February 20, 2005

Revolutionaries and Resistance

SAW BO MYA: A Symbol of Resistance

By – Saw Kapi

The quiet recognition among the Karen people is that General Saw Bo Mya is the one and only living symbol of Karen resistance movement. Born and raised in Hteemukee Village of Mudraw District, Saw Bo Mya belongs to the Sqaw Karen tribe and was an animist until he met his wife, Naw Lar Poe, who later ‘saved’ him to accept the Baptist Christian faith, which, in this case, happens to be that of the Seventh Day Adventist denomination. Saw Bo Mya founded the Karen National Liberation Army and was its Commander-in-Chief until 2000. In the 1980’s he was the paramount leader of KNU or the Karen National Union, the organization that has spearheaded the Karens’ struggle for self-determination since 1949.

“Our revolution is one that must fight against evil and all the wrongs. We must never go against the masses of the country.” Saw Bo Mya

Without any formal education, Saw Bo Mya proved himself to be capable of earning the respects and fear from Karen people of all backgrounds, both Pwo and Sqaw, from urban as well as rural. He actually spent his whole life in defense of his people, militarily, although he fell short of successfully articulating the Karen cause. More than that, his instrumental role in building alliances, both ethnic and broader national opposition, reflects not only his sphere of political influence but also his vision for a solution to Burma’s decade long problem. In the early 1980s he helped forge a broad armed ethnic alliance known as the National Democratic Front. In the 1990s, he was elected the first Chairman of Democratic Alliance of Burma, which, albeit largely defunct by now, is the broadest opposition alliance Burma’s politics ever saw. When the Kachin Independence Organization secretly sealed off a cease-fire agreement with the Burmese military regime in 1993 without acknowledging either NDF or DAB, he came to realize, in a very hard way, how weak those alliances were.

Along with the Karen armed resistance, Saw Bo Mya and his revolutionary comrades brought Marnerplaw, the long time headquarters of the Karen National Liberation Army, onto the regional political map. But the Karen headquarters, which also housed more than a dozen of other Burmese opposition offices, was overrun by the Burmese troops in 1995. It was widely alleged that the capture of Marnerplaw was made possible, or at least easier, by the Karen splinter group known as Democratic Karen Buddhist Army. Most Karens credited Saw Bo Mya for the rise and some also blame him for the fall of Marnerplaw. To the latter, he disagreed and rebutted that, “should my orders were obeyed early enough, the split [of DKBA from KNU] could have been prevented.”

Karen people never cease admiring Saw Bo Mya for his devotion to their cause; there is no doubt, nonetheless, that they at times wished they had a politically shrewder leader. During his glory days in the 1980’s as the President of KNU, he was surrounded by some loyal but inept advisors, who never uttered a word to disagree with him, but handsomely benefited from the huge sale of timber and other mineral resources within KNU-controlled territory at that time. Saw Bo Mya, a legendary Karen military commander, who learned to master guerrilla warfare in his fight for his people against the regime in Rangoon, was not adequately equipped to manage the economy he controlled. It was one thing to fight the war of resistance, another to be engaged in national and regional politics, build schools and deliver healthcare.

His final legacy will, arguably, be shaped by the trip he made to Rangoon to meet quite amicably with the now ousted Burmese military intelligence chief and Prime Minister, General Khin Nyunt. With his decision to meet with the Burmese regime for talks, Bo Mya became the first and only ethnic resistance leader in Burm’s history to fly into Rangoon from a foreign capital, Bangkok. As the vice chairman of KNU, he transformed his image from a recalcitrant revolutionary to a hopeful revisionist, who holds both the guts to fight and the courage to change the course of his action. During his meeting with Prime Minister Khin Nyunt, he negotiated a “gentleman’s agreement” and demanded the rights of Karen people. His detractors, however, charged that he was simply duped by Khin Nyunt, and thereby the regime, to be assuaged in return by the opportunity to celebrate his 77th birthday at Kandawgyi Palace Hotel in Rangoon. He seemed simply caught between the expectations of his supporters, who cannot conceivably envisage any credible political deal with the historically crooked regimes in Rangoon, and the reality of Burmese military superiority, which almost precluded any serious military challenge by the KNLA, or for that matter, any other ethnic resistance forces.

