of the KNU/KNLA PC, continued to cozy up to the military and struck lucrative business deals until he passed away suspiciously last year after a business trip to northern Burma. Gen. Ner Dah talked about Kawthoolei independence, but at the same time said his group will work with the NUG to guide his group’s political strategy because he is only interested in fighting the military regime. Since armed conflict resumed in Karen state last year following the military coup, it was a good opportunity for Gen. Ner Dah seized the moment and launched attacks against the Burma Army in Karen state. Instead, the first few major attacks on the military regime’s troops and outposts in Karen state last year were launched by troops not under Gen. Ner Dah, but under Gen. Baw Kyaw Heh in KNU’s Brigade 5t, followed by KNU’s Brigade 1. And when fighting broke out in Brigade 6 area, where Gen. Ner Dah and his troops are based, the attacks were launched by troops under the command of KNLA’s Battalion 18 and 27, and not by Gen. Ne Dah’s KNDO. Until now, KNLA is still the major fighting force that bears the brunt of the fighting. In fact, there is no known restriction imposed by the KNU on any of its military wings not to fight the SAC’s troops, although some individual brigades, such as Brigade 4 and 7, are not willing to launch attacks on the Burma Army. If Gen. Ner Dah really wants to fight the military regime, he can certainly do so without the need to form a Kawthoolei Army. He can organize KNDO troops under his command and launch operations against the Burma Army across KNU’s Brigade 6 where he is based. Or he can take his troops to the adjacent KNU’s Brigade 4 or 7 to initiate operations against the regime’s troops there, since leaders in those two Brigades are not willing to start the fight. But the question is why didn’t he do it? To some of his critics, he and troops under his direct control are more interested in engaging in rhetoric and being on social media than engaging in any real fight against the military. Aside from the Lion Column led by captain Eh Say Wah’s, most of Gen. Ner Dah’s troops under his direct command are all talk but no show. As a result, his critics think Gen. Ner Dah’s actions did not really stack up against his rhetoric. As one KNLA’s junior officer in Brigade 6 pointed out: “I have lost the most soldiers since fighting resumed in Karen state and some people out there still think Gen. Ner Dah is the only person fighting. What a joke.” According to sources within the KNLA, the name Kawthoolei Army was never Gen. Ner Dah’s original idea. At a KNLA meeting last month where all military brigade representatives attended – including Gen. Gen. Ner Dah – the name Kawthoolei Army was discussed and agreement was already made to have KNLA and KNDO transformed to Kawthoolei Army. However, upon returning to his base, without any discussion with other KNLA leaders or even Gen. Baw Kyaw Heh, Gen. Ner Dah unilaterally announced that he was forming the Kawthoolei Army and named himself as the chief. In doing so, he hijacked the KNLA’s plan and idea by using the name Kawthoolei Army that KNLA and KNOD were already planning to use. Everyone is now waiting eagerly to see what Gen. Baw Kyaw Heh- vice chief of the KNAL – has to say about the Kawthoole Army. Nobody knows exactly where he stands on this issue since he hasn’t said anything. On social media, Gen. Ner Dah’s followers have been spreading fake news and false information that Gen. Baw Kyaw Heh supports and approves of the Kawthoolei Army. But since KNLA’s statement has already come out and rejected the formation of Kawthoolei Army, anyone with a good brain should know better where he stands.

Gen. Ner Dah is an integral part of the future Karen political struggle

The stakes are high for the Karen people right now – KNU’s leaders and Gen. Ner Dah both know this. Unless they can find a compromise and resolve this peacefully, nobody is going to win – Gen. Min Aung Hlaing will certainly be cheering for a split. Despite his shortcomings and weakness, Gen. Ner Dah is still an important figure that we need. He may not have the quality and experience that other Karen military leaders have, but he does have many qualities and skills that other Karen military leaders are solely lacking. He is popular and respected by many Karen people – both young and old, and especially in the diaspora Karen community. He is strong, modern, energetic, accessible, and to some extent charismatic – qualities we need and not many that current KNU and KNLA’s leaders possess. He may not have the wisdom other leaders have, but he does have the education, stature, network, and connection that not many Karen leaders have. He and his family have invested their life in the Karen revolution, and he is the only one standing in the family to continue carrying the torch of his father’s legacy. He cannot and should not be pushed aside easily. On the other hand, educated as he is, Gen. Ne Dah should learn the art of patience, cooperation, compromise, respect to his colleagues and leaders, and skillfully build up his base within the system. He may be popular and respected by many people outside, but he needs help and support internally. He needs to look to Gen. Baw Kyaw Heh and other likeminded leaders for guidance and support instead of alienating them. Unless he can work with people inside the KNU and KNLA, whether he likes it or not, he will not be able to change things and influence the direction and future of the KNU and Karen political movement. He should surround himself more with people who not only flatter him, but also point out his weakness and give him good advice. As a leader, he should not only focus on people directly under his control, but he should reach out and seek advice from other senior civilian and military leaders in every brigade and care for the well-being of every soldier near and afar. He has the potential to be a future great leader to carry the torch of his father’s legacy and lead the next generation of the Karen revolutionaries. But unless he can learn to work with his colleagues and leaders- no matter how unpleasant this might be – it will be hard for him to change anything significant. He may be able to form z Kawthoolei Army, but he knows very well that this will not take him anywhere, and just like many other leaders of Karen splinter armed groups before him, he will eventually disappear into oblivion and not be remembered as a great leader.

Meanwhile, major changes also need to happen within the KNU. We cannot continue with the status quo and continue hoping for a different outcome. Our people have been divided for too long and we need to find a solution quickly, and that solution should start with changes within the KNU. What is the point of maintaining ties – either official or unofficial – with the military regime if we reject the coup? And what is the point of holding on to the NCA if there is no more democratic and civilian government in the country? The NCA was signed to promote and support peace and the democratic process in the country, but the military disregarded all of that. The military regime has not only killed any chance of peace, but has also murdered thousands of its own people – inside and outside Karen state – brutally and mercilessly. There is no reason in holding on to a failed and false peace agreement. Let’s shred that paper, rebuild our unity and spirits, and rebuild the future of Kawthoolei.

We need new blood, a new vision and new leaders to lead and guide us now. And more importantly, let’s promote and strengthen respect for the rules of law – young and old – because our current problem is deeply rooted in a culture that disregards the rules of law and respect for mutual interests.

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*Saw Greh Moo is a Karen community activist and a contributor to Karen News. He can be reached at grehmoo@hotmail.com*

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