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Karen Resistance: Toward an Uncharted Future



Hsajune Dyan

In 1949, Karen revolution began in a densely populated region in delta, but gradually drifted to a sparsely inhabited mountainous terrain in eastern Burma. Saw Ba U Gyi, equipped with modern education and considered the father of Karen revolution, set out to help govern Burma after the British fled. Accompanied him were leaders such as Saw Sai Kay, Skaw Mawlay, Hunter Thamwe, and Mahn Ba Zan. But things didn't work out as tension erupted between grassroots. Karen people declared the right to self-determination was opposed. As a result, armed conflicts ensued and it's technically a dispute between Karen and Burman vying for control over the uncharted future.   

Amid political uncertainties and social unrest, Saw Ba U Gyi outlined four principles as a framework to shape the outcome of the unsettled political and military contests. According to him, paths to victory for Karen included armed struggled, political negotiation and international intervention. He pushed these strategies forward, but evidently there were more setbacks. Before the Burmese troops ambushed and assassinated his entourage, his unrealized strategy was a campaign outside Burma to seek political supports from international community. As promising as this strategy may seem then, it literally died with him on August 12, 1950. The untimely death of Saw Ba U Gyi marked setbacks, politically and militarily, for Karen resistance movement toward self-determination. 

The World Since 1950s

Since the first bullet was fired on January 31, 1949 in Insein, the world has rapidly morphed. Just to reference a few contemporary events, the United States has elected 13 presidents, from Harry S. Truman to Donald J. Trump. There had been numerous conflicts, caused by opposing ideologies, which included Korean War, Cold War, Vietnam War, Gulf War, Bosnia War, Kosovo War, War in Afghanistan and Iraq War, etc. Germany has unified, Soviet Union has collapsed, and Koreans remain politically divided. Since 1950s, several new nation-states emerged from Balkans and more than 50 nations gained independent from the British.
In 1950s, there're 2.5 billion people lived in the world. Since then, some incredible achievements by human race included sending people to outer space and landing men on the moon. Japan leapfrogs to become technology/economy power and China has reawaken as global super power. Regionally, Vietnam defeated U.S. encroachment, Cambodia crushed communist regime, Thailand and Singapore emerged as financial hub, and East Timor gained independence. Dubai, once a tiny desert town, has now become a modern metropolis. The world has become a global village where ideas, technology, commerce and trade interconnected. Interdependency is a new normal. European Union (EU) has integrated to become a powerful bloc. New scientific studies have discovered cure for deadly diseases and artificial intelligence has become more prominent. Information technology is on the verge of commercializing 5G mobile network and space travel/tourism is closer to reality. Currently our world population is reaching 7.5 billion people. Despite all these, Karen resistance movement hasn't really progressed. In fact, 72 years of ongoing strive for self-determination is currently in jeopardy.

Armed Struggle

Armed struggle has its place in transforming a country and its people. Successful revolutions tended to be swift and decisive. Most notably, American Revolution, from 1775-1783, took about 8 years for Americans to break away from absolute British monarchy. The Cuban Revolution took merely 6 years from 1952-1958 for Fidel Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara to install communist/socialist system in Cuba. Iranian Revolution of 1978-1979 took less than a year to end Shah's rule. Successful revolutions were led by leaders with great vision and deed. Leadership matters. 

In 1949, Karen and Burman gravitated toward violence after several failed attempts of political dialogues. Visionary leaders, namely General Aung San and Saw Ba U Gyi, defended their people's interests, but neither lived to witness the backwardness that Burma has become. Unfortunately, they were assassinated and the absence of these extraordinary architects had forced those who remained scrambled for political identities and directions. Young and fueled by a strong nationalist sentiment, subsequent leaders such as U Nu and Mahn Ba Zan sorted their differences through unsuccessful political dialogues and military campaigns. And the path they chose has led to one of the longest civil wars currently existed.  

Unlike seven decades prior, today's reality is drastically different. In the context of military comparison, Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) has military personal estimated between 5,000-7,000. Whereas Burmese Tamadaw, between Army, Navy, Air Force and People's Militia, combined over 400,000 active troops. The ratio of 1 to 80 is literally disadvantage to KNLA. Additionally, the gap in military technologies is beyond comparison, with Tamadaw continuously upgraded its military hardware/software from vendors across the globe.    

Political Dialogue 

    Political dialogue is necessary to negotiate differences. But if history is any indication, for generations, political dialogues between Karen and Burman were driven by ill-motives and insincerity. Saw Ba U Gyi led political dialogues, but he was bluntly forced to rethink. Mahn Ba Zan put together a new path forward to lead Karen resistance, but his fragile alliances were defeated by the hands of infamous General Ne Win. General Saw Bo Mya, in his later years, scrambled to negotiate peace settlement with General Khin Nyunt, but was betrayed. Karen leaders have been deceived and lied repeatedly and this only exacerbated mistrust. Toxic relationship needs mediation and time for healing. Sincerity is a sacred commodity and to achieve a genuine peace, political dialogue should not be use as a tool for exploitation and disguise deception. Sincerity matters.   

    Staying hopeful and optimistic in this new era of political transformation is not understatement. However, any change is difficult, if not impossible, with the current system/structure. For instance, 2008 Constitution was put together by military old guards to preserve and protect the military status quo. In a sense, the 2008 Constitution is literally sham as it's written to prolong Tamadaw's sphere of influence. Amending individual section/clause is not a viable option to transcend Burma from poverty to prosperity. In recent years, the country's civil war has intensified with reemergence of Rakhine Army in the west. Decades of peace agreement between Tamadaw and Kachin broke out in the north which resulted in major armed skirmishes. War on two fronts quickly forced Tamadaw to enter ceasefire agreement with Karen National Union (KNU). 