At the 13th KNU Congress held in December 2004, Gen. Bo Mya, 77, was honorably permitted to retire from the vice chairmanship. The position was immediately taken over by Gen. Tarmalarbaw, 81, who also headed the KNU peace delegation twice in Maulmein, the capital of Mon State, in 1996. Although less active in day-to-day political activities, Gen. Bo Mya remains chief of KNU’s Defense Department.

Often characterized by his blunt talks and bold acts, Saw Bo Mya never wavers to speak against what he believes to be wrong. He succinctly defines what the Karen revolution must mean: “opposing the wrong and constructing the right things.” Saw Bo Mya has served Karen people well in terms of the former, but the latter is left for the new generation participants in the Karen resistance movement. It is entirely up to the younger generation Karens to choose whether they want to be a generation of the future or mere followers of the past. There is little doubt that Saw Bo Mya will prefer the former.


SAW KWEH HTOO: A Profile of a Political Life

By – Paw Taw Oo

Known to be one of the most pragmatic leaders within the leadership, Kweh Htoo, a leading members of KNU peace negotiation team in 2004, became the Governor of KNU’s Mergui/Tavoy District in 1990 and has been serving as a member of KNU’s Central Standing Committee ever since. He accompanied Gen. Bo Mya to Rangoon on the historic trip made by the KNU leaders in January 2004 and remains active in the efforts ever since.

Prior to joining the Karen resistance movement in 1974, Kweh Htoo studied economics at the Rangoon University but did not realize his educational dream due to the government’s closure of the university in response to a student movement known in Burma’s history as the “U Thant Crisis”.

P’doh Kweh HtooAt one point, Kweh Htoo found himself at odd with Gen. Bo Mya during the chaotic period immediately after the fall of Manerplaw, the long time KNU Headquarters. But, his constructive and yet critical review on Karen resistance movement earned him respects from many of his colleagues, including Saw David Taw, Chief of KNU’s foreign affairs, and Htoo Htoo Lay, one of the Group’s two Joint General Secretaries. “We as the organization need to evolve around the ever-changing circumstances,” once said Kweh Htoo. Among younger, emerging Karen political activists, he is regarded as one of the most progressive, who is well attuned to the changing regional political dynamics. “Our revolution needs new blood, new ideas, and new thinking.”

Despite his popularity in his southern district, Kweh Htoo is not without his critics in Karen politics. Some in the top KNU leadership feel that he has pushed for change within the organization much harder than the leadership can take.

At the advance of the overwhelmingly stronger Burmese troops to his area in 1997, he was able to display a skillful leadership in handling the orderly relocation of hundreds of thousands of Karen villagers from the previously KNU-controlled territory to the refugee camps along the Thai-Burmese border. Kweh Htoo won the heart of his people by maintaining close touch with the grassroots community though out the most difficult time. He basically managed to have kept the chaotic situation under control.

He traveled several times to Geneva and London during 1997 and 2002 to inform the United Nations’ Human Rights Commission, key British Parliamentary members as well as the Foreign Office, and the London based non-governmental organizations of the deteriorating human right situation and the urgently needed humanitarian assistance for internally displaced Karen people in Burma. While he understands the importance of international pressure, Kweh Htoo places a high priority on being close to his suffering people. Despite his busy schedule, he makes efforts to spend time in the Karen territory, travels from village to village in his district, urging his people to preserve high political alertness. He likes meeting and listening to what the ordinary people have to say. “He feels our pains,” once commented a villager.

He may be lesser known in Burma’s broader national politics, but Kweh Htoo, for many Karens, is a trusted leader with a progressive-mind, who does not compromise his people’s need with a place for his own in the national politics. Such, indeed, is a rare trait of leadership. Among grassroots Karen communities, he is considered one of the best hopes for the new wave of Karen resistance movement.

