Saw Ba U Gyi’s three strategies for Karen struggle for freedom
For over 70 years, the Karens, an ethnic minority group in Myanmar (Burma), have been fighting the longest civil war against the Myanmar Regime and its military, presently known as Tatmadaw. During World War II, Japanese soldiers invaded Myanmar and destroyed many Karen villages with help from the Burmese Independence Army (BIA). The Karens sided with the British (Japan’s opponent) and together they defeated the Japanese and BIA. In 1947, the Karens formed a federal organization called the Karen National Union (KNU), led by the first Karen president, Saw Ba Oo Gyi. Beneath the KNU were two forces called Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) which provides services and protection, and Karen National Defense Organization (KNDO) which defends the Karens from the Tatmadaw. Before Britain declared Myanmar’s independence, president Saw Ba Oo Gyi attended a meeting with the British government and discussed the Karens’ desires for autonomy; however, the British government failed to execute their promises of giving the Karens sovereignty. Following Myanmar’s independence, the Karens and Burmese co-existed in peace for a short period of time; the Karens even administrated in both the government and army. In 1949, Burmese militias ascended and attacked Karen villages, killing many innocent people. Conflict between the Karens and Myanmar Regime continued till present day, displacing thousands of Karens to nearby refugee camps. During his time in office, president Saw Ba Oo Gyi once told his Karen people the success of Kaw Thoo Lei’s freedom and autonomy involved three strategies: armed struggle, political dialogue and negotiated settlement with the Burmese government, and international intervention.
The first strategy to achieving Kaw Thoo Lei’s freedom and autonomy involves armed struggle, where the Karens form armed forces and retaliate against the Myanmar Regime. An advantage of this strategy is the perseverance of the Karen armed forces. For over 70 years, the Tatmadaw would attack villages, burn down crops, rape women, kill innocent children, and capture men to be used as their slaves. Regardless of the struggles and hardships, the Karen armed forces stood firm and defended their motherland. This gives the rest of the suffering Karens hope that one day they may walk freely through the roads of Kaw Thoo Lei and live independently from the Myanmar Regime. A second advantage of this strategy is the obstruction of further expansion of Tatmadaw territories and economic plans. Kaw Thoo Lei’s 5th Brigade (total of 7) is occupied by Karen armed forces who will strike at nearby Tatmadaw troops. According to a Karen, involved with aiding the displaced Karens, this prevented the Tatmadaw from taking over the area and executing their plans to construct a dam, which could destroy Kaw Thoo Lei and cut off major necessities. The Karens’ armed struggle is a great barrier that prevents the Myanmar Regime from achieving their master plan of generating electricity and making sales to the rest of Asia.
On the contrary, a disadvantage to this strategy is the Tatmadaw’s advanced economy. According to online statistics, the Tatmadaw has domestic and foreign suppliers consisting of 15 countries including China, Russia, and Israel. In contrast, the Karens’ main source of military supplies come from Thailand; therefore, are under armed compared to the Tatmadaw. Another disadvantage of this strategy is the division amongst Karens due to manipulation from the Myanmar Regime. Although both KNU and DKBA are fighting for Kaw Thoo Lei’s freedom, they are divided because of religion differences. Furthermore, some Karens have decided to unify with the Burmese and form forces such as the Border Guard Force (BGF), National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) and KNU/KNLA Peace Council (PC). BGF is made up of all ethnic groups in Myanmar, who pledged their loyalty to the Burmese in exchange for financial benefits; the NCA is a program signed by all ethnic groups who agreed to terminate further fighting with the Tatmadaw. PC is an armed opposition group that acts as the middleman between the Karens and Tatmadaw. The division between the Karens has debilitated its armed force powers and reduced the chances of achieving Kaw Thoo Lei’s autonomy.
The second strategy to achieving Kaw Thoo Lei’s freedom and autonomy involves political dialogue and negotiated settlements with Myanmar Regime. An advantage of this strategy is peace between the Karens and Burmese. The continuation of fighting against the Tatmadaw only leads to deaths and destruction, therefore this strategy is the most peaceful way to end further bloodshed. A second advantage of this strategy includes possible leadership positions for Karen leaders. The Karens and Burmese once lived in peace where Karen leaders even led in both the government and armed forces. Negotiation with the Myanmar Regime would open doors for Karen leaders to lead for the benefit of Karens. A third advantage of this strategy involves more economic opportunities for Karens. Compared to the Karens who mostly lived in the mountains without running water or electricity, the Burmese are more educated and fortunate because they have more access to economic opportunities. If there is peace between the Karens and Burmese, the Karens could use it as an opportunity to build network with the Burmese and grow economically.
Although this strategy sounds perfect and beneficial for the Karens, reality is not as flawless. A disadvantage of this strategy is the manipulation of the Myanmar Regime. For example, some Karen leaders have signed the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) which meant the Karens and Tatmadaw would not use weapons against one another. Recently on July 17th, two Burmese soldiers invaded a Karen home in Kaw Thoo Lei’s 5th Brigade and murdered Naw Mu Naw, a mother of three. The two soldiers then robbed all her valuables and returned to their territory without any consequences. Negotiation allows the Myanmar Regime to take advantage because the Karens are more vulnerable. Another disadvantage of this strategy involves increased dominance of Myanmar Regime. Along with the Karens, 6 other ethnic minority groups are also being oppressed: Kachin, Karenni, Chin, Mon, Rakhine, and Shan. The Myanmar Regime knows it is difficult to withstand fighting all 7 ethnic minorities simultaneously, therefore programs such as the NCA act as a barrier to prevent ethnic minorities from attacking the Tatmadaw all together. Since the Myanmar Regime is scheming, it may construct a plan that seems fair to the Karens at first but will only benefit the Burmese in the long run.
