Saw Ba U Gyi’s Three ways for the Karen Struggle for Freedom and Autonomy to Succeed
Kane Hay Tha
Freedom and autonomy are the sole and very reasons for an ethnic group’s existence and their nationalistic aspiration. The Karens, as one of the most prominent ethnic groups in Burma, has been fighting for independence and greater autonomy for more than seven decades, and generations of their political leaders have held a number of peace talks with the Burmese government throughout the period. Saw Ba U Gyi, the first president of the Karen National Union (KNU), has put forward the ‘Three Ways of Struggle’ in which the Karens can achieve freedom and autonomy. These are: (a) an armed struggle, (b) a political dialogue to achieve a negotiated settlement, and (c) an international intervention. Through the decades of struggle, the three strategies have been routinely tested, through our own experience or elsewhere in the world. It is high time we learned from these experiences, assessed their strengths and weaknesses, and prepared for the challenges ahead of us.
A successful armed struggle is conducive to lasting peace after a civil war. According to an American international relations scholar Monica Toft, civil wars ended by negotiated settlements are more likely to lead to the recurrence of armed conflicts than those ended by military victories. Undoubtedly with the same rationale in mind, Ba U Gyi put armed struggle in the first place in his declaration. There are also near-term advantages of armed struggle which are the universal respect for the Karen people, the preservation of lives and dignity, and partial self-determination of the Karens. Thanks to the KNU’s unyielding armed revolution, the Burmese government, the neighboring countries, and the international community still recognize it as a rightful political entity. Today, the bleak circumstances of the ethnic minorities worldwide should be a more than sufficient proof that, without the seven-decade-long armed struggle, the Karens could have been forcibly driven out of their land or subjected to ethnic cleansing.
On contrary, armed struggle can also be harmful to lives and well-being of people. Apart from the unavoidable casualties of war that affected the armed personnel and affiliated civilians, a war can exacerbate human right abuse, poverty, and illiteracy. It also perpetuates hatred and violence from one generation to the next. One can currently witness that the armed struggle has led us nowhere near our goal. In fact, with the volatility of the conflict and the emotionally charged nature of wars, the struggle only caused more fractions and disunity among the Karen people.
Political dialogue has grown to be a conventional mode of conflict resolution worldwide after World War II. The UN and other international organizations become leading actors in mediating interstate and intrastate conflicts from Latin American to the Caribbean, the Balkans, Asia Pacific and Africa. Following this convention, the Burmese government has engaged in political dialogue with scores of ethnic armed organizations (EAO) including its oldest one, the KNU. Adopting the second approach of political resolution by Ba U Gyi, the KNU signed the landmark National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in 2015 and held a series of peace talk with the Burmese government ever since. Immediately, civilians under the KNU-controlled areas enjoyed the taste of peace for the first time as armed conflict was deescalated. Civilians return to their ordinary lives as the accord brought about a long-awaited peace. People also relished their new-found freedom as economic activities are thriving, and freedom of movement, speech and the press is permitted, to a certain degree. Human right violations like torture, porter, forced disappearance, and indiscriminate detention were significantly curtailed. The KNU was also removed from the list of illegal organizations. Trust was rebuilt through the newly formed liaison offices, and movement of troops from both sides were restricted through an agreed-upon demarcated line. The quality of life for the veteran politicians and armed personnel has also been improved. They can now enjoy their long-lost peaceful life without having to be fully alerted all the time in a life-threatening environment.
Nonetheless, political analysts have argued that the NCA has laid a political trap for the signatories. While the EAOs abide by the agreement, the Burma Army (BA) increases its armed force, builds roads into the EAO-controlled areas and, allegedly, prepares for imminent armed conflicts. The ceasefire agreement also helped the BA to reduce their armed force around the KNU-controlled area and allowed them to launch its offensive elsewhere including in Shan, Kachin and Rakhine territories. Not only does the NCA benefit the BA militarily, but it also weakens the EAOs’ economic independence and threatens the survival of local communities and environment. After the NCA, foreign investment started to dominate the local economy and Chinese companies has now reached the untouched forests in the EAO-controlled areas. Consequently, the local communities suffered drastic change in their way of life and lost their control over the environmental resources in their region.
International intervention, the last of the three approaches, has never been tried in the Karen-Burma context. In the past, the KNU found key, yet discreet and unreliable, allies in the United States and Thailand. However, in a strict sense of the term, this could not be regarded as an international intervention. An intervention can be triggered when systematic human rights violation, such as genocide, war crime, ethnic cleansing and crime against humanity, is committed by any party. A few decades ago, a number of educated people from the ethnic minorities in Burma, including some Karens, had unsuccessfully tried to find an end to the country’s civil war by using international intervention. Even though the evidence of such violation against the Karen people and other minority in the past is discernible, they failed to draw international attention to the issue, and the intervention never came to fruition.
Still, intervention comes at a cost. First, intervention implies giving up certain decision-making power to the international actors. This means that if we try to pursue international intervention, the Karens may not get to determine their own destiny. Besides, with intervention comes interference, whether it be political or economic. Even if a successful intervention occurs, the influence of the intervening parties will persist for at least some time. These circumstances may undermine the Karens’ aspiration for freedom and autonomy.
