David Taw's untimely death last Sunday in a military hospital in Yangon may have finally brought peace to the Karen leader, but it leaves the political organisation he spent decades working for grappling with a divisive split that threatens to weaken and derail its ongoing peace talks with the Myanmar government.
MIGHTY FIGURE FALLEN: A KNLA soldier mourns in front of David Taw’s coffin. As many as 1,000 people travelled to pay their last respects at his funeral last week.
The potential of a crippling division unfurled less than two weeks ago when the Karen National Union (KNU) dismissed three of its leaders, including Taw, for defying KNU protocols by arranging political events and discussions with government delegates without approval.
Tensions among the KNU leadership reached critical levels after the go-it-alone group independently negotiated with Myanmar government officials to open a liaison office in Pa-an Town on Sept 29.
The three sacked KNU leaders were General Mu Tu Say Poe, the head of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), Roger Khin, the head of the Health and Welfare Department, and Taw, who was the secretary of the KNU's peace committee until his death.
Against this highly charged backdrop of internal political fighting and rumours of peace talks among Myanmar and the international community, as many as a thousand people travelled to pay their last respects to Padoh David Taw, as he was known to the Karen, and to offer solace to his grieving family.
The former KNU leader had succumbed to the combined effects of lung disease, diabetes and liver failure. It was acknowledged by all sides that Taw had sacrificed decades of his life working within the KNU to end the oppression of the Karen people under Myanmar's military regimes.
FUNERAL RITES: Above, mountains of flowers were laid by mourners before the grave of David Taw. Below, KNU members hoist the coffin of David Taw.
Out of respect, people made the journey from the cities and villages of Myanmar, Thailand and from overseas to the remote jungle KNU headquarters to take part in the funeral service to honour Taw the politician, the soldier and the family man.
A crowd first began to gather in the early dawn light, massing on the muddy banks of the Moei River, waiting to cross in a deafening flotilla of long-tail boats to Thay Bay Hta in eastern Karen State. Taw was buried alongside KNU leaders Padoh Ba Thin Sein, who died in 2008, and Padoh Mahn Sha, who was assassinated on Feb 14, 2008.
The route to Thay Bay Hta was varied. People from Yangon drove the 12 hours it takes to navigate the country's back-jarring potholed roads, some made the arduous trek over the Dawna Ranges from remote Karen villages, while others hitched a ride in packed pick-ups from Thai-Myanmar border refugee camps.
By midday the temperature had soared and the large crowd sweated and squeezed in and around a large open-sided building. Those unable to fit inside or directly outside the building took refuge from the heat under trees or in temporary shelters.
Uniformed KNLA soldiers rested in low-slung hammocks, while others guarded entry and exit points or stood to attention clutching their automatic weapons while holding white or red roses.
Taw's funeral service generated enough symbolism and talking points to captivate most political pundits.
Out-of-uniform military enemies mingled _ rigid smiles in place. Myanmar business people kept to the shade and in close proximity to Karen leaders. Members of the All Burma Students' Democratic Front (ABSDF) circulated with and among representatives from community and civil society groups.
Self-described brokers, known for playing all sides during the armed conflict, drifted from group to group. Work-hardened Karen villagers, men, women and children did without the fuss what they always do and gave respect.
Faces were scanned in an effort to see if any of the ''other KNU faction'' had turned up and attempts made to read the ''significance'' of the actions of those who had stayed away.
Opinion among the funeral-goers see-sawed back and forth over what meaning could be gleaned from a military-type gun salute honouring Taw. Did it mean he had been reinstated by the KNU, or did those who ordered the salute lack the necessary clout needed to back it up? But since Taw was still enrolled as a sergeant in the KNLA, the mental arithmetic was moot, as he was entitled to a traditional gun volley regardless.
The one constant acknowledged among the whispered debates was the concern that if there was to be a KNU split it would have far-reaching consequences for the future of Myanmar's pro-democracy groups and the Myanmar people.
A community worker from Shan State blamed the Myanmar government for deliberately pushing politics to the sidelines in its ''peace talks'' with ethnic armed groups.
''Politics and community concerns keep getting taken off the agenda _ development is the most important item,'' he said.
