An Analysis of Saw Ba U Gyi’s Strategies for the Pursuit of Freedom and Autonomy
NAW EH LAY
Saw Ba U Gyi, the father of the Karen revolution, was our honourable leader that sacrificed his time, energy, resources, and life for the pursuit of freedom for all the Karen people. In the celebration of Karen Martyr Day, we honour and acknowledge the sacrifices of our highly respected leader, Saw Ba U Gyi, along with countless heroes who fought to protect us and defend our destiny. We also pay tribute to all our current leaders and soldiers who continue to fight for the independent state (Kawthoolei). Unfortunately, there are layers of challenges that weaken our struggle for an independent state. This essay analyzes Saw Ba U Gyi’s three strategies: an armed-struggle, political dialogue and a negotiated settlement with the Burmese government, and the international intervention and arrangement on the Karen people’s behalf. Before I analyze the three strategies, I will briefly highlight what it means for the Karen people to have freedom and autonomy to determine our destiny. This essay then provides an overview of the three strategies and discusses their strength and weakness. Finally, this essay explains why the international intervention and arrangement on the Karen people’s behalf is the best strategy forward for Karen people to achieve our desired freedom and autonomy. Genuine freedom is fundamental to the determination of our destiny.
Keren people have been discriminated based on ethnicity, culture, religious, social and political beliefs. Karen people, along with other ethnic minorities, have been struggled to maintain their identity, culture, language and tradition under the oppression of the military dictatorship. The Burmese government and Burmese military dictatorship, also known as Tatmadaw, have covertly but violently carried out its oppressive strategy of ethnic cleansing, genocide including genocidal rape, to create ethnic homogeneity and declare its supremacy. Even though Myanmar appears to have transitioned from military dictatorship to a democratic government, the military is still a major force that continues to exercise its power and authority. Tatmadaw, have invaded the lands and territories of the ethnic minorities in an attempt to extend and exert the military's autonomy and control. Tatmadaw has destroyed, burned houses, property and took control of land and extract resources for their own benefit. Christians are tortured and persecuted, innocent people are killed or displaced, girls and women are sexually assaulted, raped and killed, and families are torn apart. Thousands of people have lost their homeland, belonging, and be displaced. These are violations of fundamental human rights to security, dignity, autonomy and liberty. Under this oppressive system, Karen people have no freedom to education, economy and religious, political beliefs and practices. Therefore, we need the freedom to be liberated from all forms of oppression and take control of our destiny.
For the Karen people, the desired freedom refers to the ability to live our lives and enjoy our cultural and traditional customs that are free from coercion and constraint. The desired freedom includes but not limited to freedom of speech, association, religion, educational and economic freedom. We should have the freedom to practice our traditional and religious beliefs without the fear of persecution. We should have the freedom to speak, learn, preserve and embrace languages, traditions and culture. Additionally, liberty for the Karen people is when there is no arbitrary detention and persecution on account of our race, religion, nationality, social and political beliefs. We should have the opportunity to speak their minds and enjoy and maintain our way of life that reflects our personal and social norms and values. For us, autonomy is when our political opinion and decision are respected and taken into account. For us, justice is when we are guaranteed equal protection under the law and treated with respect and dignity. According to Saw Ba U Gyi, the desired freedom, autonomy, and liberty will succeed within one of the three strategies.
Strategy 1: Armed Struggle
Armed struggle refers to an armed conflict between Tatmadaw and the Karen people. There has been an armed struggle between Burmese military dictatorship and ethnic minority, for instance, Karen, Kachin, Mon, Shan, to name a few. Myanmar gained independence from the British in 1948. However, the Burmese government has excluded other ethnic minority groups from enjoying such freedom. Soon after independence- Saw Ba U Gyi realized that freedom is not for granted for the Karen people. Therefore, it is time to defend ourselves and fight for our freedom. As a result of such exclusion, the Karen revolution started in 1949. The general purpose of the Karen revolution is to fight for an independent state and to protect our people in our territory. Our leaders have fought for freedom, equality, liberty and justice to be liberated from all forms of oppression and take control of our destiny. Arguably, the armed struggle has its strength and weakness that should be explored and critically discussed.
