Analysis of Saw Ba U Gyi’s three strategies
Saw Hla Sein
The war-torn southeast Burma (or Kawthoolei) is a land the Karen have bravely sacrificed their lives, bloodshed and sweat (for over 70 years now since 1949) to fight for self-determination, freedom and equality from the Burmese government. As a guiding star or compass, the Karen charismatic leader Saw Ba U Kyi is a true loving heavenly father. On the battle field, just a minute before his fall on August 12, 1950, he left a great legacy urging the Karen people to follow his strategic guidelines in struggling for a desired political result. The armed struggle, political dialogue and international intervention are the only three strategies forwards our political destiny. However, after realizing that no genuine political result acquired within over seven decades, it is time to scrutinize the current situation, as a new chapter of political transition emerging in Burma, following the democratization and instalment of parliamentary governmental system. It is now crucially important to critically analyse these strategies to see which one of them is best fit to the current situation, and to find out the weaknesses and strengths lied in each of the three strategies.
Firstly, the Karen armed struggle is well-known as the longest revolutionary resistant movement in the world, formed in southeast Burma. After over seven decades with no political success, in some forms or another, it still significantly continues today. In regard to the establishment of Karen armed struggle, after the Labor Party British government, Clement Richard Attlee, rejected the Karen proposal of a separatist Karen state in 1946, the Karen then remained to co-exist with the Burmese government until 1949 after the Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Smith Dun (who was Karen) was imprisoned. Here in this same year, the extremist of Burmese nationalist U Ne Win’s suppression on the Karen people broke into Karen insurgency against his Burmese-centred government. Win or lose, the Karen people waged countless civil wars against the Burmese government. A lesson learned from the history suggests that as long as the Karen keep being armed and equipped, the Karen people and their civilization will never go extinct. According to KNU chairman General Mutu Say Poe, (as the peace-building process stales recently), to disarm is only to be subdued or mistreated by the hypothetical Burmese government- meaning that the recent political dialogue is only to brainwash and lure Karen people to give up their arm. But political dialogue is just another shameful low-life Burmese lie and scandal, no surprise. Similar to the Karen armed struggle, it is good to learn that there are many fond examples of success stories found around the world. For example, the Nagaland federal state granted in 1963 by India, East Timor independence by Indonesia in 2002, South Sudan in 2011, Kosovo in 2006 and many more.
However, Karen armed struggle also come with a huge cost. The dream for a self-determined Karen state have been shattered and devastated, following the fall of Manerplaw in 1995, the deadly outbreak of KNU splinter groups, the Karen refugees crisis and diaspora on the Thai-Burma border and the Karen IDPs issues. These negative impacts of the protracted armed conflict generate insecurity and poverty to the mass vulnerable and marginalized Karen people. Moreover, the inadequacy of financial support, man power, weapons and military supplies, technical skills and expertise challenge the Karen leaders to shit their alternative political focus as witnessed to day.
In the current political context in Burma, (even the KNU has ratified NCA in 2015), the armed struggle still plays a vital role in deterring the Burmese remilitarization and Burmanization, betrayal of trust or coup d’état in the Karen state. Recently, the deadlock of peace building process has eroded trust between KNU and the Burmese government, resulting from the frequent military reinforcement and road construction in the KNU controlled areas (especially in brigade 7). This results in fatal sporadic clashes between both sides. According to Mr. Way Lay (a consultant on the ethnic issue in Progressive Voice), there have been about 90 clashes within May and June alone, 2020. Thus, the Karen armed struggle is old but not yet expired.
Secondly, after several decades of armed struggle, alternatively, the KNU is now utilizing political dialogue to engage on table with the Burmese government for the dreamed political results as aforementioned. In doing so, the strength of this strategy can provide a great deal of potential opportunities for the mass Karen people to rise up, restore, rehabilitate, refunction and rebuild their lives and land, Kawthoolei, under several decades of intense conflict. It is time for the Karen land to be blessed and prosper and move forward. Let’s the Karen people grow and live in a war-free land to enshrine and enrich their lives. Allow them to be equipped and armed with intellectual expertise, skills, knowledge, and economic power rather than just weapons. Because the nature of political dialogue is all about to negotiate, compromise or bargain based on one’s interests, so it is a must to be wise and flexible enough on the negotiation table. This is just another way of how to win the heart of your enemy to fulfil your dreams. Taking this for granted, the KNU can also establish economic power and revitalize and reinforce its army’s strength in the meantime. As a saying goes, “let’s hope for the best but prepare for the worst”, this is to prepare as a plan B in case if the political dialogue reverse.