Kweh Htoo, the devote father of six, is married to Naw Sar Rah. Aside from politics, he retains keen interest in Karen language, literature, history and traditional music.

October 16, 2004

Education, Human Resources and Leadership

By -- Saw Kapi

The intent of this missive is to generate discussion on the role of education and human resource building in the process of developing a people; in this case, the Karens. In this discussion, I will try to explore the interrelation involved with the challenge of human resource development currently faced by our people, and assess at least the present level of educational attainment among young Karens. Attempts will then be made at the end to offer suggestions on the programmatic tasks for all groups and organizations that aim to take part in our national development process. In mapping out a development path for our people, it is important that we place special emphasis on the youth as they always play a crucial role in the process of national development. It is imperative, also, that a development program is developed to empower our young people to make a meaningful contribution to the development of our entire Karen population.

While some politically sensitive factors are beyond our control, achieving higher education through any available means is something we can and should focus on. It has been a proven fact that educational attainment among our young people can have a great positive impact on our overall national development. In the meantime, we need to make sure that we develop a patriotic human resource base needed for advancing the goals of national development. For this reason, we first need to find out our current human resources both domestically and internationally, create a network among Karen students and academics, and then generate ideas and opinions on how to develop our own society. Thinking about Karen human resources, it would be highly deficient to look only at those who can ascend to high positions in the government. Nor will it be enough to analyze only those who at present have access to higher education. And yet, it is crucial that we start from some point and move on with whatever is available to us.

“If we truly are aspired to prosper as a people, having a strong knowledge-based human resource is quintessential.”

At present, available statistics indicate that we have more than two hundred Karen students studying in vocational institutes in Singapore, and about forty to fifty in Thailand, and more than fifty Karen students are now going to the universities and colleges, studying in different fields, throughout North America. It is indeed encouraging to see that many Karen students are studying computer science, engineering and business administration. A good number of them in Singapore are in nursing programs. A few studying in the United States are pursuing their advanced degrees in fields such as economics and laws.

However, acquiring education is not an end in itself; it, in fact, is only a means through which we seek to accomplish our goals. The question then is, where and how are we going to use our knowledge and expertise? While young people must be encouraged to acquire scientific information through education, research and other means, they must also be continually reminded of their fellow Karens, who often have to struggle and survive under entirely different circumstances. While many of us may find it difficult to secure means and access to a higher education inside the country at present, a coordinated effort to prepare ourselves for further study abroad is consequently necessary. It is, therefore, essential that those of us who are studying at the colleges and universities abroad have regular communication (or network) with those who are inside and are willing to try and invest in their future education. This should be done on an individual basis as well as by means of organized group-efforts. Even though we do not have either the infrastructure or the resources to embark on any kind of program on a massive scale, we can start with self-support educational funding or loan programs that encourage our young people to get started with their search for further educational opportunity.

Outreach educational programs that target the historically disadvantaged communities in order to encourage educational interests amongst young people can be very instrumental to achieving our objectives. The unfortunate part in this type of outreach is that the demand for resources will always exceed what can be made available. We must realize that such a situation may well create competition, and it is only important that we utilize whatever available resources not only with a sense of responsibility to fairness but also to their optimum. At present, we can see that many of our young people find it so difficult to get to the level where they can be ready to grasp whatever opportunity may present itself.

Conservative estimates suggest that the rate of Karen students who continue their schooling beyond high school has gone down. Criticisms have been circulating that young Karens are not trying hard to seek education but many of them are abusing alcohol and drugs, and that they are falling behind compared to their counterparts from other nationalities. Worse is the situation of our people in certain conflict areas, where most of the time, the absence of even modest educational institution is common. Not only is the living situation extremely harsh for those in such areas, but the total lack of opportunity for the children and young people to pursue any kind of formal education is the greatest loss suffered by them. In some cases, the absence of a peaceful environment is the major obstacle to acquiring proper education for our children who will inevitably become key players in the future.

