A WAY TOWARDS AUTONOMY
NAW SEABLU DAH
We, the Karen people, are not defined by our language, religion, cultural characteristics or the regions we live in. We are divided all over the world, holding different nationalities while many still remain stateless, living in refugee camps. Our Karen people faced centuries of human rights violations and all kinds of oppressions. Because of this, our great leaders have longtime back strived for the independent Karen state. Our first president, Saw Ba U Gyi laid out three ways of how a national state for the Karen people can be gained. I will analyze the Three strategies mentioned by Saw Ba U Gyi and argue which one I think is the best at this moment.
The first strategy is armed struggle; by right of military conquest. The Karen and the Burmese military have been fighting for more than 70 years now. It is important to have in mind that the Karen leaders in history never initially wanted to use arms as a strategy to have freedom. Unfortunately, at the end of the second world war, picking up arms is the only strategy the Karen people can use in order to protect themselves and get their autonomy. Events in the past as well as the current situation show that using arms is still a necessity for the Karen people to protect their rights. During April and May 2020, the Burma Army operations increased in the border areas of brigade 5 and 7 (Karen News, 2020). The Burma Army burned the screening post, which was set up by the KNU to prevent the spread of the Covid-29 pandemic, causing the fight between the KNLA and the Burmese Army. It can be said that using arms is still of importance for the Karen people to fight for their rights. When using arms is a necessity and the only way for the Karen people to fight for their basic rights, there is likely no other way for them to get their autonomy besides this strategy. However, this strategy has many unfortunate consequences. The clashes between the KNLA and the Burmese Military forced many civilians to flee out of their villages and more lives of innocent civilians will be lost when using arms. The Karen people struggled and used arms for more than 70 years now, without achieving autonomy. It can be said that this strategy will not lead to autonomy even if it was the closest strategy that took the Karen people the closest to getting their autonomy. The fact is that there are several Karen armed groups at the moment, unlike when the revolution started, with different views and strategies. The Karen armed groups do not belong to the same sovereignty which makes it harder for all the groups to fight for the same goal. In the past, the lack of coordination among the various Karen insurgent groups was an important drawback for the Karen people. It is therefore very likely that the fight for the Karen people will not succeed in the current context for there are still differences among different Karen armed groups.
The second strategy is to have a political dialogue and a negotiated settlement with the Burmese government. The Karen people have made several attempts in the past without any success until 2015, when the KNU signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). This would be the most logical way as many Karen and Burmese people are living among each other, often without a clear geological border. This means that agreement needs to be made both by Karen and Burmese how things will be regulated. Besides that, there are many other ethnic groups in Myanmar who also strive for their own autonomy. As there are many ethnic groups living in one country, negotiations and political dialogues are crucial. It is also important to keep in mind that Myanmar is going through a transition of government towards a more democratic rule. It is a process that needs time and the results many Karen hoped for, cannot be fulfilled right away. However, in the long term, it might be possible for the Karen people to gain their autonomy by negotiating with the Burmese government. At this moment, some degree of power has been transferred to a civilian government headed by the NLD, but the military is still the most influential political actor. In 2015, the KNU signed the NCA. However, the agreement was violated by the military as there were still fights going on between the Karen Army; KNLA and the Burmese military. A few months ago, in February 2020, the Burmese military fired artillery into Karen Villages in Papun District (Irrawaddy, 2020). It is believed that the fight still occurs from time to time, also among other ethnic groups and the Burmese military. Another reason negotiating with the Burmese government is a questionable strategy is the fear of history to repeat itself. The Burmese military had a ceasefire agreement with The KIO/KIA in 1994 and it ended on 9 June 2011, after 17 years, when the Burmese military attacked the KIA base (Kwat, 2011). The question that occurred is whether this strategy will lead to autonomy, as the agreement is made with the same military that violated the past agreement and the agreement made at this moment. The Burmese military has repeatedly betrayed the agreement. This strategy will therefore not lead to the self determination of the Karen people at this moment.