''This has caused a lot of tension between the armed groups and civil society organisations. We are all aware, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, that the 2008 constitution is unjust _ it gives too much power to the military, but there is little talk from anyone in politics about rewriting it.''
The community worker, who requested anonymity, cited recent ceasefires that the government had signed with the various armed groups in Shan State.
''They have all been individually agreed to, that's how they are kept divided _ all the ethnic groups have to join together if they want to be strong.
''If the KNU leaders can't find a way to compromise, we are all in trouble. The problem now is we just don't know if they can get back together.''
Paul Sein Twa, a director with the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network, said he was not prepared to judge who is right and wrong in the latest KNU spat.
''At this time the Karen people and the people of Myanmar need unity. We've had enough of war and conflict _ more than 60 years,'' he said.
''There are many concerns over the peace building process. Both Karen sides have plans about how to do it, but they all need to negotiate and discuss _ to make it clear that only one can take the lead. The KNU need the input of all levels of society, not just the elites who have access to the government.''
Than Khe, the chairperson of the ABSDF, is concerned that business leaders have unlimited access to the peace talks negotiations.
''Businessmen are sitting alongside the 'peace table','' Than Khe said.
''We need to know what policy they are driving. I am talking about the fate of our people, the fate of our country. Business has a different agenda. The political problems have to be resolved first _ business can come after. Without a political solution or peace and stability, it will be impossible to do either business or development.''
Than Khe scoffed at the number of ''Myanmar experts'' now presenting options and opinions on how to ''read'' his country's recent reforms.
''There are now many of these so-called experts and scholars talking about what is right for Burma. These people have not earned the right to have an opinion about what is right for the people,'' he said. ''Many are cronies, working to put themselves in a position to fill their pockets.''
WE DO IT FOR PEACE AND MERIT
SURVIVORS: Above, Gen Mu Tu displays the Karen flag. Below, directors of the controversial Dawei Princess Company. Left, a soldier with a rose of remembrance.
Karen community groups allege that it is the potential for a conflict of interest that should prevent companies like the Dawei Princess Company from being present at the peace talks table.
Dawei Princess managing director U Ngwe Soe spoke to Spectrum about the allegations.
''The criticisms of the community groups are not our concern. Our primary concern is negotiating for peace only _ not business. We are there as peace negotiators only. Business at this time is not our primary concern.''
U Ngwe Soe did admit that a peaceful Myanmar would be advantageous for all businesses.
''Every sector will benefit from peace _ tourism, agriculture, mining, business,'' he said.
Meanwhile, the KNU is still waiting for an official response to its request to the Myanmar's government to explain the role of business leaders involvement in the peace talks.
In an interview on the Karen News website, the KNU's General Secretary Naw Zipporah Sein voiced her concerns about the Dawei Princess Company's involvement and that of a Yangon based non-profit organisation known as Myanmar Egress.
''We don't know exactly what their roles are, but I think the government uses them as advisers. Myanmar Egress acts as an adviser to the government, but the government has not yet officially explained its role to the KNU,'' she said.
Ms Zipporah explained that the Dawei Princess Company has been involved in the peace process negotiations from the beginning.
''The Dawei Princess Company made the first contact with the KNU and initiated the meeting between the KNU and the government at the federal level with Railway Minister U Aung Min.''
Myanmar Egress is made up of businessmen and academics with close ties to the former military regime. Its president, Tin Maung Thann, is also the vice-president of the Myanmar Fisheries Federation. Its vice-president, Hla Maung Shwe, is also the vice-president of the Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry.
Despite the lack of response from the Myanmar government to the KNU's request, U Aung Min, the minister responsible for the talks made it clear in a taped video interview with the Karen Information Centre who is paying.
''At the moment [the peace talks] are being done with our own pocket money. Mostly, I work with U Hla Maung Shwe, the businessman. When there is a trip, we estimate the cost and pay for it half and half,'' he said.
''Until now, we haven't used any money from the government. We use our own money because in a way we see this as a donation. Say if there is peace among ethnic nationalities and no one is being killed or no more deaths _ this is a merit _ same as we make donation to a church.''
U Aung Min points out that the government has not funded or budgeted for the peace talks: ''Until now, the government doesn't have a budget line for this. The parliament hasn't allocated any money for this. So, we have no money.