Several factors contribute to the current predicament of our people, and yet we must not fail to see that an organized effort to encourage our young people for competition in educational achievement can make a huge difference for development in the future. Obviously, churches and church-affiliated organizations can play a crucial role in this regard. The Karen Educational Foundation recently established by a group of successful Karen businessmen for Karen students studying in Singapore is inspiring and indeed helpful. The Klo & Kweh Educational Development Programs, first idealized and now materialized by some farsighted Karen youths currently studying in the United States, is at its early stage in providing scholarship primarily, but not restrictively, to high school students who maintain their cultural knowledge and social consciousness. One of the objectives of the KKEDP is to establish a resource center for Karen students who want to explore the possibilities of further education: especially to study abroad. It also aims to create a coordinated connection between Karen students inside and outside, and provide the opportunity to share their educational experience as well as practical information about education systems abroad. It is hoped that such information sharing and networking will open the eyes of many more young people and, in the meantime, unfold opportunities for their study.

Today, Karens are faced with numerous pressing national issues. Among them is the need to nurture a new breed of leadership that can critically question its surroundings and wisely develop it for the betterment of the whole community. It is imperative that educators and intellectuals of all backgrounds, few as they may be among the Karens, play their own role in this process. Our sense of sharing and our sensitivity to injustice around us are as important as our educational attainment and our professionalism. Rendering service to and for the betterment of our own people must become a unique trait of our new leaders. To this end, the new generations Karen leadership must, at least, learn to see the situation around them "not as they simply are, but as they come to be." They will then have to shape their environment the way they see just and lead their people on to the path of development.

If we truly are aspired to prosper as a people, having a strong knowledge-based human resource is quintessential. Circumstances may not always be in our favor to build our own institutions and infrastructures; nonetheless, through farsighted programs and well-managed projects, we can help promote educational opportunities for our young generation. It is through modern education that we must seek to build a strong human resource foundation, which must essentially serve as a vehicle to carry our people forward.

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February 19, 2005

About the Karen New Year

THE KARENS' NEW YEAR DAY: A Brief Introduction
By -- Saw Kapi

Though the Karen people of Burma, due to continuous oppression by successive feudalistic and ethnocentric rulers of the land they have peopled through out centuries, have lost some of their cultural traditions and heritage (including their original Karen written language known as li-hsaw-wehh), a large number of them hitherto have maintained their separate identity and tradition. The celebration of Karen New Year, for example, remains the most significant and collective cultural expression of Karen people.

The Karens celebrate their new year in Thalay (month), as it is recognized as the time when the old year ends and a new year begins. When the then British Burma was separated from India in 1937, the Karen National Association (KNA), the oldest and leading Karen organization of the time, initiated a series of efforts for the rights and recognition of Karen people. The twelve Karen parliamentary members, majority of them being Buddhists, started their efforts with an attempt to gain recognition for a Karen National Day. The concern, however, was that designation of such day for one ethnic group could easily spur ethno-nationalistic sentiments from all other ethnic nationalities. Therefore, the Karens’ quest for a broader national recognition, to some extent, was compromised to a single acknowledgement of Karens’ New Year day.

“…the Karen era would be counted from B.C. 739, when the Karens completed their second phase of migration to the land now known as Burma. Thus, the nearest calculation of Karen era is to add 739 to Christian calendar year.”

As soon as the process for the initiation of Karen New Year started, the issue -- on which day of the Burmese calendar 1st Thalay actually falls -- quickly became a hotly debated question. At that time, two versions of calendar were presented, one that was presented by the Christian Karens and the other presented by a Buddhist Karen named Saw Maung Shwe of Min-Nan-Nwe village. Because it was too close to the time the official date was to be submitted, Karen parliamentarians skipped thorough research needed and presented the calendar proposed by a respected Karen elder by the name Poo-Yar-Nay from Myaung-Mya, which made the 1st Thalay falls on the first waxing day of Pyar-Tho on the Burmese calendar.

