The Karen National Union is gearing up for its 16th congress next week, with international representatives from 12 countries expected to attend the leadership-determining event.
The congress, which was postponed from November last year, could have major repercussions for the KNU’s involvement in the peace process, with a vote expected to shake up the organization’s management.
The international delegates, who represent overseas Karen organizations, have been invited to the March 14 event as observers and will not be allowed a vote, according to the International Karen Organization (IKO). The KNU executive committee’s decision to bar the international representatives from voting drew criticism, as it contradicts a previous agreement made at the 15th congress.
The overseas invitees hail from Australia, Canada, Norway, Japan, Malaysia, and the UK. Eight of the international representatives have been invited by the KNU, while the others represent two Karen civil society groups, according to the convening committee.
So far the domestic attendee list has yet to be confirmed. Invitations have been sent to 15 potential observers from Karen political parties and CSOs inside the country, but no responses have been received, the convening committee said.
Pado Saw Thaw Thi Bwe, chair of the KNU congress convening committee, said some confusion remains about the specific number of representatives that can be sent from each organization.
Part of the confusion may be attributable to the multiple hats participants wear. For instance, Mann Kyaw Nyein, secretary of the Karen National Party, said he will be attending the event on behalf of the Karen Unity and Peace Committee and not as a KNP representative.
“They [the convening committee] said they’d send the list of representatives who are set to attend the congress within two or three days,” he added.
Observers say the KNU is currently divided between two factions with different outlooks on the peace process: one supports engagement with the Tatmadaw, and the other wants to engage only with the elected National League for Democracy-led government. By preventing the international groups from participating in the vote, some have suggested that the pro-Tatmadaw faction is hoping to sway the poll.
However, Padoh Saw Thaw Thi Bwe told Karen News in January that the decision to limit the vote was based on “administrative structure”. Only representatives from KNU-controlled villages, village tracts, townships and districts will be allowed to run and to vote in the congress election, he said.
Like the 15th iteration, the upcoming congress will be held in Lay Wah.