The Karen’s Struggle for Freedom and Autonomy
Naw Gay Ka Mwee
While the other strategies by Saw Ba U Gyi may have their usefulness at times and for some Karen people and leaders, overall, I believe international intervention is the best approach to bringing us independence and freedom.
Ba U Gyi was a beloved national leader and a revolutionary leader who was born in 1905 in a village near Bassein, Burma (now Pathein, Myanmar). He was born to a wealthy village chief and landowning father and was highly educated. After completing high school, Ba U Gyi He was sent to London, England, by his parents to study law. After he studied law, graduated with a bachelor's degree in law and worked as a lawyer in Great Britain, he returned to Burma in 1937 to help the Karen people. Although Ba U Gyi was educated, wealthy, and privileged, he left behind his riches and career to fight and use his voice for his people because he loved them and wanted to achieve their independence, freedom, and land.
Ba U Gyi founded and built a democratic political organization called the Karen National Union (KNU) that represents the Karen people of Burma, which supports democracy, peace, and human rights. He was also the first president of the KNU and a strong Karen revolutionary leader. He persistently stood up for the Karen people right up until his death.
During the 1940s, Ba U Gyi negotiated with the Burmese government and other powerful world leaders. When this failed, he resorted to using military forces to fight the Burmese military. Yet armed struggle did not give Karen people independence or freedom. The Burmese army was more powerful, shrewd, deceptive, and brutal, and overwhelmed the Karen forces' efforts. Yet the Karen people were more united under Ba U Gyi. After his assassination on August 12, 1950, Karen groups became even more fragmented. With such disunity, how can armed conflict be the best strategy for peace and freedom? However, I still think there is one good use for armed struggle: to protect innocent civilians from attacks from the Burmese military.
After the Japanese occupied Burma during World War II in 1942, none of the people had independence. After the Japanese surrendered in 1945, the leaders from the two main ethnic groups, the Burmese, and the Karen, were invited to a meeting in Great Britain to talk about independence. When the British betrayed the Karen by refusing to give them their own land, Ba U Gyi tried to negotiate with the new Burmese government. But eventually, this failed as the Burmese government escalated conflicts, various factions erupted, and nationalistic sentiments undermined negotiations. For example, before independence, Ba U Gyi and Burmese leader Aung San were good friends and both advocated for independence, but after, their friendship faltered. To be fair, these efforts were able to make some measures of temporary peace.
But even though negotiations sometimes result in short-term peace, you cannot trust the Burmese government. They have made promises to the Karen people so many times but never held down their end of the agreement. For example, my grandma told me that the Burmese signed an agreement, but the same night attempted to assassinate Karen leaders. The current NCA (National Cease-fire Agreement) only benefits the greedy Karen leaders who get kickbacks from the Burmese government. Meanwhile, the poor Karen villagers suffer, living in constant fear of attacks by the Burmese military, and struggle to make ends meet.
Saw Mutu Say Poe, the current president of KNU, does not even come close to living up to Ba U Gyi’s example (even his own sister-in-law tells me she cannot stand his leadership), but somehow, he keeps getting re-elected. Can you honestly say that negotiations are a good strategy for Karen peace and freedom if the more powerful party never acts in good faith? When the Burmese government somehow finds a way to manipulate leaders in their favor? Under Ba U Gyi’s leadership, the Karen people were united and confident, but after his death, Karen unity has suffered, and distrust in our leaders grows every year, especially in the wake of escalating war-crimes from the Burmese military, aided partly by the complicit apathy of our “leaders,” who do nothing in the wake of this. I contend if Ba U Gyi was alive today, under his humble leadership, his three strategies would have worked much more quickly.
The most important strategy is the one that failed first for Ba U Gyi. He tried to get the British to give them their own independent nation, but they refused. Consider the context of European colonialism: they were exceptionally racist against the peoples they conquered and favored ethnic groups they considered superior or otherwise fomented ethnic divisions in order to keep them fighting each other instead of their colonial dictatorship. We saw the ugly fruits of this systemic and cultural racism in Rwanda - the Hutus and Tutsis did not consider each other separate groups until the colonial German government started treating one group as superior to another. After the colonialists left (and this after creating a cultural landscape of increased racism), the infamous Rwandan genocide ensued. Another example of this colonialist mindset was when the Soviets re-drew Central Asian borders (just look at a map of the border between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan). Even today, there are ethnic tensions and fighting as a result of Soviet policies. Similarly, the English favored the Burmese, perceiving them as more educated than the Karen. The British culture and system were exceptionally racist at the time (see Rudyard Kipling's 1899 poem "White Man's Burden" for example). Though it was right for the British to leave Burma, the British could have used their privilege and power to affirm and uphold the rights of Karen people to have their own land as they left their former colony, but instead, they ignored and betrayed them, even after Ba U Gyi's pleas.
Do you see how the British government could have used their power to look out for the interests of a smaller, less-powerful minority? Imagine how different things could be if the foreign government of Great Britain actually did the right thing! Therefore I believe we must successfully convince foreign governments to intervene. The more-powerful British government could have used their privilege and power to help our people at a critical time, but they refused. The British government specifically owes us an apology and must take measures to make things right where they failed us before. Additionally, our people have fled to nations like the United States, Canada, Australia, Sweden - and of course Great Britain, too. Even though powerful interests prevent them from helping us, we can remind these powerful nations of their privileged position, and therefore show them their moral obligation to help us. For too long, we have emphasized armed struggle and negotiations to secure freedom, but to no avail. Negotiation with foreign governments is the least used of Ba U Gyi’s three strategies. By this Karen Martyrs’ Day, it will be seventy years since his death, and we still have not won our freedom yet.
In conclusion, we need a new emphasis with our strategies, and instead of relying on our corrupt, greedy leaders or the first two strategies, we must focus on international intervention and raise awareness in every nation our people inhabit. The Karen refugee diaspora has a unique opportunity that Karen villagers do not have: to speak with the leaders of the nations we fled to. My Karen friends in Australia, Britain, Canada, South Korea, and other nations can each bring fresh arguments in light of privilege and colonialism to the leaders of these nations to increase the urgency of world governments to act.