The third strategy is achieving autonomy through international interventions and arrangement on the Karen people’s behalf. Myanmar became one of the least developed nations in the world in the last decades and collaboration between the international community and the Myanmar government is seen as necessary to improve state capacity and stability in Myanmar (Bjarnegard, 2020). Donor funds and the presence of aid organizations have multiplied since 2011, with democracy promotion as an underlying theme (Bjarnegard, 2020). Donors and the international community will lose interest when seeing political violence and human rights violations. Besides that, Myanmar needs good international relationships if they want their economy to be strong. In that sense, the international community has some power over how Myanmar should rule its country. With the help of the international community, the Karen people might have a chance of getting autonomy. International law states that people, based on respect for the principle of equal rights and fair equality of opportunity, have the right to determine their own destiny, including political status. The right of self-determination is enshrined in the UN Charter and it could mean that the Karen people have the right to have their own state recognized by the international community. The Karen people do not identify themselves as the Burmese and wish to protect their cultures features and similarities. Self-determination is the only way for the Karen people to protect and develop their full identity as a nation. However, the international law can do very little for the Karen people at this moment, even when the goal is supported by the international law. For the Karen people to have their autonomy, which includes their own territory, the existing sovereign must lose some of its territory. There has to be a transfer in sovereignty over a territory from one authority to another. The international community cannot just take away territory without the permission of the Burmese government and let the Karen people rule it legally. That would violate the laws and norms of territorial integrity. Myanmar is legally recognized as one country and the international community cannot just deny them. Besides that, conflicts in Myanmar are known internationally and yet, not much changed in Myanmar regards to the oppression of minorities. The world responded to Myanmar by imposing economic and political sanctions when student protests turned into a nationwide movement for democracy and promoted a violent military crackdown in 1988. More sanctions followed in the years after, but many Karen people know that the sanctions were not effective. The ongoing conflicts show that the international community can do very little for the Karen people.
Having analyzed all three strategies, I personally think that the third strategy, which is achieving autonomy through international interventions and arrangement on the Karen people’s behalf, is the best strategy at the moment. In this moment, international relationships are believed by many to create prosperity. Myanmar, being an undeveloped country must catch up with other countries and create relationships. Therefore, it can be said that the international community do have a say in how the Burmese government should rule its country if it wants to be trusted by the international community. The Rohingya crisis has got attention internationally forcing Myanmar to take measurements to protect members of the Rohingya community. This however, is largely because the Islamic Cooperation filed the international lawsuit against Myanmar. This shows that the Karen people also must find a way themselves to gain international attention in the hope for better measurements for the people who are still suffering. No one but we, the Karen people, must take the lead in our fight. I believe getting autonomy through international intervention is the best strategy in terms of legal recognition of our own state as well as international pressure on democratic transformation in Myanmar. The change in government in Myanmar could lead to more genuine peace talks between different arm groups. We must realize that the international community cannot just legally recognize us a nation, for it needs the permission of the Burmese government. I can say with certainty that we will never get permission from the current government. I believe that the current government can only change through international pressure, which is the reason I think this strategy is the best at this moment. However, I still believe that we should not rule out the first two strategies. We always need to be prepared for the worst scenario. The conflict is still going on and we should never surrender our arms as it is the only way we can protect our people most of the time. It is also crucial to keep talking and negotiating with the Burmese government as well as other ethnic armed groups. I think that it is impossible for the Karen people to have their autonomy and peace without first making peace towards other ethnic groups. The tension which has its roots for many years cannot turn into trust easily, but we must think realize that geologically, we are all divided in different regions living among other ethnic groups.
To conclude, international interventions and arrangement on the Karen people’s behalf is the best strategy in the current context. History has shown that the minority problems cannot be resolved militarily. It requires mutual trust, commitment and participation from all parties to address the problems politically. This however is impossible under the current government where the military is still dominant. The international community do have some power over Myanmar in how they want Myanmar to rule their country. With the change in government, I believe the Karen people can get their autonomy. The way for the Karen people might be difficult as there are still differences among us. However, we must not forget that there were times where our leaders split up, but also times where they reconnect. While it is important to acknowledge and accept differences, it is more important to honor our similarities. We are not defined by our language, religion, cultural characteristics or the regions we live in. We are defined by something beyond measurements. It is the love for our Karen people in all of us that defines who we are. It is the love for our people that connects us and keeps us growing as a big nation divided all over the world. May the spirit of Saw Ba U Gyi and other Martyrs live in all of us and may we all see each other again in Kaw Thoo Lei