This led to an issue on how to organize Karen chronology. There were many suggestions made by several Karen leaders from different communities, but they finally agreed that the origin of the Karen era would be counted from B.C. 739, when the Karens completed their second phase of migration to the land now known as Burma. Thus, the nearest calculation of Karen era is to add 739 to Christian calendar year.

Saw Myat Thein, one of the twelve Karen Parliamentarians and a devout Buddhist from Hinthada, led a series of discussion with Saw Johnson Durmay Po Min from Toungoo about introducing a Karens’ New Year Day bill to the Parliament. The two later met with General Aung San and a few other Burma leaders as well. It was recorded that U Ba Dun, a Mon lawyer and Secretary of House of Representatives at that time, helped draft the original Karens’ New Year Recognition Bill, although the bill was introduced to the House of Representatives on 23rd July 1937 by Saw Johnson Durmay Po Min. The bill was passed and subsequently approved by the Governor’s Council. It became Karens’ New Year Recognition Act on 2nd August of the same year.

For the first time, Karens of all tribes and creeds came together to celebrate their first national New Year day in 1939, on the first day of Thalay, 2678 Karen Era. All Karen people came to recognize this day as the greatest gala day in the annals of Karen history. The first day of Thalay, since then, has been recognized as the official New Year Day of Karen people.

May this New Year bring you new ideas, new perspectives and new vision that would lead you to see peace within the world around you! Mar-nay Aw-keh Buh-duh Buh-dah!

For 1st Thalay 2743 Karen Era

Note: Extracted from various sources of Kayin Kyay-Mone published by Karen New Year Celebration Committee- Mahar Yangon (2002-2003), and from Pu S’gaw Ler Taw’s Central Political Training Manual published by Pa-an District, February 2001.)


Some Comments on Karens' Identities

By – Saw Kapi

First and foremost, Karen people do not share the same faith anymore since a significant percent of Karen people became Christians (35%, according to the latest estimate by the Karen Baptist Convention), while more than 50% of us have adopted Buddhist religion, and some remain animists still. It appears that we are almost equally split in terms of our creeds. The advent of Christian religion in Burma, however, is a recent phenomenon. It can be reasonably assumed that the Karens have been sharing a common tradition of faith, that is, their belief in nature and animism, which, in certain aspects, may be closely related to some practices of Buddhism, until the later part of 19th century.

“Sensitivity to and conscientious tolerance of cultural, language and religious differences even amongst ourselves are quintessential if we are to maintain at least a functional unity.”

Secondly, the Karens do not use the same written or verbal language. As far as can be ascertained, there are at least three major Karen languages: East Pwo, West Pwo and Sqaw. Even though legends and oral history tell us that we have our own original common language known as Li-hsaw-wehh, there is no scientific research finding that establishes proofs for it. Assuming, nonetheless, that the Karen people have had a common written language before, there is no indication of how and when it was lost. It is historically commendable, however, that the Karens had been surviving without communicating with each other in writing for several centuries. Fortunately in the late 1830, using Burmese alphabets, Dr. Jonathan Wade, an American Baptist missionary, helped invent modern written Sqaw Karen language. Subsequently, Dr. Mason launched the first ever Karen language newspaper, Hsar-Du-Ghaw, in 1841. Based in Tavoy town of present day Tanassarim Division, the publication lasted almost 100 years until the Fascist Japanese invaded Burma. The West Pwo Karen language was also created by Dr. Wade but revised in 1840 again by Dr. Brighton, another American Baptist missionary. So, today’s written Karen languages, except Eastern Pwo Karen, are the creations of non-Karens from far away land across the Pacific Ocean.

Thirdly, to what extent the Karens do share the same culture heritage is a question to be answered still. For example, East Pwo Karen and West Pwo Karen develop and cherish Done Dance, but the great majority of Sqaw Karen people do not have a good idea about that aspect of Karen culture. Many Sqaw Karen know that Done Dance is a cultural heritage of Karen people, and it ends there. For instance, in 1997 a group of Karen students (approximately about 70, most of them being Sqaw Karen) was asked to write an essay about either Done Dance or Klo, Karen Drum. Only two of them chose to write on the former, and both of them showed that they know little about the subject except the fact that they enjoy watching it so much.

