Analysis of Saw Ba U Gyi’s three strategies
Naw Paw Say Wah
We, the Karen ethnic people, want our own land. We want to become a separate Karen country, where we can live freely and govern ourselves. We want peace. Over 70 years there have been armed struggles, political dialogues and negotiation with the Burmese government. Do we want to continue fighting and negotiating or do we need to do something different? Is international intervention for the Karen people the answer?
Are there any strengths or positive reasons for continuing an armed struggle? In 1948, Burma gained its independence from Great Britain. Before an armed struggle was started in 1949, our leader, General Saw Ba U Gyi, was the head of the Karen National Union and asked for land for a country of our own. The Burmese soldiers did not accept him as a leader and denied his voice. They did not want to give any land to the Karen. They said if you want your own country you have to fight for it. So, we did. The Karen were a peaceful people, but this peaceful group began an armed struggle. They fought against the Burmese. The Karen did not want any trouble, but they wanted their own country. This armed struggle was a necessary burden; the Karen felt it was honorable to fight for their country. If we did not have weapons, we would not have survived. We had to protect our country, our land. If we did not have an army, we would have lost this land long ago and the Karen would have all been massacred. It would have been genocide, and the Karen people would be one more indigenous ethnic group who disappeared from this world. It is important to continue to fight for our land and dignity.
Despite the historical necessity of armed conflict, today, in 2020, we are still fighting. Because of the seemingly endless nature of the armed struggle, we have become afraid of the violence. So many Karen mothers, fathers, sons and daughters are gone. The Burmese have burnt our homes and our villages. They look on us as enemies and treat us like slaves. Burmese came to our land and snatched babies, throwing them in the air killing them. What type of people does this? They do not seem to have any heart. Pregnant women were forced to lie on their side while being thumped on their stomach with a rice pounder so they would lose their babies. Who are these greedy and heartless people? They do not want any Karen to exist or survive. They want our land and want to control us. This blinding greed provides them with the shallow and fundamentally wrong justification for their ongoing slaughter of the Karen people.
Many Karen died, or have become disabled. We have already lost our homes and land in our villages. We had no place to stay and consequently became refugees. We had nothing and had to leave. Women have found it extremely difficult to go on after the trauma they experienced. Losing their children and babies in front of them made them continually afraid. Many Karen women who have moved to other countries are still traumatized and have a hard time functioning. When they hear sirens, they once again become paralyzed with fear. The armed struggle many of our adults experienced forced them to run away. They were not able to go to school. That is why so many Karen parents have not been educated. They were fighting for us, the children.
In America, when you become 18 or older you register for the draft. In Myanmar, young Karen boys, some only 13, have to fight in the army. There is no choice. This is a horrific experience, to have to be part of violence at an early age. Karen soldiers can carry a weapon. Sometimes, however, they used these guns for the wrong reasons in their own villages. There are so many angry, defeated people; soldiers sometimes take the years of insufferable injustice out on their own people. Because of the armed conflict, many Karen have needlessly died; they should be a part of our community today. As a Karen people, we always used to work together and stay together, but because of our enemies, we have become separated. We have gone different ways and have begun to fight against each other. In the end, using an armed struggle was not a good thing. We have begun a fight amongst ourselves, where, by definition, we will lose.
The history of this battle started when Burma, a province of British India, received its independence in 1938. Burma began internal conflicts between different ethnic groups in Myanmar. The ruling Burmese military changed its name from Myanmar to Burma in 1989. However, many countries and the U.N. do not recognize this name change. Burmese targeted Karen democratic activists. Thousands of students, intellectuals, and elected politicians were forced to flee the country. Many headed for the jungles on the Thai-Burmese border, where they encountered malaria, wild animals, hunger, fevers, and other militia groups. As of 2018, this 70-year war has caused 700,000 Karen to flee Burma and thereby dawn a Karen diaspora. 75,000 have settled in the United States. Three thousand villages were burnt down, leaving 500,000 villagers hiding in the hills. The Burmese Army persecutes any minority tribes, whether they are rebels or peaceful villagers. There have been many cases of rape, massacres and ethnic genocide. As of 2018, there are 120,000 refugees in 9 refugee camps in Thailand alone. Many have been in the camps more than 20 years.
