Free Kaw Thoo Lei
Naw Hsa Knyaw Simon
I remember jumping up and down like frogs with my friends under a big tree in Maela refugee camp, day dreaming about our land, Kaw Thoo Lei. The year was 1990, then we had no television, no electricity, no identity and no status. We were newly displaced Karen, running from war. Emerged in our imagination of Kaw Thoo Lei, we shared our dreams of wearing uniforms, attending universities and having careers like people in a free world. Surrounded by barbed wire fence, the only freedom we embrace is our imaginations.
As adults in Canada, my sisters and I have experienced more freedom, freedom of speech, freedom to vote, freedom of movement, religious freedom, freedom to accomplish our dreams, yet, I am missing the inner freedom I experienced as a child, under a big tree in Maela, near Htee Ger Nee Baptist church.
As a child, I dreamt for an independence Kaw Thoo Lei and as an adult, I still dream for an independence Kaw Thoo Lei.
However, the thought of a free Kaw Thoo Lei, has changed.
Sometimes, I think, suppose we gain Kaw Thoo Lei today, are we ready to govern our homeland? Will we be the next dictatorship country? Are we capable of standing on our feet when we are free? How important is today to tomorrow? Can we be free from corruption and traitors?
Perhaps, gaining freedom is the first step of a long journey. Perhaps, today predicts what will happen tomorrow. Perhaps, we are not ready yet. Perhaps, the process to freedom picture what Kaw Thoo Lei will look like as a future nation. If, what if, we are corrupted now in Karen state, or refugee camps, Kaw Thoo Lei will be a nation full of corruption.
Before I go on with my dreams and thoughts, let us talk about Saw Ba U Gyi’s dream about Kaw Thoo Lei - the means to win Kaw Thoo Lei. Saw Ba U Gyi predicted the Karen may win Kaw Thoo Lei by arm force, or international pressure, or table dialogue.
First, winning Kaw Thoo Lei by arm struggles. Since the beginning of the Karen revolution, we used guerrilla warfare tactics. Besides our many divisions which have weaken our military, today, some of our young men and women are even ‘forced’ to become Karen soldiers. The number of Tamadaw, according to Wikipedia, is “14,747, 845 males and 14,710,871 females” in training. Their budget is “24 billion in 2014” and their seats in parliamentary seats are “56/224 in Amyotha” and “110/440 in the Pyithu Kluttaw.” Examining these figures, we do not compare our Kaw Thoo Lei soldiers with Tamadaw. It is a war between the giant Goliath and David.
Recently in KSNG news, one Karen National Liberation Army soldier states “The Burmese Military does not want ethnic groups to increase the numbers of soldiers but Tamadaw does the opposite.” Tamadaw wish has come true when Manerplaw falls under their control, the departure of Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, the surrender of KNU Peace Council. As a result, unless we own psychological tactics or have supernatural power, we will never win by arm means.
Second means to win over Kaw Thoo Lei, international pressure. This, too, can be a challenge. Looking at some independence countries, South Sudan, the Czech Republic and Slovakia and East Timor, however, this method is not impossible.
My personal questions are as follow. Will the International community be keen to help support Burma to become small different countries [Kaw Thoo Lei/Kachin Country/Waa Country]? Or are they leaning more on supporting federal state in Burma? How powerful is the International community on the Burmese authority?
Even when Rohingya are suffering under our nose, the International community cannot save them all. Aung San Su Kyi, who was a peace icon, has turned away from the suffering of Rohingya. How much can International community get involve in Burmese affair? In conclusion to freeing Kaw Thoo Lei by means of international pressure, it is possible but it is a long process and uncertain to some degrees.
The last means Saw Ba U Gyi suggests is ‘table talk’ between the Karen revolutionary and the Burmese military junta. Reading his biography, Saw Ba U Gyi has tried all means for independent. Ba U Gyi himself worked very closely with General Aung San in reconciliation process. Aung San, as a Burmese nationalist, cannot be trusted to give Karen independence state. In fact, British governor Dormant-Smith thought Aung San was a traitor to the British government during Japanese period. Aung San, who triangled with Japanese to chase the British out, and who then triangled with British to get Burma independence, worked tirelessly to support Burmese nationalism. He may have no wish to free Kaw Thoo Lei. At the same time, we, the Karen do not wish to become second-class citizens from the beginning of the revolution. Today, we still hope and wish for independence of Kaw Thoo Lei.
Perhaps, since 2012, KNU leaders are joining Nation-wide Ceasefire Agreement, to have table talk and ease the tensions.