It's utterly bizarre to witness soldiers discussed peace during several rounds of peace talks between representatives from Tamadaw and KNU. As a result, bribery, corruption and spreading of misinformation were rampant. Tamadaw ruthlessly seized local lands and illegitimated land-owners claimed. The Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) that Tamadaw imposed on ethnic armed groups provides the least assurance to permanent peace. On contrary, Tamadaw is using NCA as leverage to systematically strengthen its presence inside ethnic armed control areas. Human rights abuses were rampant, but consequently ineffectiveness of Aung San Suu Kyi's leadership is apparent as she's incapable to make significant changes through 2008 Constitution. If history is any indication, it is a matter of time before war breaks out again in KNLA controlled area. 

International Intervention

Neighbor helps neighbor is the simplest term to describe international intervention. For instance, Bosnian Civil War of 1992-1995 took about three years where atrocities were committed by different ethnic groups that cost thousands of innocent lives. Likewise, the Kosovo Rebellion of 1997-1999 took about two years for Serbians and Albanians to reach settlement. Strategically located in Europe, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and United Nations (UN) had to intervene and mediate peace. Aforementioned conflicts have indicated that armed conflict by itself, without political dialogue and international intervention, could hardly bring peace settlement. Quite frankly, the conflict between Burman and Karen resembles similar complexity of Balkans. 
The political wind has constantly changed and even before Covid-19 pandemic global politics is at a crossroad. For instance, Brexit has dominated daily news, China's territorial expansion has occupied international relations, and President Trump's twitter diplomacy has disrupted democracy. Burma, situated strategically between two neighboring giants, has suddenly become relevance. China totalitarian government and India democratically elected government paid billions of dollars to Burmese generals for access to pristine natural resources. Likewise, western governments rushed in to gain favor and access from Naypyidaw. Traditional humanitarian organizations like INGOs left Thai-Burma borders to seek a new pasture elsewhere. Cronies and businessman alike bribed local/regional warlords to establish lucrative and illegal enterprises. Multiple dots are literally divergent.  

Survival is truly for the fittest and most resilience. At present, Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated global economy. Apparently, countries everywhere are trying to salvage their domestic economy while battling the invisible enemy. As a result, international intervention on Burma's internal issues, specifically Karen issue, is highly unlikely. 

The Future
    The fundamental concern between Burman and Karen grassroots is inseparable. Everyone desires peace. Today, a more relevant question to ask is what do Karen people want after seven decades of resisting Burmese Tamadaw? Currently, divided opinions among Karen people are: Desired for independence or autonomy under federalism. 

First, does declaring Karen independent state of Kawthoolei a realistic approach? International norm identifies four characteristics of a free state that included: people, territory, government, and the ability to conduct intergovernmental relations. Can KNU check off all four? Probably unlikely. Karen, as established group of people is obvious; however, the current Karen State, a thin stretch along Thai-Burma border, is literally a farce created by U Nu's government to manipulate and disenfranchise Karen people's political power. The future of Karen resistance cannot concentrate exclusively in KNLA controlled area; doing so it's excluding silent Karen majority elsewhere. The gap between current KNU leadership and grassroots is wide. Whether KNU controlled area has a functional government is debatable. Relationship with neighboring states is based on illegal transactions, rather than legal diplomacy. Evidently, the current governing system epitomizes a fail state. Even if all characteristics of a free state are met, seeking recognition from U.N. is a complicated process. Currently, how many Karen lobbyists are in New York, Washington D.C., Brussels, Beijing, or Bangkok penetrating the attention of political actors? Establishing an independent Kawthoolei requires more than a wishful thinking.   

Secondly, is autonomy under a genuine federalism a realistic goal? The complexity in permanent settlement shared between Karen and Burman calls for consideration. Territorial dispute is unsolvable. Coexisting under a free and fair governing system is likely desirable; however, under the current Tamadaw's crafted 2008 Constitution, a path toward stability and prosperity might be difficult, if not impossible. Internal reforms within Tamadaw and ethnic armed groups is critical. Status quo only impedes progress. The country needs a governing law that serves everyone living inside Burma. 2008 Constitution needs a major revamp or halt altogether and the new constitution, if ever rewritten, needs to highlight the fundamental rights of every citizen, including Rohingya, as its hallmark. If that day ever comes, can we be count to help lead and co-create a new constitution alongside other ethnic nationalities? Burma needs every brain to transform itself from a fail state to a functionally just system.    


For more than 70 years Karen and Burman civilians suffer the same fate under military occupation. Military generals everywhere cannot operate as warlords indefinitely. At present, the Karen armed resistance has literally cannibalized itself. It's bitter. Countless freedom fighters have carried on the legacy of Karen resistance movement, but if history is any indication, the current state of Karen revolution resembles nothing but the shadow of its past. I sincerely salute all Karen martyrs and honor those who have sacrificed everything to fight unjust system. War is not desirable; however, mastering the art of war is essential. Like Yin-Yang, new generation of freedom fighters must possess both military skills and political wits. Education and self-study matters. A resource rich country like Burma needs greater preservation and less exploitation. Through constitutional reform, military reform, and education reform, we can gradually restore dignity and pride that Burma desperately deserves. Unity matters. Rebuilding a trusting relationship between people requires sincerity. Everyone matters. Creating a prosperous Burma requires goodwill and visionary leaders. Leadership matters. May those who lead can follow and those who follow can lead.