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New Karen Armed Struggle Toward Freedom


Poe Dee

Burma gained independence in 1948 from British colonial rule. Since independence, Burma has faced one of the longest ongoing civil war among small ethnic groups. The largest ethnic nationality is Burmese (Burmans). Among ethnicities, each one of them have their own culture, language and belief. As a result, they do not get along and that created ongoing geopolitical struggles between the country’s smaller ethnic groups and its largest, the Burmans. The relationship between ethnic groups was complicated; the cultural interchange has been for centuries. 
Burma has many ethnic nationalities. Other small ethnic groups which are not member of the Burmese group do not like to be referred as “Burmese.” Instead, they preferred their tribes’ names like Karen, Shan, Mon, Chin and so on. The Burmese government has used dictatorship to control other ethnic groups, and controlled the population through authoritarian rule, with no protection for ethnic diversity. Burma currently was far away from democracy, because it never stopped using its authoritative power. The Burmese military government’s main goal was to destroy all other small ethnic groups, which caused the never-ending ethnic cleansing. 
Karen is one of the ethnic groups in Burma that disagreed with Burma’s regime. The Karen people, culturally and linguistically diverse ethnic group living in Burma/Myanmar, South-East Asia. They have been in inferior conditions in Burma for most of their lives, living as survival farmers, in small villages, growing rice and vegetables, and raising animals. Burmese government did not recognized Karen as their member. Instead, Burmese government documented that Karen are terrorists. 
As a result, the Karen people have to stand up to defend their people and lands from the Burmese government’s oppression. The Karen people could no longer faced the brutal Burma army’s oppression, so the Karen formed revolutionary armed group to defend their people. The Karen National Union (KNU) was established 1949 to against central Burma government.  The Karen National Union waged war against brutal Burma army earlier 1949 to gain freedom. Since the Karen people have not gained their freedom and self-determination for their efforts. Saw Ba U Gyi, founder of the Karen National Union and modern Karen armed revolution, once told Karen leaders that there are three ways for the Karen struggle for freedom and autonomy to succeed: 
Armed struggle; 
Political dialogue and a negotiated settlement with the Burmese government ; and 
International intervention and arrangement on the Karen people’s behalf. 
The KNU has waged war with the Burma brutal army earlier 1949 to find the solution to the conflict.  The armed struggle offers the Karen people to maintain some of their lands and protect their people from ethnic cleansing. The KNU’s armed struggle gives Burma brutal army difficulty to take over all the Karen lands. The armed struggle gives protection to many Karen people. For example, the Burmese army cannot take all the Karen’s territories and properties, because the Karen army stands up firmly to defend the lands and people. However, the 70-year conflict between the KNU and Burma army has not been resolved with the current armed struggle.
    The Burma government labels the Karen National Union (KNU) as a terrorist group. As result of armed struggle, the Burma government has used many tactics to destroy the Karen. For example, the Karen people are not permitted to have access to school and hospitals. They prohibited and fail to provide education and healthcare, and protection to the Karen villagers. The Burma military attack and threatened the unarmed civilians. The armed struggle gives little advantage on the Karen’s side. On the other hand, the Burma military sees armed struggle as an opportunity to use dictatorship power over the Karen people. 
As a result, many innocent civilians lost their homes and properties. The innocent Karen’s houses are burned down, and they are forced to leave their homeland by Burma military. Many innocent civilians became internally displaced. They fled oppression and violence from Burma military. The Karen people faced torture, sexual harassment. They risked draft as child soldiers, child laborers, forced laborers, and slaves. The Burma armed forces are cruel and they destroy Karen’s crops and homes. The Burma armed forces control rural Karen ethnic villagers by using physical and sexual violence. They also use cruel tactics to control rural Karen ethnic villagers by burning their fields, destroying their food, and given no freedom. Karen women and children are vulnerable to the Burma armed forces; because they often experienced rape, sexual assault, and children in Burma were drafted into military to fight against ethnic minorities, their own people. 
