70th Karen Martyr’s Day Essay Contest
May June Paw
As a Karen refugee, born and raised in Mae Ra Moe, Thailand refugee camp, I had to dig deep to learn the
history of my people. My family ran for safety from Myanmar; my parents gave us children strength and belief in
resilience. Through the stories of my parents, elders, and neighbors, told at church, in movies, and through
monitoring of the news, I acquired a knowledge of what it was like for the Karen people to face fear. I learned our
story, the struggle for freedom and land.
I grew up admiring Aung San Suu Kyi for her braveness to fight for freedom; I also admired all the Karen
leaders who have fought for our freedom. As I became older, I saw the reality of Aung San Suu Kyi’s actions and
how harmful they were to the indigenous people of Myanmar. I spent my childhood dreaming about becoming a
Karen advocate. Now I am older, and hopefully my dreams will begin to become a reality. When I was a child, I
often heard stories about the war and genocide in Burma. These stories increased the urgency for the Karen people
to succeed and gain an independent Karen land. I believe one day the truth will show who we are; that truth will
secure our freedom.
At the KNU Congress in 1949, President Saw Ba U Gyi spoke about three strategies for the ethnic Karen
people to obtain freedom and autonomy: 1) armed struggle; 2) political dialogue and negotiated settlements with
the Burmese government; and 3) international intervention and arrangement on the behalf of the Karen people. In
this essay, I will analyze the pros and cons of these strategies and discuss the one I think is best for the Karen
people to realize their freedom and an independent land today in 2020.
The first strategy, the armed struggle against the Burmese government, has continued for 70 years. One
positive result coming from this combat was the formation of the KNU, Karen National Union. The KNU is the
main reason the Karen culture and people are still alive today. There needed to be someone to stand up and fight
against this Burmese dictatorship. One of the Burmese generals stated he wanted to make all Karen vanish from
this world. He wanted Karen genocide. Karen had to fight for survival, land and dignity. The KNU is also
responsible for establishing schools, hospitals, and organizations that help Karen people. The KNU has given our
people strength and confidence, organization and power. We have a capable leadership. Many Karen people are still
in Myanmar today, and they believe in the power of our armed resistance, the KNU. By necessity and grit, this
armed group gave our people a sense of security, that we would not disappear.
The problem of an armed struggle is a Karen army with weapons needs funding. As we all know, many of
the Karen villagers’ were rice field workers with barely enough money to survive, let alone support a thriving
society with tax payments. Sometimes Karen would pay taxes in rice and often they would give their sons for the
army. They already were struggling to survive; how could they afford weapons? Also, of course, an armed struggle
resulted in a lot of innocent lives being lost. I have heard many stories of Karen people losing someone they loved
and cared for. I feel their pain and at times it is difficult to comprehend their suffering. Death happens everywhere,
not only on the battlefield. My Karen neighbor told me her story. She gave birth to 11 children and only 4
survived. Escape, running in the rain, her husband dying, and her kids becoming sick, all of this because of war
and hatred of Karen people and greed for land. I admire her for not giving up and continually fighting for the best
for her children. But, that is why we must stop this fight. In my opinion, the more we fight, the more the Burmese
government wants to fight back; they become soldiers, who begin to normalize a perpetual armed battle. Fighting
for over 70 years, the Burmese have not surrendered, nor have they returned to us our land or our freedom.
The second strategy is political dialogue and a negotiated settlement with the Burmese government. We
cannot talk about this topic without mentioning the NCA, National Ceasefire Agreement. The NCA is part of the
Myanmar Peace Process. While many, including the United Nations and international communities, may seem
hopeful for this NCA, a lot of Karen people have no belief it will succeed. We can only have successful political
dialogue if there is trust on both sides. There should not be a business negotiation for land and power. It should be
given freely without the Burmese government getting anything from the Karen people. We have given many lives
for this land and freedom. However, on the positive side, we want this peace process to work, we can not lose any
more Karen lives. However, the question remains whether we can believe it can happen. An elder where I live now
has said, “I don’t care if Aung San Suu Kyi and Burmese government want to do business, they can do whatever
they want, but one thing I don’t want them to do is kill, hurt, or make the villagers run. The villagers don’t bother
them, they just stay and do work for their own living; just let them have peace.” Under the NCA, one of our Karen
village chiefs, Saw O Moo, was killed by the Burmese Army. Subsequently, his whole village had to run away and
hide. He was an activist for the Salween Peace Park. Many more Karen and indigenous ethnic people had to escape
their villages during the NCA. Aung San Suu Kyi persisted that “ethnic cleansing was not happening”. The KNU
signed the NCA many years ago. Peace should not take this long. While we wait for this peace process to succeed,
many people have lost their loved ones, becoming refugees due to massacres still happening in Burma. We can not
live in fear any more. I believe NCA can work if they focus on taking away the use of weapons and make peace for
the indigenouss Karen people. Also, some countries could put international pressure to not sell weapons to the
Burmese government; this will also help stop the war.
