The Ideology of Contemporary Karen People
Naw Tay Nay Sar
What do we, the contemporary Karen people, need to establish in order to achieve our aspiration for freedom and autonomy? We are well-known for the longest civil war in Asia. From 1949 until present day, the Burmese government has been denying the Karen people basic human rights. This has resulted in generation after generation of our people fleeing war and persecutions. Due to the ongoing struggles and oppression we face, it is imperative for us to continue challenging ourselves so that we can develop strategies that will eventually result in the formation of a Karen State. Our beloved leader, Saw Ba U Gyi, created three strategies for the Karen people to achieve their independence: armed struggle, political dialogue and a negotiated settlement with the Burmese government, and international intervention and arrangement on the Karen people’s behalf. In order for us to achieve our freedom, we need to look carefully at these past strategies. Based on my conversations with friends and family, I will evaluate Saw Ba U Gyi’s three strategies and discuss their effectiveness going forward.
As I stated in the introduction, the Karen people have a long history of armed struggle with the Burmese government. Yet, even after 70 years of armed struggle we are still denied the right to govern ourselves. This raises the question of how productive is our military? My way of measuring military productivity is by looking at some of the past events based on the experiences of friends and family. Obviously, the Karen military is a necessary shield to protect the Karen people. But in some instances the military mistreated Karen civilians. From my observations, I learned that problems relating to trust, finance, and religion within the Karen military groups are factors that have delayed victory for the Karen people. For example, before 1995, many young Karens joined the military out of patriotism but were soon angry because of the lack of support for the villagers and frontline soldiers. According to Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG), “The KNU has many flaws, and for years its leadership has been frustratingly out of touch with the needs of villagers and frontline soldiers” (BurmaLink). The problem is that not a single leader is willing to sacrifice the same way as our late leader Saw Ba U Gyi has done. My suggestion is that Karen leaders must act according to their stated mission. Words without action leads to misunderstandings among the Karen people. Leaders must focus on working to achieve our stated goals and work from the bottom of our heart. We cannot just look out for individuals; instead we have to work for the Karen people as a whole. Therefore, I do not support seeing another 70 years wasted because of unproductive work on armed struggles.
Throughout history, our leaders made numerous attempts to peacefully communicate and negotiate with the Burmese government. However, all of those attempts failed. Instead, innocent people have died in conflicts and others have fled Burma, thus further separating Karen people from each other. For example, when the British left Burma in 1948, our leader Saw Ba U Gyi requested that Britain recognize Karen independence and freedom from the Burmese government. However, both Britain and the Burmese government ignored the Karen leaders instead of granting us the freedom. As a result, there was no point in Saw Ba U Gyi and his fellow leaders negotiating since Burmese officials refused the request three times already. In 2004, our late leader Saw Bo Mya tried again to negotiate with the Burmese government, but there was no peaceful solution.
Given the history of failed negotiations, I believe that for Karen people to have a strong political dialogue with the Burmese government, Karen public schools should be our priority. These schools should not have any religious affiliation, and every Karen person should have the right to attend without feeling pressure to convert to a certain religion. For the Karen people, education is the key to unity, and unity is the key to power. Every Karen child should attend school; we should not let the war control our education system. In 2015, according to Karen News there was a newly built school in Htee Klo Thaw village which only lasted for 6 days before it got burnt down by unknown people (KarenNews). We may have disagreements and different opinions, but we should not let these conflicts control the most powerful weapon for our people; instead we should try to understand one another more. Due to our lack of basic education in leadership and understanding one another, Karen were easily torn apart and taken advantage of by the Burmese military. The education mindset will easily bring us together and allow us to understand one another. With education, we will be able to communicate and accept each other's opinions. With education, Karen people will be more accountable, and therefore the Burmese government will not have a chance to divide the Karen people.
In the past, Karen people barely have a history of international involvement with other countries. Although we have our own revolution, there was no strong relation with the outside world. We need to establish a Karen Public Foundation to coordinate the advocacy work being done by Karen people in the United States, Australia, Norway, and New Zealand, and other countries around the world. Achieving our “Kawthoolei” depends on all of us. How much are we willing to take an action and play our role as Karen? The first strategy is developing allies as a way to lead us to independence. For example, in the past Karen people helped fight the Japanese empire and as a result Myanmar (Burma) gained their independence. Today the Karen people who are in the developed countries have more chances to access the education, economy, and social media to get the world's attention of how brutal the Burmese military are. We need to establish more connections between the Karen people in different countries, and to do a better job of supporting and trusting our younger leaders. We also need to encourage our younger Karen people and leaders all over the world to get an education to gain a strong voice and use it for our way to freedom. With education, Karen people will be better able to petition the United Nations (UN) to support the Karen goal of demanding human rights from the Burmese government.
The important action that we need to take is to tell our younger generation about the Karen struggle and our lack of freedom and human rights in Burma. Our new generation needs to advocate for the Karen people. Let our history remind us so we do not fall asleep or give up too easily. We need to come together as one group and encourage one another to help our people who are still in the refugee camps and in the jungle. I have seen that even though some of us live outside of Burma and Thailand, and even though we have corrupt Karen leadership, we are not tired of giving back and helping our own people. It is time for our Karen people to get more international attention.
I believe that a combination of political dialogue toward a negotiated settlement with the Burmese government and international intervention and arrangement on the Karen people’s behalf is the best path for the Karen people to achieve our freedom and autonomy. Our hero, Saw Ba U Gyi, left us with four powerful principles which serves as the guiding pillars of the Karen National Union (KNU) revolution: (1) Surrender is out of the question, (2) The recognition of the Karen State must be completed, (3) We shall retain our arms, and (4) We shall decide our own political destiny (Keenan, 2008). When Karen people are willing to sacrifice and dedicate themselves to gain a Karen State and know what a good leader should do, that is when we know we are in the process of achieving our autonomy. Having an education mindset, bringing the divided groups together, and allowing diverse Karen people in leadership roles will also give us a strong hope. If we can fulfill these ideologies, there is no way that we will have another victory field fall again.