Analysis of Saw Ba U Gyi’s three strategies for Karen struggle for freedom and autonomy
Saw Blut Doh Say
The coming August 12 will be our 70th Karen Martyr’s day which is the day we commemorate and honor the death of our first president of the Karen National Union (KNU), Saw Ba U Gyi with those who died and injured fighting for the independence of our Karen people. Before Saw Ba U Gyi was assassinated, he once told our Karen people that there were three ways to achieve our self-autonomy. The three ways were armed struggle, political dialogue, and International intervention. We used all the strategies that were suggested by him to achieve our dreams for over 70 years, but we have not received autonomy yet. Instead, we have faced brutal political restrictions, cultural suppression, and economic exploitation and even genocide at the hands of Burmese’s military (Tatmadaw) regimes. Therefore, by honoring our leaders and everyone who sacrificed their lives for our independence, I would like to analyze the advantages and disadvantages of each strategy then I would like to share my opinion about how to achieve our self-autonomy.
At the beginning of our Karen revolution, our Karen leaders chose the armed struggle as the first strategy to fight for our self-autonomy. We did not reach our dream by using this Armed Struggle. Instead, we faced many difficulties. However, I assume that our leader made the right decision for choosing the armed struggle. According to our Karen history, at first, our leaders peacefully tried their best in non-violence ways by sending a delegation of four Karen leaders to London to negotiate our Karen’s case with the British government to create a United Frontier Karen state but they did not reach any agreement. After Burma gained its independence from Britain on 4 January 1948, four hundred thousand of our Karen people once again peacefully demonstrated for the creation of a Karen state but the Burmese did not accept our statements. So, we had no choice but to start an armed struggle for self-autonomy. Using armed struggle helped us to defend our land, our people, and our identity. In the book A Land Without Evil: “Stopping the Genocide of Burma’s Karen people”, written by Benedict Rogers, in 1992, Burmese Major-General Ket Sein proclaimed that “in ten years, all Karen would be dead. If you want to see a Karen, you will have to go to a museum in Rangoon”. Myanmar’s military action against us showed that they didn’t’ want peaceful negotiation. The Armed struggle also helped us to maintain our local authority. Only in the areas that are fully controlled by our KNLA (Karen National Liberation Army) armed group, we have the rights to practice our culture, tradition, beliefs, learn our language, and study with our own education curricular without the restriction of the Burmese government. On the other hand, armed struggle also brought some disadvantages to our Karen people. Due to the lack of a sufficient military budget and soldiers, we could hardly use a defensive strategy to fight against the Tatmadaw. Moreover, because of the armed struggle, we had to flee the conflict and human rights violations from the hands of Burmese dictatorship. We became refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). In the report of Karen Women Organization (KWO), more than 70,000 Karen refugees and asylum seekers live in refugee camps in Thailand. Another 200,000 people in Karen areas inside Burma have become IDPs. Therefore, only armed struggle is a risky path to fight for our independence Unless we have a strong-armed power.
According to Saw Ba U Gyi, Political negotiation with the Burmese government will be the second option to gain our self-autonomy. Karen National Union (KNU) has signed a ceasefire agreement with the Tatmadaw since 2012 until now but we have not received any satisfactory announcement from our leaders yet. The statement of KNU/KNLA said that the Tatmadaw broke the statements that are mentioned in part 3 (5) in National Ceasefire agreement (NCA) and did military operations beyond the limited areas, and sent more supplies of food and soldiers to their army camps which are in our KNU’s area. They built more military camps and made them bigger and stronger than before. They also committed arbitrary arrests and killings in our areas. Their actions broke some of our leaders’ trust. For example, our Gr. Ner Dah and Gr. Baw Kyaw already lost their trust in NCA which led to some disagreements among our people. As an optimist, I see this option as a tool to help our different Karen armed groups to meet and discuss unity. A lot of conflicts among our different Karen armed groups reduced after our KNU signed a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese military. According to Gr. Johnny, our parent organization, KNU has more time to meet and build more a mutual understanding with the different armed groups such as DKBA, KNU/KNLA PC, and BGF. Extreme violence, destruction, and mortality have reduced a lot compared to the period of active fighting before NCA was signed. Some Karen people including me experience fewer fears to go around Myanmar. Activists, organizations, and some Karen people from Burmese military-controlled areas have less restriction and less fear to come to our KNU’s controlled area. Therefore, this strategy is appropriate only when we are sure that the Tatmadaw will not use it only for its benefit.