Is NCA beneficial to the Karen people? Turning back to the fall of Manerplaw in 1995, January 27, we learn the Karen were defeated. That year, Kachin and other ethnic groups signed NCA with the Burmese military. As a result, “hot spot” changes from year to year”, even month to month in Burma because it is the military tactic. According to Dr. Min Zaw Uu, during Myanmar Peace and Security Review 2020, “in 2018, Tamadaw had armed incidents in Kachin State and in 2019, Tamadaw has armed incident in Rakhine State and also North East Shan State,” while other states are relatively stable. The Karen are now in NCA, so besides a few small incidents in brigade 5, there is hardly any armed incidents. This is an effective tactic of Burmese military who divides and rules. Although no arm conflicts since 2012, villagers have no saying in opposed to trees being cut and experiences of exploitation - because of NCA. In certain areas, the Karen villagers are functioning more stable, yet not with full confidence nor with no fear. If ask why our leaders are now signing NCA with the Burmese military? Is it really for peace or power? Who ignore the small voices of their fellow villagers? Who want to silent those who opposed them?
Therefore, if we get independent today, from international pressure or peace dialogue or even by fighting, the struggles do not end here. Independence is the beginning of what Kaw Thoo Lei will look like in the future; the process determines the future. If we are corrupted now, Kaw Thoo Lei will be more corrupted when it is a free nation. So, I hope and pray our Karen youth, who will be our future leaders, take a different route. Our model could be Saw Ba Uu Gyi, a nationalist and a man with integrity.
I hope Karen youth will sacrifice themselves like Saw Ba Uu Gyi: for instance, “he owned a house in Sanchaung quarters of Rangoon but… made this the Rangoon headquarters of the Karen Central Organization.” Likewise, he had forsaken his own wealthy lifestyle to help his people in the jungle. Like he was determined to get education – “Saw Ba U Gyi was called to the British bar in 1929.” Like he had chosen to serve his people. Like he finally died as a hero without a cemetery.
I hope and pray, therefore, Saw Ba U Gyi’s heart will influence our Karen youth so that we love Kaw Thoo Lei, that we sacrifice, that we set goals, that we dream dreams, that we long for equality, that we hate corruption, that we are humble, that we love to study, that we are with integrity, that we love honesty, that we love our Karen people.
And remember, Saw Ba U Gyi had sacrificed his life so we can survive as a nation. If we happen to read the Burmese military constitution, we will learn that we are not ‘wanted’. The Burmese military is working tirelessly to kill our language, our culture, our customs, our traditions, and anything that implies Karen. We should wake up. We must stand up. We must study more to know we have been exploited by whom. We must learn about Karen traditional stories, songs, poems, clothing, and history. We must speak our mother tongue to fight our disappearance.
I am a Karen Canadian who came back to live in Maela refugee camp after I finished school in Canada. One observation I find is, the best place for the Karen, as a nation, to survive and to practice being Karen is, ironically, the refugee camps. In refugee camps, we are free to learn our language, speak our language, and study Karen history, unlike Thai Karen nor Burmese Karen who do not have access to our history in Thai schools or Burmese schools, except a few Karen who voluntarily self-studying. In developed countries, Karen kids hardly speak any Karen. In Thailand and Burma, Karen kids are not proud to be called Karen. But, and a huge but, in refugee camps, I see pride and self-worth to be Karen. Speaking up this, I do not judge any Karen group. It is my personal observation and, I have learned that my decision of coming back to the refugee camp and live here, is not a waste. I am a very proud Karen refugee who lack freedom of movement by living in a big prison, yet I have all kinds of freedom to enjoy, above all freedom - to be Karen.
And in here, I hope to encourage our Karen youngsters to use our talents to fight, fight our own desire to corruption, fight laziness to study and improve our skills, fight our ignorance to know our own history, and fight to become leaders of substance, leaders with integrity and love others. Like New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern states, “Yes, we need robust democracy, but you can be strong, and you can be kind.” I hope new generation Karen will have the spirit of Saw Ba U Gyi, who was strong, yet kind.
I hope our Karen leaders to shine and show the world what a free Kaw Thoo Lei will look like. By the time we learn to be freed from our own negative thoughts, blaming, corruption, and complaining, we will then see a free Kaw Thoo Lei with hopeful future, the Kaw Thoo Lei, ‘rhymes’ [go together with] with her own name, a land with no evil.
I wish to see free Kaw Thoo Lei that we, Karen people of Kaw Thoo Lei, determine our own fortune. We blame no one. We triangle with no one and gossip about no one. We complain no more. We work hard and dream dreams in the true free Kaw Thoo Lei.