The armed conflict regards as a form of self-defence that allows Karen people to protect ourselves, respond to an attack, and fight for our destiny. The strength of the armed struggle is that it protects our people and impede Tatmadaw to have absolute control over our lands and territories. Despite the oppression, we are still who we are today because we have retained our arms. Unfortunately, the negative impact of the armed conflict is profound. Communities in the war zone have to live in fear, and they are not able to enjoy their traditional way of life due to the threats and the damage to the environment. Soldiers, along with innocent civilians, are wounded, disabled, and killed. People who are living in and around the war zone are displaced. Prolong exposure to gun violence affect individuals’ mental and psychological well-being. Without a doubt, armed conflict causes food insecurity or starvation, poverty, uncertainty, and death.
Strategy:2 Political Dialogue and A Negotiated Settlement with The Burmese Government
Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) is one of the examples of the political dialogue and a settlement negotiation between Tatmadaw and Karen National Union (KNU). The NCA is signed between the Tatmadaw and the Ethnic Armed Organizations. Shortly after NCA was signed, the fighting between Tatmadaw and the KNU had temporarily stopped. This allows soldiers to take a break from the battle, return home, and unite with their family. Civilians were able to travel and continue their living for a short-time period. Even though NCA is signed, questions remain as to what level of the interests, values and perspectives of the ethnic minority groups are valued, respected, and included in NCA? Whether or not the NCA reflects the best interest of the ethnic minorities? Is the agreement established in favour of a particular group of people? Notably, the best interest of a group of people does not mean nor does it reflect the best interest of the other. Another question is to what extent the agreement is maintained and reinforced? What sanctions would be for those who violated the agreement? What remedies would be available to victims? Has the contents, objectives and outcomes of the NCA explored, discussed, and critically analyzed? Finally, is NCA justified?
I argue here that NCA lacks transparency and accountability. NCA serves as a tool to sustain, extend or exerts the Tatmadaw’s power and control over the territories of the ethnic minorities. For some degree, NCA empowers Tatmadaw to continue its manipulation, exploitation, oppression, and control over ethnic minorities. Tatmadaw has violated the agreement by sending its troops into the Karen territories to build roads and military bases. NCA must not benefit a particular group of people who are already in power. Tatmadaw has been using its “peace icon” as a voice not only to conceal but to defend and normalize systemic oppression, ongoing violence and crime against humanity as a means to restore or build its credibility and encourage foreign investment. By doing so, the so-called “peace icon” has intentionally defended, condoned, normalized, and reinforced crime against humanity. It could be considered a criminal offence to conceal, condone, mitigate and normalize crime against humanity and protect those criminals who have violently and persistently committed crimes against humanity.
The government fails to acknowledge and accept the fact that unless a genuine pace, there must not be foreign investment. Foreign investment would assist Tatmadaw or those who are in power to continue their exploitation, oppression and manipulation. Foreign investment could not be considered the first and foremost solution nor be a long-term solution to the conflict, social issues, poverty, and uncertainty in Myanmar. The first and foremost solution is to provide freedom and equal opportunities to the people of Myanmar. A question is whether the foreign investment would guarantee a fair share of the profits between investors, businesses and local communities? How well the government prepare for the disaster that will follow the so-called economic development? How effective policies and regulations surrounding economic development? Would such development guarantees flouring ecosystems that reflect the best interest of the local communities? The ugly truth is that the local communities may not enjoy any of the benefits resulting from the wealth extracted from their territories. In the worst case, the local communities might have to deal with both natural and man-made disaster that follows the so-called economic development.
NCA has secured and reinforced the government’s policy of assimilation. Assimilation, in Myanmar context, is when the government and Tatmadaw persistently pressure or force the Karen people and other ethnic heritage to accept and adopt their social, political, including cultural values, beliefs, and norms. Karen people, along with other ethnic minorities, are transformed into Border Guard Forces (BGF) with obligations to respect and follow and the orders of the government and attack their own people. By transforming Karen Armed Organizations into BGF, the government is trying to divide and rule the Karen people as a mean weaken our revolution and to eliminate the unique characteristics that make us Karen. By doing so, the government intends to reinforce its oppressive strategy and sustain its domination. This, of course, undermines and threatens our ability to exist as well as our struggle for independence.