    Many innocent rural villagers had to flee away from the Burmese armed forces’ oppression. They become displaced people and refugees because their homelands were burned down. The Karen people become refugees and did not have the right to choose their places to relocate, they left their homes with very little hope. Sometimes, they did not know where they were going and why they had to go, because they had no choice. Refugees were not able to go back homes because of the persecutions; they lived in dangerous situations. 
    The Karen refugees experienced rape, sexual assault, forced laborers, killing, the burning of villages; these experience gave the risk of developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and major depression. Furthermore, refugees from Burma have faced never-ending obstacles in their lives. Once they resided in Thailand, they were excluded from society, and faced the economic violence. In the camps, there was lack of healthcare, basic social services, and food shortage, and overpopulation. Thailand did not freely allow Karen refugees to leave the camp, and prohibited them to get higher education, decent jobs, and other opportunities that available in Thailand. Karen refugees were segregated from the rest of the population, both physically and psychologically. We clearly can see that the old or current armed struggle is not yet the solution to the conflict. What about political dialogue and a negotiated settlement with the Burmese government? 
    In 2015, the KNU’s leaders and the government of Myanmar started Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) along with many ethnic armed organizations. Since the agreement, we haven’t seen any changes in Burma. The NCA has both positive and negative impacts on the Karen people. If we look at in positive way, many Karen people can return homes. Currently, the Karen children can go back to school; and the families can grow their crops and have peaceful lives. They don’t have to leave their villages and fear about battle between KNU’s army and the Burma army to happen. However, this is definitely one of the tactics that Burma government is exercising to eliminate the Karen people.  
    The Burma army sees the NCA as the opportunities to conquer the Karen lands by giving them peace temporarily; so that they can build roads and bridges in Karen State. The roads and bridges give easy access to Burma army to enter to Karen State. This is very risky to the Karen people to let the Burma government build roads and bridges in Karen’s lands. Because of the NCA, the Karen army has no authority to stop Burma government to build the roads and bridges. The Burma government signed the NCA because they already know what NCA can benefit them. After NCA, Burma government has more access to the Karen’s lands: they pretend to be a good government by providing villagers with some money and building schools in Karen State. This is also one of the tactics Burma government uses to eliminate Karen people. For example, if there is war again between the Karen armed groups and Burma army; the Burma army has the advantage of getting access to the Karen’s lands with deadly weapons such artillery tanks, helicopters, flying bombs and etc. The Karen armed group will be vulnerable with little weapons. Furthermore, Burma government builds schools in Karen State in a purpose of eliminating the Karen language by providing the Karen villagers with Burmese teachers to teach their children. 
    The Burmese teachers can only speak Burmese and teach Burmese. The Karen children are only taught in Burmese, not Karen. The Karen children are not able to read and write Karen. Most of villages in Karen State only have elementary school. After elementary school, the Karen children have to study in Burmese school in the city. They are only taught in Burmese and the Burmese history. The Karen children do not know anything about the Karen history and not able to read and write their own language. When they finish high school or college, they are not interested in working for Karen people; instead they work for Burma government. Burma government is not only fighting the Karen people with weapons, they also fight the Karen people with knowledge. The Karen people need be aware of that Burma government is not truthful and always find a way try to destroy the Karen people. The NCA may seem as peaceful movement to many Karen people; however, the Karen people need to be careful what tactics the Burma government is using against the Karen people. Moreover, the NCA is not truthful because the Burma army often violate the agreements. Recently, in Brigade 5, Karen State; two Burmese soldiers killed an innocent villager, Naw Mu Naw. The Burma top leaders haven’t taken any action toward the wrongdoing of the two soldiers. The Karen people cannot trust the NCA to gain the freedom. So far, the old or current armed struggle and Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) definitely are not the  solutions to the 70-year conflicts. So, does the Karen people have any other way to gain freedom? Can the Karen people rely on international intervention and arrangement on the Karen people’s behalf? I don’t believe the Karen people can rely on international intervention; because Burma government is not trustworthy. 