Saw Ba U Gyi’s three political struggles have been the key political doctrine for the Karen politicians for decades. Particularly, armed struggle and political dialogue have been attempted and brought certain benefits to the Karens, but they did not lead us closer to our vision of a free and autonomous Karen state. The need for a Karen armed force to protect our people from the belligerent regime is indisputable, but a victorious armed struggle is nowhere in sight. While political dialogue does provide an unprecedented, yet uncertain, lasting peace for the Karens and other ethnic groups, it is putting us in a bind. While the Burmese government are betraying the trust to reap the economic benefits, and militarily and economically encroach on the EAO-controlled areas, the EAOs are reluctant to take any action that might destroy the peace their people are currently enjoy. As we are grappling with the uncertainty that lies ahead of us, in my view, we need to seriously consider international intervention as the solution to this longest civil war.
In Burma, systematic violation of human rights is widespread, mainly in ethnic areas and the country’s periphery. Using KNU’s Ba U Gyi third way, educated ethnic people in Burma try to find a termination to the country’s civil war by using international intervention. One recent example of international intervention through legal process is when Gambia brought Burma to International Court of Justice (ICJ) in December 2019 over the genocidal act of Rohingya Muslims, a situation coined by UN as “Genocidal Intent”. Other international interventions are the economic sanctions, foreign support of opposition, the broadcast of military persecution by foreign presses and military intervention. The advantage of international intervention for the Karens and other ethnicity is to topple the unjust regime, subject the war criminals to justice and establish rule of law and federalism.
International intervention can be both military and non-military forms of interventions. Things like humanitarian aids and international sanctions are the non-military forms of intervention while deployment of military into a Burma is the military form. Conflict prevention and mediation, peace enforcement, peacemaking, peacekeeping, monitoring and peacebuilding are a few types of humanitarian intervention carried out by EU, UN, AU and NATO. Article 2(7) of UN Charter clearly stated that UN or other international organization must not intervene in the domestic affair of another member state. But chapter VII reiterates that if a state poses threats to the region and acts in aggression, UN can have justified military intervention. Furthermore, Article 27 stated that if all five permanent and nine non-permanent members of UNSC voted “yes”, international intervention is approved. This is one way to get international intervention in Burma, which is aforementioned by Ba U Gyi.
In Burma, international intervention can eventuate in a non-military form by urging the international communities to put a harsher economic sanction, broadcasting the BA atrocities and supporting opposition political parties, ethnic organizations and civil societies. Despite article 2 (7), military intervention from international communities is possibly happening through the morality of responsibility to protect (R2P) as endorsed by all UN member states to prevent genocide, war crime, ethnic cleansing and crime against humanity. The non-interference in the face of atrocity is not acceptable. Any government has a full responsibility to protect its citizens from human rights abuses. If it fails to do, it becomes an international concern according to articles 2, 39 and 51 of the UN Charter. Specifically, if the minorities in a state is being subjected to fragrant human right violation, international has the ethical responsibility to intervene. For example, after the collapsed of former Yugoslovagia, NATO intervened in Bosia which eventually created a lasting peace in the country. Likewise, in Burma the Karens and other ethnic groups shall form a coalition to attract international intervention. After the formation of coalition, the ethnic groups in Burma must come up with one voice. Ethnic groups have enough evidence of mass and systematic human right violations. A recent example from the world’s newest country, South Sudan, is the result of international intervention. After UN sent the blue-helmet troops to Sudan and South Sudan border, the two countries signed Comprehensive Peace Agreement with the help of a regional organization in Africa. Eventually, South Sudan gained independence with the help of international and regional intervention.
Burma is ethnically diverse. The ethnic groups must reveal the hidden human right abuses committed by BA and call on international interventions. For instance, the autonomous Kurdistan Region in norther Iraq is politically stable only after a series of UN and US’s intervention. Like the Karens and BA, Kurds and Iraqi government engaged in fierce army conflict. However, a series of non-military intervention by UN and US can bring the two warring parties into political stabilization, resulting in Kurd autonomy. Additionally, United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) is a military intervention by UN to end the atrocities committed by Indonesia and pro-Indonesia militia in East Timor. With enough evidence, all the five permanent members and 15 non-permanent members voted “Yes”. Finally, it allowed UNAMET to operate and end the decades-long conflict between Indonesia and East Timor. Armed struggle and political dialogue became ineffective until East Timor adopted international intervention.
Ba U Gyi’s three political platforms have been political guidelines for the Karens. Each has its advantages and disadvantages and each were tested but failed. So, international intervention seems to be the only way to have more possibility to get the Karens to their long-wanted freedom. Armed struggle is not a solution to Burma’s civil war because fighting between BA and combined army of all EAOs resulted in stalemate. Political dialogue is also unproductive since trust was broken by the BA from generation to generations. So, autonomy and freedom for the Karens can be succeeded only when inclusive approach was adopted by inviting international intervention, whether in military or non-military forms. Finally, federalism is the only system that will give power balance between the central government and state government, including the autonomous or federal state of Kaw Thoo Lei.