The time has come to stop the killings of indigenous people. We must keep in mind when we participate in a
peace process to remember Saw Ba U Gyi’s 4 principals: “1) For us, surrender is out of the question; 2) the
recognition of Karen state must be complete; 3) we shall retain our arms; and 4) we shall decide our own political
Many of us know there is more to gaining land than meets the eye. Beyond what is just, those with power
seek to maintain control of the resources in the indigenous lands of Myanmar. Consequently, there is still a lot of
killing and spreading of fear, even during this peace process. The Bumese government and the people who are
involved in this process seem to take little or no action and are just pretending. About a week ago, I saw on
Facebook a Karen mother of three children killed by two Burmese soldiers. I did not hear anything from the
Burmese government apologizing or helping out the family who was orphaned by this killing. Today, I see protests
in the Karen state, in the Mu Traw district, for justice for Naw Mu Naw and others who were killed by the Burmese
army during this time. This brings more doubt to the Karen people and the validity of the NCA.
The third strategy is international intervention and helps to foster autonomy for the Karen people. The
positive side of this is the United Nations will give the power back to our people, like my parents. We would not
have to work with people or countries who are dishonest, countries who only want the riches from Myanmar. Many
larger countries seem to care more about money, than refugees or people. The Karen land needs to be returned and
referenced by the Karen name, Kaw Thoo Lei. We need to be able to govern our own land and to create our own
The negative side is that everybody wants a “piece of the pie”. Karen people called the Karen state, “Kaw
Lah,” Green Land, and many people called Burma, “Golden Land.” These names demonstrate the many natural
resources and gold that people are greedy to secure for their own benefit and their own country. Also, Myanmar is
one of the underdeveloped countries that China wants to modernize. What China does not know is the indigenous
people like the way they live, simple and peaceful. There may be no internet or road by the mountain sides, but
those villages, like my parents' village, do not mind climbing mountains for hours and carrying their possessions.
As long as there is no fear of loss of life, they are willing to keep the land natural and pollution free. That is one of
the reasons why the war has been going on for so long. We know countries come into Myanmar to mine our land.
Other countries need to see and hear the story of the villagers and help the ethnic people. I believe that if people
pursue the truth and care about the indiginous people, peace and freedom can be obtained.
This essay has been inspired by my family, especially my mother and father. While writing, they talked to me
about their lives in Myanmar. They had no weapons and barely survived. They never went to school or had any say
in political decisions. Their opinions were never valued; many think of them as uneducated. They are wise,
insightful people. They are proud to be Karen. Since I have lived in America, I have met and become friends with
other refugee families who also lost their rights, freedom and land. These refugees are from Myanmar, like the
Rohingya and Chin, and countries around the world.
While the world is developing and becoming more globalized, there are still a lot of indigenous people who
want to live their old way of life and take care of mother earth. It is important that we respect and honor their
desires and the importance of their struggle to make the world a better place. One strategy for an autonomous land
and freedom is the use of globalization to spread our story. Karen people are dispersed all over the world This
strategy of coming together in groups in the country where we now live and advocating for Karen freedom, telling
our unique stories. We can also share our freedom fight over social media and write our histories in Karen, English,
or French, from Norway to Australia, and in any country where Karen people are living. This is important for the
new Karen generation and for everyone to understand and remember. By spreading the story of our people, we can
change others’ minds about the Burmese Army and keep our story alive. Our children will then know our history.
Books, like Undaunted, by Zoya Phan, keep our history in the forefront. In our own media accounts, we can also
share, write articles and discuss our personal stories. We can build networks and stand strong together, even
digitally. We may have different ideas or perspectives, but we all want freedom and autonomy for our people.
In one idea, one image, we come together as one person. If we stand together we may not need international
invention on behalf of Karen people, Karen people are living around the world internationally and we can be that
international that helps our people finally have freedom and autonomy.