Hence, there seem to be some inherent obstacles to building much needed unity among Karens of all tribes based on a sense of shared identities. Sensitivity to and conscientious tolerance of cultural, language and religious differences even amongst ourselves are quintessential if we are to maintain at least a functional unity.

Last but certainly not least, there is one thing that we all share, that is, our historical experience, i.e. a common history of oppression. Throughout history, Karens - East Pwo, West Pwo and Sqaw alike - have consistently endured oppression of all kinds from successive Chinese kings prior to their migration to Burma, and later by Burmese rulers and military governments interrupted only briefly by the British colonization of Burma. Thus, there seems to be a tendency among the Karen people that they draw their strength for the resistance to stronger and arrogant rulers from their shared historical experience. The danger though, in doing so, is that many of us ended up adopting victim’s mentality and searching for sympathy and support from outside, loosing track of the need to develop our own capacities – intellectual, professional or otherwise.

Ardeth Maung, a Karen political scientist currently teaching at the University of Massachusetts, observes that, “Karens may not share similar cultures, but our shared commonalities may be based on awareness about blood ties (that we may all have descended from the same language group, as identified by American missionaries or British colonizers), powerful myths about the origins of our ‘homeland,’ and shared experiences about the oppression of the Burmese military regimes. These, I believe, are the main common features that unite the Karen people. Identities are multiple, and they can change from time to time depending on the contexts.” It is evident enough that, languages, cultures and identities cannot be viewed as either exclusive or static elements of a society. They intermingle with others and are subject to changes over time. We should not fail to note that a national pride beyond social and historical realities is merely an arrogance that appeals to jingoism. Our only hope, hence, is to attain unity amidst diversity!



Some Remarks on Karen Revolution

SOME REMARKS ON KAREN REVOLUTION on the Occasion of 56th Anniversary Karen Revolution

By – BaSaw Khin

(An excerpt from the “FIFTY YEARS OF STRUGGLE: A Review of the Fight for the Karen People’s Autonomy” by BaSaw Khin. The full version of this paper is expected to appear on Kwe Ka Lu Website soon.)

The KNU struggle has now come to over the half century mark with the tragic loss of countless lives, those of truly selfless and well meaning leaders to poor peasants, old and decrepit folk to innocent babies, all valuable and irreplaceable. There have been torture, murder, rape and all forms of injustice committed throughout these years. As of now, there seems to be no end in sight.

From the beginning, the Karens did not seem to have forged a clear and well-defined goal and this was due mainly to the overriding animosity of some of their leaders against the Burmans, with doubtless reciprocation. The Burman leaders, perhaps for reasons best known to them, have never demonstrated any sincerity on their part. In the political field, they have almost invariably outfoxed the Karens. Of course the Karen leadership was anything but united. They seemed to have lost a good chance of fair settlement at one point. In October 1947, with the British still having some influence and persuasive power over Thakin Nu, the AFPFL Cabinet was prepared to offer the Karens a state that would embrace the Karenni State, the Mongpai substate, the Salween district and the Part II areas of the Thaton, Toungoo and Pyinmana hill tracts. A Karen Affairs Council was also planned for the Delta Karens to represent their interests.81 The Karen leadership at that point apparently did not see any advantage in negotiating with the wily and mercurial Burmans led by Thakin Nu. Even if that offer turned out to be sincere without British supervision, that might or might not have solved the Karen problem in Burma, although it did merit serious consideration by the KNU. Subsequently, the KNU simply demanded too much territory, even though it was meant as a starting point for negotiation.