''But in the future, maybe there will be donors who are willing to support us with a trip or a round of peace talks. But so far, we haven't got any of them yet, so we are paying out of our own pocket.''
PAST LESSONS NOT LEARNED
David Tharckabaw, the KNU vice-president, said the fighting and war being waged by the Myanmar military against the Kachin should be strong motivation for all ethnic groups to stay united.
''Seventeen years ago the military regime isolated the Karen, in an attempt to destroy us, by making quick unsigned ceasefires with other ethnic groups, including the Kachin,'' he said.
''Now it's the Kachin's turn to be isolated and attacked _ the Burmese military is attempting to wipe them out.
''This a deliberate strategy, but they underestimate the Kachin. They said it would take two weeks, but one year later and as many as 10,000 of their soldiers are dead or injured and the Burma army is still fighting.''
The killing in Kachin State continues. Local media reported that on Wednesday last week residents said that shelling by government forces killed three civilians from the Kachin village of Maw Mau Bum.
Mr Tharckabaw played down the recent divisions within the KNU.
''All political parties, all organisations have differences of opinion, factionalism and other irregularities, but unfortunately splits at the wrong time can cause everlasting damage. We are a tolerant organisation, but we still have to maintain discipline and we will try to sort out this problem within the KNU.''
Mr Tharckabaw hinted at outside forces that would benefit from a divided KNU.
''Our KNU people have been cajoled, hooked by words, promises and appeasement. There's been talk of gold deposits of untold wealth in natural resources in Karen State.
''We don't know what resources we have. There's never been a survey, it's all propaganda causing some of our people's mouths to water.''
KNU leaders on all sides of the divide have shown a willingness to reconcile their differences despite talk in the exile Myanmar media of ''an almost irreparable split between the KNU leadership''.
Before entering the funeral hall to pay his respects to his fallen comrade, General Mu Tu stopped to wipe sweat from his face and to speak of tough positions.
''We must be strong. If there is an opportunity to compromise, we will compromise. If we have to fight, we will fight. It is a challenge for the Karen. We want peace but that is difficult. It takes time to unify after an argument, but we all want reunification. If it makes us stronger, then it's been worthwhile.''
Mr Tharckabaw insists the differences in the KNU reinforces the organisation's democratic credentials.
''We don't want divisions in the KNU, we want a genuine peace, but with justice and national reconciliation. To achieve this we have to follow a clear and tested strategy. Every four years we hold our congress. All office holders resign and a secret ballot election is held to vote in our new office bearers.''
Mr Tharckabaw explains that the KNU's system is complicated but democratic.
''It is hard system to manipulate _ voting is by secret ballot. Central headquarters do not have the power that most governments have to sack rogue elements running their own agendas.''
The KNU website claims it is the leading political organisation representing the seven million Karen people in Myanmar. The KNU was founded in 1947, and says ''its predecessor organisations date back to 1881''.
The ABSDF's Than Khe is a supporter and says the KNU's ability to manage and to keep in place the apparatus of government over 60 years of civil war is at the heart of its strength.
He points to KNU departments that care for the needs of women, youth, health, law and order and defence.
''I have just returned from Kachin State and all armed groups are concerned _ the Kachin, the Shan and the Burma students,'' he said. ''Our freedom of movement depends on the solidarity of the KNU leadership. We are hoping they will now show unity and solidarity _ we need to see it.''
As the crowds ebbed their way down the steep river embankment and away from the burial site, a smashed football-sized hole in the side of Padoh Mahn Sha's tomb provides a stark reminder to recent wrongs committed by Myanmar's military and its Karen militia allies.
A KNLA officer suggest darker motives than wanton vandalism behind the desecration of the murdered leader's grave.
''If they wanted to they could have easily blown it up, this was an attempt to steal Padoh Mahn Sha's ashes to use in some superstitious ceremony to create protective amulets,'' the officer said.
Tomorrow, KNU leaders will meet in a secret location, behind closed doors, to attempt to reconcile their differences.
Ko Bo Kyi, an advocate for the release of all of Myanmar's political prisoners and the recipient of numerous international human rights awards, stresses the importance of a united Karen.
''If the Karen are divided everyone in Burma suffers, if the KNU is divided it will hurt all. We need a united and strong KNU to continue the struggle for peace.''
About the author
Writer: Phil Thornton