International intervention would be the third strategy to approach our self-autonomy as stated by Saw Ba U Gyi. International organizations can help us only to prevent human rights abuses and to stand as middlemen to put pressure on the Burmese military to respect our identity. International organizations including the United Nations (UN) and Free Burma Ranger (FBR) investigated and reported the human rights abuses and mass killings that were committed by the Burmese military to help the international community to know more about the brutal actions of the Tatmadaw. According to the Burma campaign organization, the U.S and some European Countries imposed many sanctions on the Tatmadaw over the ethnic crackdown and human rights abuses inside Myanmar. Some international media including Cable News Network (CNN) and British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) reported that Some international business firms stopped doing business with the Tatmadaw and some countries also stopped selling weapons to them. The sanctions might stifle the Tatmadaw to grow its military power and its economic power. Going to the International Court of Justice is also another pressure for the Tatmadaw. These pressures could force the Tatmadaw to maintain a ceasefire agreement with some ethnic armed groups including KNU to hold back military image. On the other hand, International organizations could not fully help us to achieve our dream. According to VOA news which was written by Saibal Dasgupta, China is unlikely to support any actions that would put pressure on the Burmese military because China has huge business interests and Belt and Road’s trade project in Myanmar. Reuters news agency also reported that China and Russia block the U.N council concern about Myanmar violence. On 17 January 2020, when Chinese President Xi Jinping met the Myanmar Government, he said that China would work together with Myanmar for the benefit of both sides. Therefore, only international intervention is not a promising strategy to approach our dream
Based on what I mentioned above, we do not have enough strengths to use only one strategy. We do not have enough budget and soldiers to use only the armed struggle. I worry that the Tatmadaw will never fulfill our dream by using only the political movement and negation. For instance, Catalonia is a region that fights for its independent state through social and political movements. When the local government held referendums in 2014 and 2017, most voters voted for an independent state, but the central government did not accept their movements because Catalonia does not have any other way to support its political movements. Besides, we do not have enough authority to change our planed strategy accordingly. Unlike our KNU, the Tatmadaw has more power to play with its planned strategies. They used many strategies, including military force, political negotiation, and international intervention to destroy us. For example, the Tatmadaw tried to sign a ceasefire with Kachin (KIA) from 1994 to 2011 but they could not convince KIA to surrender so they started fighting KIA again. As soon as they started fighting KIA and other ethnic armed groups, they quickly approached our KNU to sign a ceasefire and had political talks with them from 2012 until now but they did not give us the autonomy yet. Russian and China also help the Tatmadaw by intervening in the International Security Council so other international organizations could not fully put pressure on the Burmese Military.
From my perspective, we can gain our self-autonomy through either one of the suggested strategies. However, we should use all the suggested strategies to support themselves. As I know, different countries use different strategies to gain their independence. For example, Northern Ireland used the armed struggle and political negotiation to pressure the British government. East Timor used the armed struggle and political negotiation but gained its independence through the International intervention. So, it means that we can also achieve our dream through one of these strategies. To use all the suggested strategies effectively, we first need to grow our armed power to strengthen our political power. According to a famous Chinese leader Mao Zedong, “all political power comes from the barrel of a gun”. The history already proved that only the ethnic groups that have stronger armed power have more political power and get more opportunities to take control of their territories. For example, the Wa Army (WA) has more authority to control its land because it is the strongest armed group in Myanmar. When we have very strong-armed power and political power, we will have more strengths to mix these two strategies and put pressure on the Tatmadaw and the central government like Northern Ireland did to the British government. For example, we must grow our armed power as much as possible during the ceasefire agreement. When the ceasefire agreement does not bring any improvement for our people or when the Tatmadaw does not follow the agreement and operate beyond the limited areas, we should not hesitate to attack the Tatmadaw. When we lack a sufficient military budget, we can move back to political negation. We fight for our self-autonomy by mixing these two strategies that may take several decades but we should never give up because it also took Northern Ireland more than a century to achieve its dream. When the central government and the Tatmadaw can longer resist our demand, they might trick us like the Indonesian government tricked East Timor. For example, the president of Indonesia thought that the majority of Timorese will still want to be a part of Indonesia so he requested the UN to hold a referendum to let Timorese vote either greater autonomy within Indonesia of Independence in 1999. When most voters want separation from Indonesia, Indonesia's president used military force to take over East Timor by killing many people and abusing human rights. Finally, the UN intervened and helped East Timorese to gain its independence. We can learn from the East Timor experience, and preparing ourselves by not committing the human rights abuses. Moreover, we need to make sure that most of our people will vote for our self-autonomy. Therefore, we need to use all the strategies to support themselves to gain our self-autonomy.
In conclusion, we are still weak to use only one of the suggested strategies. Sometimes, we may have to follow the political strategies which are planned by the Tatmadaw and the central government because they have more authority and power to change their strategies. So, I believe that we should prepare to use all the suggested strategies to fight for our dream. When we have strong armed-power, political power, and when international organizations stand with us, we can easily use all the suggested strategies to put pressure on the Tatmadaw to give us self-autonomy.