After Ba U Gyi’s death in 1950, the KNU leadership was erratic, ranging at first from leftist proclivity, if not quite outright Communism, led by the intellectual but pragmatic Mahn Ba Zan, somewhat concomitantly with unsuccessful attempts to seek support from the west by the pedagogic and somewhat conservative Hunter Tha Hmwe, and subsequently to a rather simplistic and practical, perhaps out of necessity, policy of the martial Bo Mya. As of this writing, General Bo Mya has relinquished his KNU presidency and P’Doh Ba Thin Sein, formally the General Secretary, has been elected as President. The current General Secretary P’Doh Mahn Shalapan is quite assertive in promulgating the KNU policy, aim and course of action, hopefully not ignoring younger and presumably more brainy and educated Karen activists as well as far-sighted and mature overseas as well as domestic Karen advisors inside Burma proper. On the military side, there have been obvious setbacks due largely to the stronger and usually ruthless Burmese ‘Tatmadaw’, compounded by the collusion of greedy Thai government military leaders and their commercial partners, (the strength of the Burma Army as of the year 2002 being over 400,000; total armed forces, including Police Forces: 472,000).

To continue with the revolution, the Karens should remember that while it is desirable and important to preserve their identity and ethnic purity, the main thrust should be for an autonomous state with full guarantees for the people, and fair representation for all the Karens living in the Delta and lowland areas outside the Karen state. Policies should be formulated toward that end. The current alliances with dissident organizations, including ethnic minorities as well as the myriad Burman political parties and resistance groups, might be kept alive and strengthened constantly. Pragmatism ought to be the key word, and it should be remembered that incessant mouthing of ‘democracy’ means nothing but a slogan. Democracy in its true sense of the term could well be a Utopia, actually a luxury that Burma can ill afford at this juncture, although one should not forget India, her neighbor, with the largest if at times shaky democracy in the world.

At one point, it was generally accepted, and it may still be true, about Burmans from Central Burma in the Shwebo-Mandaly-Pakokku-Myingyan-Taungdwingyi-Thazi area, being of purer stock, tend to be more sincere and honest; and it might also be noted that the great Bogyoke Aung San himself, the father of modern Burmese independence, came from the small town of Natmauk, near Taungdwingyi. Another observation would be about the Burmans, the majority ethnic people in the country, regardless of political persuasion, democratic, autocratic or dictatorial, will always opt for homogeneity, one people with one language group. Also not to be ignored is an underlying factor about the majority Burman, of which a good percentage would be an amalgamation of the former Pyu, Mon, Shan, Indian, Chinese, and perhaps even Karen, particularly in the Delta areas. And among the leadership there is, or could have been at one time or another, a strong Chinese bias, meaning the Sino-Burman bloodline. On this, a vehement denial from the Burmans is almost always forthcoming. Based on this mixed ancestry of the average Bamar, the trend of thought would be in striving to build a nation where minorities are slowly and surely assimilated and melded into one homogeneous group of people, hopefully leaving religion out of the picture. That homogeneity goal will always be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. Witness the present-day Irish situation where even though a recent accord was signed (May, 1998), and trumpeted as a historic peace agreement that British PM Tony Blair helped to bring about, that might only mark a hopeful beginning.

The KNU, as far as can be ascertained, has never advocated and will not be demanding secession at all. The KNU would also do well to recognize the fact that Karen people come in several subgroups and different hues with varying and distinctive language coterie that would make it hard to forge a well-defined ethnic nationality. That is all the more reason to find a common ground with the majority Burman people, the dominant ethnic national of the country. From personal standpoint, democracy in the traditional definition does not really matter in Burma. Fact or fiction, the general Bamar/Burman mentality of assertiveness, a sort of predilection to individualism, especially true of the more educated and political professionals, plus the country’s various ethnic groups, would certainly call for a strong government, but definitely not the current deplorable SPDC, whose rule of law and peace efforts under a restrictive and stultifying atmosphere leave much to be desired. What Burma needs is a government of pluralism, and if the hitherto stubborn SPDC that takes pride in its ignorance of nearly every aspect of a competent ruling body, the glaring exception being expertise in the use of menace and might, can bend a little and cooperate with all dissident groups, including in the NLD, and will tone down their four-cuts policy, and not focused on a-poke-tike or complete and forcible annihilation of the ethnic nationality movements and other opposition forces, and finally, if the peace offers to these groups are proffered with lesser condescending attitude and more of what can be ascertained as being honest and sincere, then there may still be hope for that so beautiful and comparatively resource-rich land with enormous potential.

