Discussion and analysis of Saw Ba U Gyi’s 3 Strategies
Ehler Tha Win
For worthy reasons, Saw Ba Oo Gyi is a household name in the Karen diaspora. Whether you’re a Karen living in Kawthoolei or along the borders of inside Thai refugee camps or have immigrated to a third country, every Karen person revered Saw Ba Oo Gyi for his boldness in standing up for his fellow Karen people. Almost every Karen person I know can recite the four principles that Saw Ba Oo Gyi had laid out for the Karen Revolution, both in Karen and English alike. This is one way of showing solidarity and that we have not forgotten about our roots and where we come from despite how far away we are from home and how much the enemy wants us to forget. As important as it is to know the four principles, it is equally critical that we know why this Revolution had to begin in the first place. At the birth of the Revolution, Saw Ba Oo Gyi envisioned three approaches in order to achieve our end goal: the recognition of Karen state. These three approaches are 1).to actively participate in armed struggle against the Burmese military, 2). engage in political dialogue and negotiate with the Burmese government, and 3). to seek international intervention for the Karen people’s behalf.
The Karen struggle started well before the British occupation of Burma when the Karens suffered repeated oppression under the dominant Burmans and their empire. Various Karen leaders and elders have pleaded again and again with the Burmans and the British to give them the same freedom and rights as a recognized state. However, these talks resulted in no fruition and eventually led the Karen National Union to officially take up arms and declare it’s intention to separate from Burma. It has been over seventy years since the KNU took up arms and many livelihoods have since been destroyed but the unfortunate fact remains that the war is still raging and our people are still fleeing from persecution of the Burmese army. Seventy years of the revolting against the oppressive Burmese military makes us the longest civil war to exist in the world. Seventy may just be a number but to us Karens, that means our parents, grandparents, and great parents have lived their entire lives in fear, hiding in jungles, crossing borders and oceans to seek refuge because their villages and livelihoods are under attacks by the Burmese soldiers.
In these seventy plus years of resistance, we have tried all three approaches that late president Saw Ba Oo Gyi had laid out. Armed struggle is one that we have, and continue to use to stand our ground. Armed struggle and physically picking up arms to defend our people and Kawthoolei is one way to show that we have what it takes to stand up for this cause no matter how long it takes. It is a tangible way to show that we resist and will not conform to Burmanization that the Burmese military so badly wants us to. It is also a way to show homage to Saw Ba Oo Gyi and the four principles he had laid out and truly believed in at the expense of his death. But most importantly, it is a tangible way to protect Karen civilians whose lives are till this day under constant threats from the brutal Burmese military. Although armed struggle is a productive way to physically defend ourselves, it doesn’t take away the fact that it has been well over seventy years that our men and women have lost their lives for this struggle. Our continued armed struggle is a painful reminder that just like our great grandparents have had to flee in deep jungles, many of our children today are also living in fear and being stripped away of their basic human rights.
As a young Karen woman that was born in Mae La camp and had the privilege to immigrate to the U.S at a young age, I recognize that I don’t know a lot nor do I have the right to say whether armed struggle is the solution to helping Karen people attain autonomy. Because of Karen armed groups, my family and I were able to seek refuge in Mae La refugee camp and immigrate to the U.S for better opportunities. However, as I grow up and learn more about our Karen history and hear personal testimonies, I must say that it has been one hell of a journey for our people. I witnessed many of our women are left to be widows and children fatherless. Karen men and women voluntarily chose to be part of this armed struggle for the simple reason being love for their people. However, continuing this armed struggle seems very much counterproductive because we are fighting with the Burmese Military who have much more advanced weapons and resources and are capable of annihilating our land. Our troops, both from the past and present, have fought tirelessly for the past seventy years. The last thing we want to do is see our future children participate in the armed struggle. Although our armed struggle acts as a public declaration that we will not surrender our Kawthoolei, the past seventy years of armed struggle did not bring much progress but rather more pain and brokenness to our Karen community.
The second strategy that Saw Ba Oo Gyi had laid out is one that he himself tried again and again before officially picking up arms in 1949 (Thawnghmung). It is also an approach that the Karen National Union is currently undergoing with the Tatmadaw in hopes to dissolve the seventy plus years of civil war. Peace talks in theory sounds very good because who doesn’t want peace, especially when we have been in war for over seven decades? It would be hypocritical of us Karens,who are known as peace-loving and simplicity-loving people, to not want to participate in such an organized and diplomatic process. We are labeled as ethnic rebels by the international community and even alluded by the dictator,Min Aung Hlaing himself that we ethnic minorities don’t want peace because, “The sound of guns will become silent if all the groups with the true wish for peace observe the agreement.” (Thein). This in other word, is saying that ethnic armed groups are the reasons to blame for the lack of progress in this NCA negotiation.