Besides armed struggles, we have tried political dialogue and negotiation with the Burmese government. Discussion is a valuable process, as we are tired of fighting. However, both sides, the Burmese and the Karen soldiers have to come to peace talks honestly. Both sides needed to be balanced and evenly represented, so one group is not more powerful than the other. We have been in negotiations for almost 10 years. Karen people live in the mountains, which is far from the city, and it was difficult to get to the city because of the fighting. Today, because of some negotiation, it is easier for the Karen people, because the Burmese have promised not to attack us. Before negotiations, students could only go to school a few days each week because they had to run away for months at a time to escape the violence. Now, because of negotiations, students can go to school every day.
Despite some progress through negotiations, Karen still have to be very careful. We have tried to mediate with Burmese for a long time; much of it has been unsuccessful. Why do we want to keep trying, if we do not trust the Burmese government? And why do we have to trust our enemies? They have killed so many of us and truly just want to get rid of us. Burmese people sign treaties, but still come to our land and build roads and bring soldiers to take our land. This is not right. We have specific land the Burmese agreed to not occupy, but they are there nonetheless. They break a lot of rules without consequence. Burmese leaders say “yes” in negotiations, that they will follow the agreements. They then send soldiers to continue to control
our land. They deceive when others are not paying attention. Even when we conduct conflict resolution, it is hard to trust that the Burmese will follow the rules.
Could international intervention lead to a peaceful end to this battle? If outside countries want to help us, that is a good thing. Many are thoughtful countries and have the resources available to help us out of this situation. There have been many countries that have aided the Karen people. Refugees immigrating to these countries have mostly embraced us. Some of these countries are: United States of America, Australia, Canada, Norway, and Great Britain. Some countries have gone into the Karen refugee camps, wanting to help us. They have come not for money but just to volunteer and support us to become an independent people. An example of this is when people come and learn our culture and our language, guiding us to learn about each other. The United Nations have helped us in many ways, by giving to the refugee camps and helping us to go to other countries. Many people came to the camps to teach us and educate us about school and health. The U.N. has given us rice, food and supplies. They have helped us to immigrate to new countries. This has helped us become educated and to become successful in our new countries.
The negative aspects of a UN peace treaty are a lot of countries might not want to help the Karen people and might only want something to benefit themselves. The Karen people have to be careful and very smart. For example, the Chinese people came to our land and just wanted to mine it for the gold, destroying our beautiful land. We want to preserve this land without foreign countries destroying it by mining for their own purposes. We want to keep it environmentally protected, and not just build big cities spoiling the land.
The best way for autonomy, a Karen country, and freedom is by the help of the United Nations. We do not want to continue an armed struggle. After 10 years of negotiations we are still not making any progress to a peaceful solution. Instead, we have created a Karen people fighting amongst themselves. I think the next step is to try to get an international solution spearheaded by the United Nations. When other countries come in and want to help negotiate peace, the Karen have to be careful to protect and control the land. Karen leaders must always remember to stay strong and keep what is important in front of them, not getting distracted by ‘mah tha bay’, money or evil ways. We must always remember our culture and teach our children to speak our language and celebrate our traditions. The next generation must know about who we are as an ethnic people. If we do not know our culture, that is another way for the Karen to become extinct and die out. We are a smart people and we need to come together for a peaceful resolution and a better life. We must always remember Saw Ba U Gyi ‘s main principles for a Karen peace: “1. For us surrender is out of the question, 2. The recognition of Karen state must be complete, 3. We shall retain our arms, 4. We shall decide our own political destiny.” Imagine having a Karen country, eating fresh foods and breathing in fresh air. We could create universities and schools, and protect the environment. I want my little brothers and sisters to be proud and become future leaders of a Karen country. The Karen are honorable people, we are passionate and intelligent. We need to go back to our peaceful lives and build a community we are all proud to call an Ethnic Karen Land.