Strategy 3: International Intervention and Arrangement on The Karen People’s Behalf
Myanmar’s political system has prevented the international community in intervening and resolving the longstanding conflict between the Burmese government and non-Burman ethnic groups. However, an effective and appropriate intervention is necessary when there is a significant human rights abuse such as war crimes, genocide and, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. The ethnic minorities are vulnerable to systematic oppression for this reason; an International society has an ethical responsibility to step in to protect victims of such abuses and call for social and political change. I strongly argue here that the International intervention justifies against the human right violation the are perpetrated the by the government and Tatmadaw. It is hard for the Karen people to trust and accept the inherent oppressive system of government due to ongoing oppression and persecution of not only the Karen people but other ethnic minorities. Tatmadaw has invaded and continues to invade the territories of the ethnic minorities as a means to take control of, exploited the natural resources, and declare their supremacy. The government needs to acknowledge that their political systems pose a significant threat to national security and stability. If Tatmadaw continues to invade, destroy lands and properties, and persecute the innocent, it will create layers of challenges to build trust and establish the so-called Republic Union of Myanmar. Unless Tatmadaw recognizes, acknowledges, and embraces the diversity within its country, Karen people, along with other ethnic minorities, will never achieve their desired freedom and autonomy. One way for the government to establish trust is to withdraw its troops and stop invading the territories of the ethnic minority. The government must effectively respond and address the ongoing crime against humanity within its country. To do so, the government must provide adequate protection to victims and hold perpetrators accountable for their criminal conduct and behaviours. There will never be peace unless the Tatmadaw withdraw their troop from the Karen and other ethnic minorities’ territories. There will never be justice unless everyone, regardless of their ethnicity, gender, religious and political beliefs, is equally treated with respect and dignity.
International intervention is possible when social and political problems in Myanmar, is brought to the surface. The issues regarding human rights violation, prejudice, persecution, and their impact on ethnic minorities should be explored, discussed, and critically analyzed. We need both introvert and extrovert activists in the pursuit of freedom, autonomy and justice. Introverts activists often work in the background, observing, critically reflecting, creating resources, educational materials and tools to raise awareness about social and political issues and injustice in Myanmar. We also need extrovert activists who will take leads on strike, seek public attention, build a community to spread awareness and encourage public participation. Social media such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube can facilitate in raising awareness to the broader community about social justice issues as a means to create a space for discussion, dialogue, communication, connection, coalitions in the online setting. Social media can broaden, strengthen and expand social justice movements and activities. However, to achieve our desired freedom, autonomy and justice, we should not focus merely on creating social awareness but to call for social and political change. Research is an essential tool for understanding the root that causes social and political problems, its impact and identifies possible solutions. High-quality research can inform action and lead to a systemic change. We need more researchers, activists, scholars, and social justice advocates among our Karen people and also from international (who are passionate for a social and political change) to explore, discuss and analyze the political system and prejudice in Myanmar.
Finally, I would like to suggest to all my Karen people that it is not a time to blame or attack each other for any uncertainty. In fact, we should critically identify and respond to the root causes of social and political problems and triggers that divides us. We should unite and keep fighting until we achieve our desired freedom and autonomy. Additionally, we should take the necessary steps to address any threat and/or action that has weakened and will weaken KNU and undermine our struggle for independence. We should maintain a good and effective communication to build a close and stronger relationship, to exchange ideas, thoughts, and visions, and to maintain trust and understanding. We need to sit back and reflect critically on our strategies and modify them (if necessary) in such a way that leads us to success. We need to question and challenge authorities to make sure that they represent us and act in such a way that reflect the best interest of our people. At the same time, the authorities should open their minds to concerns and/or criticism, be prepared to be able to address those concerns, and professionally respond to such criticism.