A well-placed New Mandala reader has made this important guest contribution:

On Wednesday, May 28th 2008, the Australian television station SBS broadcast an interview on Dateline with Karenna Laklem, spokesperson for the Chiang Mai-based Christian organisation Asian Tribal Ministries (ATM). The interview included video footage of a recent trip to the Irrawaddy Delta by members of ATM and the Karen National Union/Karen National Liberation Army – Peace Council (KNU/KNLA-PC) in which they personally delivered aid supplies to affected villagers. In the accompanying footage KNU/KNLA-PC founding members Major-General Htain Maung and Pastor Timothy Laklem as well as Htain Maung’s wife are visible. Htain Maung and his wife are shown on screen handing out cash to affected villagers. Also shown are what Dateline’s host calls “happy snaps with members of the military junta.

As many New Mandala readers are aware, Htain Maung was previously a Brigadier-General and the Commander of the KNLA’s 7th Brigade, which covers Pa’an District of central Karen State. On January 30th 2007, Htain Maung was dismissed from the Karen National Union for entering into negotiations with the SPDC without the approval of the KNU Central Executive Committee. The following day, Htain Maung and his supporters, including his son-in-law, Ler Moo (who was subsequently killed in a bomb attack in January 2008), Colonel Saw Htawt Lay and Pastor Timothy Laklem formed a breakaway faction which they named the KNU/KNLA-PC with Htain Maung as Chairman. Shortly afterwards there were reports that the KNU/KNLA-PC had recruited children as soldiers in order to boost their numbers. Timothy Laklem is also the co-founder of ATM. The aid supplies which the groups are handing out in the video are marked USAID. Karenna Laklem, Timothy’s daughter, explains in the interview that ATM and KNU/KNLA-PC were able to access heavily restricted parts of the delta and openly film their trip due to their “connections with the authorities. with the generals themselves.” The USAID supplies which they handed out were, according to Karenna, “the packages that the US cargo planes have sent in [and] taken by the military trucks to these port towns.”

The question then is whether KNU/KNLA-PC’s and ATM’s access to restricted parts of the Irrawaddy Delta is part of the ‘peace dividend’ from its January 2007 agreement with the SPDC; whether the trip was specifically set up for propaganda purposes for the benefit of both the SPDC and KNU/KNLA-PC; neither of these; or both.

The transcript and video of the interview can be viewed here. A second video available on the same web page entitled “Burma Rebuilds” also includes footage of the trip.