    Burma government is good at acting and cannot be trusted. The Burma governments even trick the most powerful leaders by telling them that can solve their conflicts. We witnessed that in Obama’s administration, Obama went to Myanmar(Burma) to meet with Myanmar top leader like Suu Kyi or other government leaders to visit about violence against the Rohingya. When Obama met with Suu Kyi, he even declined to offer any criticism of Suu Kyi or other government leaders violating human rights again the Rohingya. The international intervention cannot be an effective method to help the Karen people gain freedom, because the international leaders can be tricked by Burma government without solid knowledge about the conflicts. When international leaders visit Myanmar government, they will not find anything that happening behind the scene. They will be taken to most popular and beautiful places in Myanmar like Shwedagon Pagoda. When the international leaders see the beautiful places and how Burmese people treat them, they believe that Burma is peaceful; because they don’t know anything that happen in minority’s territories. For example, Burma army recently attacked the Kachin State and cut out the internet services in Kachin State; because they are afraid that their wrongdoing will be released in social media. As a result, the international leader have no knowledge of what Burma army do to the minority groups including the Karen. So I don’t believe that the old or current armed struggle, negotiating with Burma government, and international intervention for Karen’s behalf are the solutions to the conflict. As freedom is not free, I believe that NEW armed struggle is the only key  to the conflict. However, we need to reform a NEW system of armed struggle and we cannot use the old or current governing system. 
    First, we need to know our weaknesses in order to reform a better armed struggle system. For me, the biggest problem that we need to solve in the Karen organization is generational differences. I witness that our Karen people experience generational conflict. Older leaders have a hard time to understanding, and therefore trusting, younger ones who are anxious to find their role in leadership. The latter often can't understand why older leaders believe and do what they do, and their questioning may lead to conflict. If you don’t think generation makes a difference, I remember a story that my professor told me in one of my master classes; think of this example: How and where did Kennedy die? Traditionalists and Baby Boomers would say gunshots in Dallas, Texas. Generation X remembers a plane crash near Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Millennials and Gen Z (iGeneration) might say “Kennedy who?” Most of this tension results from generational differences that exist because of contrasting values. 
We make choices and decisions based on our value system, and differing values often lead to misunderstandings and misinterpretation. This, in turn, hampers our relationships and lessens the effectiveness of our work together. A generation gap describes a vast difference in cultural norms between a younger generation and their elders. The gap occurs when older and younger people do not understand each other because of their different values, attitudes, experiences, opinions, habits, behavior, interests, and communication styles. Conflicts frequently have generational issues as their cause: “he is not committed to his job. ” “he has a poor work ethic” “he does not follow direction.” “I can’t believe the way he/she dresses. ”
Similarly, in our Karen history when Bo Mya was the KNU’s president; on the other side a younger leader like Chit Thu had different point of views. Then they divided themselves to form their own army. They fought each other because they couldn’t agree to the same goal. When they were together, they were strongest ethnic armed group. Again, what we need to gain our freedom is to reform our Karen army (with new system); the strong  and united one. We need to understand that dealing with diversity in the workplace means understanding and relating effectively with people who are different from you. The more we understand others’ point of view and allow for differences, the better we can communicate. We should try to accept someone as a person of worth, even if we can’t agree. To keep the lines of communication open, it is imperative that we learn to forgive.
Each of us has our own unique characteristics.  But, it is our differences that make our lives together interesting and rewarding.  Everyone has something to contribute.  We all need to remember to accept others for who they are and look for the best that they have to offer.  That is what valuing diversity is all about! We again need to get all our Karen armed groups in to a single group, so that we can defend and race battle with Burma army toward our freedom. In our Karen revolutionary, we need to bound to find divisions, units, or work teams where at least distinct generations are working side by side. If we can accept, forgive, understand each other our new armed struggle will be more flexible, innovative, decisions are stronger and we can meet the needs of freedom for Karen people.