Karen National Union

   At the beginning of the 21st century, the oldest and strongest ethnic minority organization opposing the Burman (Bamar)-dominated central government. It was established on February 5, 1947, as a successor to the Karen National Association, with Saw Ba U Gyi serving as its first president. The KNU reflected Karen disaffection over the failure of the August 1946 Karen Goodwill Mission to London to convince the government of Clement Attlee to recognize the establishment of a Karen state within the British Commonwealth but separate from the Union of Burma, and the signing of the January 1947 Aung San-Attlee Agreement. Consisting of Karen veterans of World War II, the KNU's armed branch, the Karen Nation Defence Organization (KNDO), was established in July 1947. The KNU refused to recognize Burma's independence on January 4, 1948, insisting on its demand for an independent Kawthoolay (Karen Free State) that would have included what are now Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwady) and Tenasserim (Tanintharyi) Divisions, as well as other territories in Lower Burma. In the words of a KNU publication: "t is extremely difficult for the Karens and the Burmans, two peoples with diametrically opposite views, outlooks, attitudes and mentalities, to yoke together." Memories of wartime atrocities, including the Myaungmya (Myoungmya) Massacres, were still fresh in Karen minds. Following the March 1948 uprising of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), Karen officers and men in the Burma Army and the Union Military Police remained loyal to the government of Prime Minister U Nu, but there were violent incidents in which Burman [i]sitwundan units attacked and killed Karen civilians, threatening a renewal of the racial violence of World War II. In January 1949, the KNU went underground, and KNDO units seized control of Insein (now Insein Township) north of Rangoon (Yangon) and Toungoo (Taungoo) in Pegu (Bago) Division. Burma fell more deeply into civil war. Karens who formed the backbone of the Burmese armed forces deserted to join the uprising and were supported by the commander of the 1st Kachin Rifles, Naw Seng, who captured Mandalay in March 1949. By May of that year, most of central Burma and what is now Arakan (Rakhine) State were in ethnic and communist insurgent hands, and U Nu's government was called the "sixmile Rangoon government" because its control barely extended beyond the capital. However, the "multicolored insurgency" was undermined by ideological incompatibility and lack of coordination, and the tide had turned in favor of the central government by early 1950. The KNU and its armed force, the KNDO, were driven from central Burma into the upland areas near the Salween (Thanlwin) River and the Thai-Burma border. Although sporadic unrest occurred in Karen communities in the delta of the Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwady) River until the early 1990s, the Karen hill country has remained the heartland of the KNU insurgency up to the early 21st century, a period of over five and a half decades. One of the most important consequences of the KNU uprising was the "Burmanization" of the Tatmadaw. Burma Army ranks left empty by mutinous Karen and other ethnic minority soldiers were filled, on both the officer and enlisted levels, with Burman members of the sitwundan (although Chin soldiers remained largely loyal to the central government). The Karen general Smith Dun was replaced as commander of the armed forces by Ne Win.
   During the 1950s and 1960s, the KNU underwent factional divisions, largely along communist and anticommunist lines. A Marxist-oriented Karen National United Party (KNUP) was established with its own armed force, the Karen (or Kawthoolei) People's Liberation Army (KPLA), which increasingly adopted Maoist-style guerrilla tactics. The KNUP and a second group, the Karen Revolutionary Council (KRC), participated in peace talks with the Ne Win regime in 1963, but only the KRC, led by the antileftist Saw Hunter Thamwe, agreed to lay down their arms. By the late 1960s, the left-leaning KNUP and the Karen National United Front (KNUF), founded and led by Saw Bo Mya, were the major components and rivals within the Karen insurgency. In 1975-1976, the two factions were reunited as the Karen National Union under Bo Mya, who rejected Marxism in favor of a nationalist, anticommunist stance and purged leftists from the movement.
   The KNU maintained a large administrative network in its liberated areas along the border between Burma and Thailand. Economically, it depended on the exploitation of extensive stands of teak, logs being exported to Thailand, and control of the black market trade between the two countries, consisting of consumer and manufactured goods brought in over the border from Thailand in exchange for Burmese raw materials. The major outlet for trade was Three Pagodas Pass, controlled and sometimes contested by the KNU and the New Mon State Party. The KNU refrained from participating in the profitable trade in opium and other narcotics, because of both the convictions of its leaders and the historical unfamiliarity of the Karens with the drug. By the early 1980s, the KNU's armed force, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), had a well-trained and equipped force of between 5,000 and 8,000 men, second only to the People's Army of the CPB, which had 8,000-15,000 men under arms. The KNU became a member of the National Democratic Front in 1976, and of the Democratic Alliance of Burma in 1988. The KNU and other ethnic minority armed groups did not participate in the Democracy Summer movement of 1988, but after Burman student activists, who established the All Burma Students Democratic Front, left central Burma for the border areas, they were included in the DAB united front under Bo Mya's leadership and assisted by the KNLA, which gave them training and some arms. Because the KNU's headquarters at Manerplaw, established in 1975, was also a focal point for other ethnic minority and Burman opposition groups, including the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB), the Tatmadaw made it the target of concerted dry-season offensives, especially during 1992 and 1995. The latter offensive succeeded in capturing Manerplaw and another base, Kawmoorah, dealing the KNU/KNLA a serious blow. An important factor in their success was the defection of the Democratic Buddhist Karen Army (DKBA) from the KNU. The increasingly cooperative attitude of the Thai government toward the State Law and Order Restoration Council in the early 1990s also denied KNLA soldiers sanctuary on Thai soil. Manerplaw's fall resulted in an increased number of Karen refugees fleeing to KNU-affiliated camps in Thailand, and left those remaining behind vulnerable to systematic human rights abuses by the Tatmadaw. As of 2005, the KNU, led formally since 2000 by Saw Ba Thin, had not signed a cease-fire with the State Peace and Development Council. Despite the growing receptiveness of Bo Mya, still the KNU's de facto leader, to a negotiated end to the war, the central government remained unwilling in early 2005 to make concessions that the Karen movement would find acceptable.

Historical Dictionary of Burma (Myanmar). . 2014.

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