The Karen Quest for Freedom
Naw Htee Lah Hay Ku
Karen people are a distinctive people in Burma. According to Karen’s historical record, the Karen are the first group seem to have settled in Burma. Since Karen people settled in Burma, we experienced oppression one after another. When British conquered Burma, Karen people were faithful fighter to British. We believed after the war, we would gain independence country by British because of our service and loyalty. British failed to give Karen state, and the land was given to Burma.
After British left Burma, Burmese government took over power to control, oppress, enslave Karen during the warlord period. Karen people identities, structure, and the organization were destroyed by the Burmese military. Many Karen people scattered in different places. Karen people have suffered human rights violations. The Karen leadership did not believe in Burmese government. In 1949, the Karen National Union revolt against the government of Burma, demanding a separate country for the Karen people.
Saw Ba U Gyi, the founder of the Karen National Union and modern Karen armed revolution, once told Karen leaders that there are three ways for the Karen struggle, and autonomy to succeed: (1) Armed struggle; (2) Political dialogue and a negotiated settlement with the Burmese government; and (3) International intervention and arrangement on the Karen people’s behalf. These are three ways for the Karen quest for freedom. The free Karen state of Kawthoolei is the vision of Karen’s martyrs. The Karen struggle for self-determination is an ongoing process. Most of us complain that we have suffered discrimination, displacement, and military atrocities, but our political objectives are not clear. Therefore, what shall we do with these ways to succeed?
The first way of the Karen quest for freedom is armed struggle. The Karen revolution was founded on 31st January, 1949. Seven decades of armed conflict between Burmese governments and the Karen National Union is critical. When the Karen revolution begin, the Karen share the same vision and aspiration to protect their civilians and their land. Our leaders never thought it would take more than 70 years. They thought they would win the war in two or three years. They did not have planes, tanks, and weapons but they conquered many places. Sadly, many Karen armed groups split from the mainland Karen National Union, and the reasons are varied. There was corruption, discrimination, practice of nepotism, self-center, divided in different tribes, and some have become warlord. We, Karen, did not share the same vision anymore. Eventually, the Burmese soldiers attacked and occupied Karen headquarter, Karen military center, Karen gates, and many places.
When the military troops arrived in the villages, they visited the village and demanded that they bring them food or money. The village’s leaders were always tortured or killed if they did not meet their need. Many villagers were forced to join an army. Even though it against their will, but they fear that they will be killed if they did not join the army. The crimes including looting, rape cases, forced labor, child labor, child soldiers, and torture had happened often in the past. As a result of the armed conflict many villagers moved away from their villages. Whenever the Burmese military left the village, the villagers would go back to cultivate their fields, but they were forced to flee again and again whenever the military came back.
Many Karen had been displaced during civil War, and they lacked enough food, shelter, and proper medication. Men and women, including the children were killed, and they were civilian and were plane sight. The Karen people did not accept such arbitrary killings against our people. Karen revolution defend our civilian from human right violation. The Karen soldiers engaged in armed conflict which resulted in the death of many innocent people. Many villages in Kawthoolei remains contaminated with land mines planted for years. The mines remain around the villages, fields, and the forest near the army camps. The villagers are at substantial risk of injuries, and death from landmines. Many villages and fields were abandoned because the mines have not been removed.
The Karen soldiers received no pay. They were provided with simple food, uniforms, and weapons to defend their people. They sacrificed their lives for our country. The Karen martyrs and many civilians have laid down their live, so Burmese military could not eliminate our people. The Karen leaders arranged and sent refugees to the Thai-Burma border. The Karen leaders have established hospitals, clinics, and hundreds of school in the villages in the areas under Karen National Union controlled. The Karen National Union has become a safe organization for our people. As a result of revolution we are able to manage our own affairs and preserve our Karen identity in the areas control by the Karen Nation Union.
The second way of the Karen quest for freedom is political dialogue and a negotiated settlement with the Burmese government. The circumstances have shaped the Karen National Union to engage in political dialogue as a negotiation strategy to resolve long armed conflicts struggle. Peace talk have been held on six occasions since 1949, but no lasting agreement has been reached. Every time the ceasefire talks have broken because the governments did not respond by political means to the negotiations. The Karen National Union believe it will pave the way for genuine progress and true nation building.
Currently, fair confidence obtains now that will not trigger any major armed conflict.
Some villagers are able to go back to their villages, or move to the villages they prefer to live where they get better health care, education and access to markets than displaced areas. There is development of expansion of Karen language schools, and literary programs, but still under control by the Burmese military. Some students who graduated from Thai-Burma border are able to travel and attend universities in Myanmar. Some Karen leaders who separated from their families and their love ones more than twenty to thirty years are able to go back to their village for family reunion. The transportation is easier than before. The Karen National Union recommendation letter helps the civilian to travel freely in Burma.