When the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement was introduced, many ethnic armed groups signed the agreement, including the Karen National Union. From our end, this movement came as a relief because if all things go according to plan, this political negotiation would promise safety and security for Karen civilians living in the heartland of Kawthoolei. However as we are aware, the NCA has only brought more pain and division for our people. Because of news that there is a Ceasefire Agreement occurring in the country, many international assistance and funds that directly support Karen refugees in the Thai-Burma borders have also ceased. This has also led Karen refugees to “voluntarily” return to Myanmar because with the election of the NLD Party and NCA underway, the country is supposedly moving in the right direction and there would be no need for international assistance for Karen refugees (Wilkie-Black). The country is moving anywhere but in the right direction.
Additionally, as a result of the NCA, more and more of Burmese troops have been able to make their ways into different parts of Karen villages and threaten their civilians’ livelihoods. Recent examples include Saw Oh Moo and Naw Mu Naw who were brutally murdered by the Burmese soldiers. Their unjust deaths caused an outcry from the Karen community both in different Karen communities, both in Thailand and abroad. However, we have yet to hear any statement from the KNU who are part of the NCA because somehow that will “slow down” the peace talks. It has been over five years since the signing of the NCA and we can confidently say that there has been zero progress. If anything, we have gone backward in terms of our progress because not only are our people being starved in refugee camps from the decrease of international assistance, they are also being killed left and right with no signs of urgency for justice and remorse coming from the NCA participants. The Tatmadaw shows no sign of backing down whatsoever, and we can be sure for a fact that political negotiations for peace will not be the strategy to go for attaining autonomy and recognition of Karen state. As of now, peace talks exist as no more than a theory and a fancy bullet point that the Military is using to make people think that there is progress.
The third and final strategy that Saw Ba Oo Gyi proposed is to seek support from the International community so that they may arrange something on the Karen people’s behalf. At first thought, this approach sounds absurd because how can we expect the international world to care enough to intercede for us. We have seen from history that the international community, especially the west, only cares for matters that concern them. We would be better off taking care of this problem ourselves. However, I want to believe that what Saw Ba Oo Gyi meant is not simply for us to ask for help and wait for a savior figure to come and rescue us. I believe that if the Karen people stand with one voice and one message and project it collectively, our voices will be heard and the world will come to learn the truth of the Burmese Military dictatorship.
This approach of seeking international support and attention will require constant advocacy from the Karen people themselves. It will require the next generations of Karen people to actively learn about our history and why we had to flee our homeland. It will require the Karen community to stand in solidarity and be empowered to share our story with the world and no longer allow our voice to be silent. Most importantly, it will require reconciliation between the Karen communities to look past our differences and share our narrative, because after all, our ultimate goal is for our Karen people to be free. This approach is hard because it will require collective effort from Karens all over the world. It won’t bring immediate change and the process will be slow and exhausting. However, we can be hopeful that through advocacy and urging the international world to care, our peoples’ struggles will be seen and heard.
It is no doubt and no secret that we have used all three approaches throughout these past seventy years and that all three are equally needed to sustain the Karen resistance. With armed struggle, we have seen loved ones sacrifice their lives for the love of their countrymen. However, we can’t guarantee and expect that our troops will be strong in this suit because this path is voluntary with no immediate benefits that will provide for their family that are left behind. With political talks and negotiations, this strategy will only work if both parties see eye and eye and uphold their agreements. Unfortunately, the Burmese military and government have shown that they can’t be trusted and have no intention of compromising unless the Karen National Union (along with other ethnic armed groups) surrender arms and allow for them to rule Kawthoolei. The last approach of seeking international support is most realistic because it allows for the Karen community, especially abroad, to use their respective platforms to speak up on people’s behalf. While we can’t expect our young people abroad to return and serve as Kawthoolei soldiers and participate in the so-called “peace talks”, we can educate our young ones about our history and lead by example so that they, too, can feel empowered and convicted to share their stories. It is something that all of us can do and participate in. Out of our shared struggle and narrative, our Karen people have become natural advocates for different causes surrounding human rights violations. With better platform and accessibility to technology, I strongly believe that if shared with unity, our outcry and voices will be heard.