The third strategy to achieving Kaw Thoo Lei’s freedom and autonomy involves international intervention. An advantage of this strategy is international countries can restrain the Myanmar Regime economically. For example, for the past couple of years, the Karen communities in the United States have peacefully protested in Washington D.C to reveal the corrupt Myanmar Regime to US representatives. According to a Karen who attended the event, the visits to the white house resulted in termination of a couple of Burmese businesses. Receiving help from other international countries will enervate the Myanmar Regime and its economy to a greater extent. Another advantage of this strategy is international intervention can expose the corrupt Myanmar Regime to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and rest of the world. In 2019, Gambia, a small West Africa country, requested actions from the ICJ for Myanmar’s genocidal violence against the Rohingya, Muslim minority, which resulted in 800,000 Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh. In response, the ICJ ordered Myanmar to take instant action to prevent the genocide of Rohingya (Choudhury, 2020). Because of Myanmar’s history of genocide of ethnic minorities, it would be an advantage if another country reports against the Myanmar Regime for the genocide of Karens, so the ICJ and other world power can intervene and terminate the Myanmar Regime.
In contrast, a disadvantage of this strategy is it takes many years for international intervention to occur. For example, in the previous case mentioned, the genocide of Rohingya occurred in 2016, however the rulings of the ICJ did not eventuate until 2020. This was due to a couple of reasons including lack of reports from the place of crime and Myanmar not being an International Criminal Court (ICC) state party, therefore the prosecution was delayed and could only occur through Bangladesh, an ICC state member (Choudhury, 2020). For the case of Karens, international intervention may take years since some are displaced to other parts of Myanmar as well as borders between Myanmar and Thailand (has a signatory for the ICC that has not been ratified). Another disadvantage of this strategy is that Myanmar is protected by its powerful allies, including China. The only way for the ICJ to file a case against any violations is to go through the UN Security Council (UNSC). Thus far, China has vetoed all resolutions from the UNSC that denounces the actions of the Myanmar Regime against the Rohingya (Choudhury, 2020). Because Myanmar is protected by a powerful nation, China, it may take years before the Karens achieve autonomy.
The strategy of armed struggle against the Myanmar Regime and Tatmadaw is a good strategy that follows Saw Ba Oo Gyi’s principle of “Surrendering is out of the question”, however, there are some weaknesses to this strategy. For over 70 years, the Karens have executed this strategy, but have failed to achieve sovereignty. The division amongst the Karens considerably reduced the possibility of achieving autonomy. Thus, this strategy is not the best plan to attain autonomy. The strategy of negotiation with the Burmese government sounds promising but is a manipulation. The Karens have tried this strategy by signing the NCA, however, the recent killing of Naw Mu Naw reveals the recklessness of the Burma Regime. Hence, this strategy is also not the best to accomplish autonomy. The third strategy, international intervention, is the only strategy that has not been carried out completely. The visits to Washington D.C, by the Karens in the United States, are initiations of a greater plan that can inhibit the Myanmar Regime. In 2010, an article “Apartheid” explained that the Apartheid, ruled by the National Party, made segregations lawful using racial divides for nearly 50 years in South Africa. For many years, the blacks protested and endured killings before they caught international attention. Through international intervention the UNSC banned the sales of weaponry to South Africa; the United Kingdom and United States inflicted economic sanction on south Africa. Eventually, this led to the fall of the National Party and end of the Apartheid. In correspondence, the Karens need to be tenacious and protest from every nation they reside in, revealing the barbaric Myanmar Regime so world power such as the US and UK can put sanctions on Myanmar. International intervention is the strategy that can severely impact Myanmar government’s economy. With its economy failing, the Myanmar Regime will be pressured to reform its laws and terminate the oppression of other ethnic groups. Although there are some disadvantages, this strategy is the best of the three to achieving autonomy for the Karens.
There are three strategies to achieving Kaw Thoo Lei’s sovereignty. The first strategy, armed struggle, has some strengths including the perseverance of the Karens and the prevention of expansion of Tatmadaw territories and plans. In contrast, there are weaknesses to this strategy including under armed and division amongst the Karens. The second strategy, negotiation with the Burmese government, has some benefits such as peace, leadership roles, and economic opportunities for the Karens. However, there are major burdens such as giving the Myanmar Regime more authority over the Karens and other ethnic minorities. The third strategy, international intervention has some disadvantages such as the amount of time it will take to achieve it and Myanmar’s powerful ally, however, this strategy will provide the most aid for the Karens. It is the only strategy that has not been fully executed. The Karens need to unite and build a voice that is loud enough to attract international attention so the rest of the world can cut off economic ties with Myanmar and hinder its economy. In conclusion, international intervention is the best strategy to achieving Kaw Thoo Lei’s freedom and autonomy.