Most people think that Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement will bring good things but the consequences are many. It is illegal to operate casinos in Burma, but many casinos have been built in a region within the government controlled area of Karen state in eastern Burma. It has a negative effect on the local youth. China town is being developed in Karen state. The villagers’ houses were destroyed, and the land confiscated. Many Karen schools have become Burmese government schools in several regions. Life of refugee during ceasefire is uncertain. Some humanitarian aids and organization reduced funds for education, health care, and livelihood. The food ratio is also reduced because most people and organizations believe that the ceasefire negotiation is working out so all refugees can return home. The Thai and Myanmar governments, the UNHCR and other humanitarian aid organizations facilitated the refugee repatriation. Some refugees volunteer themselves to return home. Life for the returnees is not safe.
Peace negotiation must be a platform for the right to self-determination, equal rights, and federalism. It should develop mutual trust between the two parties. However, ceasefire agreement negotiation is almost ten years, but political dialogue has not talked over yet. Life during ceasefire has no guarantee of safety for civilians. The Burmese soldiers did not withdraw from their areas and removed their military based. Burmese soldier killed innocent Karen villagers for no reason. They fired artillery to the villages, causing injuries and many villagers become displaced people. The Burmese military sent more troops, food, and weapons to their army camps. They renovate their army camp, airport, and road in most places in Karen state. It made life difficult for the local people. The cause of armed conflict enables peace process to be pursued. But, it is unlikely that these disputes would escalate to armed conflicts again.
The third way of the Karen quest for freedom is international intervention. Burmese military committed crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide. The super-power nations and United Nations can help to raise the profile of the Karen people and increase public awareness. They have the power to promote the interests of Karen people and assist the sentiments and political consciousness. Burma is being forced, and strongly condemned to end human right violations. Military power in Burma is no longer acceptable. They were criticized by many foreign governments and also by United Nations.
After years of international pressure, the government is performing its duties concerning the United Nations. Human rights violations have decreased in the ceasefire areas,
but it is still occurred in many places. Burma needs pressure from super-power, regional, or United Nations although they resist other nations interfere or criticism. Karen communities in other countries also make an impact by raising public awareness of crimes against Karen people, write a statement to local and national politicians and launch media campaigns to pressure the Burmese government into halting human rights violations in Karen state, and the repressive policies of the Burmese government.
According to United Nation Security Council, when a country commit human right violation, war crimes, crime against humanity, and genocide, the Unite Nations security council can take sanction to end human right abuse in the country. Since Burma is not a party to the Rome Statute, which established International Criminal Court, so the United Nations will face many challenges to take sanction. Since each country has its own policy, the United Nations also have to observe the law, legal action, and conduct the activities according to the policy of the country. They have to investigate and gather more information. It will take longer time for Karen to succeed. However, when super-power and United Nations interfere, there is always globally attention, and the case would remain subject to review.
The Karen people strongly believe that we would get a separate, independent state, and autonomous Karen nation. We have applied these three ways for Karen freedom, but none of these have worked out well. According to me, the armed struggle is still the best strategy. We still consider the defeat of Karen National Union as the defeat of Karen nation as a whole. As Saw Ba Oo Gyi said surrender is out of question. Lay down our arms for peace is unacceptable since it will violate Saw Ba Oo Gyi’s principal. Since Burmese government did not accept other country to interfere, actions have not been taken effectively and transparently. We must keep our weapons for our own protection. The ceasefire agreement is not the final solution for Karen’s freedom. If the peace negotiation breaks down and the fight resume again, we could defend ourselves. We should come together and continue the fight for Karen freedom and independence.
We have survived and we are still here because of the sacrifices made by many Karen martyrs. They are no longer with us, but we must carry on their legacy. We survive as a nation through the effort of our martyrs. Our freedom is precious and our future of survival is very important. We are all responsible for this journey. It is time to established global communication networks to exchange views, share information about Karen issues, and educate others about Karen history. We must prevent further splits among ourselves, stick to one another no matter how corrupt our leaders are, and how badly the revolution is. We have come a long the way and it is the time to renew, rebuild, and restore our nation. As we commemorate 70th Anniversary of Karen Martyr’s Day, pay respect to the faithful leaders, fighters, and civilians who stood firm for Karen freedom of sovereignty, may this day remind us the desire of our freedom fighters, our martyrs, and the quest for Karen Nation. Together in one voice, Karen would pursue its politically and democratically.