On the other hand, the infrastructure of the Burmese political dialogue is very fragile and immature, in which the articulations, agenda settings and decision-making processes are solely based on and influenced by the state-centric Burmese bureaucracies and military junta. It only seems superficial and fake or pretentious when the Burmese government says they want peace and tranquillity, but never heartedly or generously take any action to make it happen. There are many examples that the majority Burmese centric government does not want to contain and adapt with the diverse ethnic groups and differences. For example, the peace building process is lack of inclusion and space for the minority to participate and have a say. Some EAGs are only pressured and intimidated to join the NCA without their consent. And at the local level, it is the worst- no CSOs or CBOs’ voices be contemplated yet. So the KNU leadership have to be cautious and flexible, but careful in negotiating/bargaining on table with the Burmese government. Otherwise, we will be betrayed and fooled again repeating the old mistakes like in the 1940s.
In the political dialogue or peace building process, unless a shared vision of constructive political will/future or comprehensive and sufficient political commitment towards deferral democracy are reached between the Burmese government and Karen, it is not a choice for KNU to disarm because the Burmese-designed peace building is not peaceful at all. For instance, just after a few months the Karen EAGs inked the NCA in 2015, carelessly, the clashes between DKBA and Tatmadaw broke out and generated many IDPs in Myaing Gyi Ngu township-which as a result undermines peace building and erode trust between actors. But in the current political context, peace dialogue is a good alternative political strategy to peacefully keep bargaining for the common goods and interests of the mass Karen people, rather than heading back to armed struggle which bears massive opportunity costs.
Thirdly, on the world stage, even though the geopolitical and strategic interests of foreign powers in Burma have made it impossible for the international community to intervene and resolve the long-standing conflict on behalf of the Karen, international laws and entities such as ICJ, ICC, NATO or UN Peace Keeping Council are still liable to watchdog, pressure or even deter the Burmese government from abusing human rights or committing genocide in its own sovereign state. The good news is that the international community intervention for such peace keeping attempt can no longer be limited to an excuse of sovereignty. It is the fundamental changes of globalization in political, economic and cultural connectivity which impose the Burmese government to loosen its sovereign power to some extent. Economic sanctions, arm embargo, naming and shaming, persecution and funding cut on Burma are another good example that international community is protecting vulnerable us. In terms of the Karen case, whereas negotiation with the Burmese government does not work, it is a choice to negotiate with the world. For example, nowadays, there are many Karen communities and organizations (such as KHRG, Karen News, KESAN and even KNU itself, to name a few) around the globe closely working together with the international government and organizations to monitor and document the ground situation in the Karen state and South-eastern Burma. All sorts of documentation and statements on the human rights violation, land confiscation and militarization either committed by the Tatmadaw or the Burmese government are issued and submitted to the international entities in order to let the world know how Burma violates international collective norms and security. So I would like to urge the Karen people to learn more how to take these phenomena of international settings for granted in claiming their own federal state.
However, the constraints of this strategy in regard to international community to intervene is that the geopolitical and strategic interests on natural gas, oil and other natural resources (in Burma) for China, Thailand, and India is a real threat and barrier because these countries will downplay or even ignore the humanity grievance and sufferings. Instead of constructive negotiation or economic sanctions, for example, imposed by the EU and America, these neighbouring countries act more like a booster in aiding the authoritarian Burmese government to keep its power intact. They are not really interested to help Burma with the transitional changes of democratization and federalization that people have been longing for. This ill-mannered diplomatic relations will only bargain for what they want. When it comes to the case in the Karen state, right now, there are many foreign commercial projects and companies range from ore mining and logging to hydro-powered dams construction on the Salween River. Together with the government, the stakeholders and investors involved in these companies and projects only rarely compensate the cost of people’s sufferings and loses. As a result, the negative impact of geopolitical and strategic interest of foreign powers intensify the suppression and violation of human rights imposed on the ethnic minorities.
In the current political context in Burma, the strategy of wishing the international community to intervene for such desired political solutions on behalf of the Karen people is theoretical and utopian enough. In fact, to make this happen, it requires a substantial agreement, legality and votes among the hegemonic world powers. However, the mechanism of international community intervention for peace and security keeping afford is real and alive, as there have been many vibrant examples around the world-e.g., recently, the case of conflicts in Abyei in 2011, Kuvu in 2010 and Darfur in 2007. Alternatively, if a direct or physical intervention is not liable, the mechanism of utilizing other measures of punishments such as economic sanction, arm embargo, naming and shaming, or funding cut is a good choice to stand for humanity and deter and undermine the Burmese government and military. The Karen people must learn how these fundamental phenomena safeguard us and work in peace building and negotiation with the Burmese government for a desired political destiny.
Finally, I would like to conclude by recommending that the strategy of political dialogue is the best one for the Karen people to fight for a desired genuine political result towards peace, self-determination, equality and federal democratic Burma. The opportunity costs of armed struggle is huge while the international community intervention is seen theoretical and unrealistic. Throughout the journey, the Karen people must always keep themselves abreast and alert for the incoming unseen political challenges. And they must learn more how to be strategic, consolidate and patient by reflecting the lesson learned from their past political experiences-be careful of being lured, betrayed and brainwashed.