Meanwhile, the aging KNU leaders and the upcoming younger generation may have to continue with rather limited options: to keep on engaging in military action against the ‘Tatmadaw’ forces of an oppressive government, while trying to avoid bloodshed as much as possible (a tall order), and whenever or wherever possible, cooperate and coordinate their efforts with other Burman and ethnic dissident groups. They might constantly work toward ‘stimulating’ their cause, in a manner of speech, to convince those, including sympathetic and concerned sources, who are helping them, that their goal is toward the principles of social equality and lasting peace with justice, and that they are not clannish, but can look beyond their ethnicity. And it is up to the enlightened Karens and other ethnic minorities, in active cooperation with dissident Bamar groups, outside and inside the country, to make every attempt to create, through peaceful means, a government of pluralism, that must still include intelligent, far-sighted and truly patriotic elements of the current SPDC who could acknowledge their own limitations, a government of authentic and fair representation, replete with freedom and opportunities for every citizen.

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History, Courage and Patriotism

History, Courage and Patriotism: Distinction and Decision to be Made

By – Saw Kapi

There have been some serious talks lately about the goal of Karen resistance movement and how to achieve it. Some justifiably raised the issue of courage or the need thereof. For many, the "four principles of Saw Ba U Gyi" comprise everything, if we are to achieve our goal. For others, constant self-examination, reasoning and questioning of our goal as well as the means to achieve it would be of paramount importance because we are living in this ever-changing world.

Talking about courage, the sort of courage we applaud must not be based on a sense of insecurity and negativism but reliant on intellect, confidence, nurtured understanding and therefore hope. For that, we first have to overcome ourselves, something in us that easily yield to emotion rather than intellect, and to the cult of negativism rather than positive sentiments. In short, we must not give up thinking, reasoning and questioning ourselves simply because we love our people.

Ours is a history of oppression wherein our people have suffered for centuries. But it does not end there. A solution is needed. The first step to get an answer is to question everything on the way, ourselves as well as others. Even our own history must be scrutinized in the most naked manner. Only then can we learn from it and move forward, and not dwell on it.

One must be proud of the greatness of one's people (or, nation if you wish), but not just in any greatness that is born of blindness and falsehood. We need to build a nation that can be proud of her goodness and strength, a nation that is capable of seeing her own weaknesses and admitting her own shortfalls.

We cannot just believe that everything must be subordinated to a single end. There must be more than one way to skin the cat. If we wish to proceed one step further, or advance a level higher, we will have to engage in a broader politics within this rapidly transforming world, which as they often say, is like shooting a moving target. Thus, we cannot afford to stand still and live in the past.

There are some people in and beyond this forum, who are Karens by birth as well as by choice, but in the opinion of a few, they "do not know or love their own people," and yet those people have done more than what the so-called "principled patriots" ever did for their people. Their love for their people is not based on bragging about patriotism, which often amounts to jingoism. Rather, their prime patriotism is based on their contribution of all kinds, intellectual as well as professional, to the lasting survival and prosperity of the Karen people. To them, I take my hat off; I do solemnly salute them.

Some of us, unfortunately however, have cracked heads, that is, they are unknowingly shortsighted, and do not really know what century they are in. Nor do they understand the kind of adversary they have to deal with; therefore they are even more unbearable than idiots as they started out with dogmatic standpoint and reasons falsely derived therefrom.

Patriotism only by the heart is a matter of convenience, whereas patriotism involving the sacrifice of life is a much bitter choice and thus must be revered. It is good to remind ourselves that patriotism with practical contribution, professional or otherwise, no matter where we live, is reasonable and admirable. A desire to help is only half the glass; an ability to get things done is what our people really need.

Even then, we still need to distinguish between sacrifice and self-glorification, between courage and arrogance, and most importantly, between a generation of the future and followers of the past. Blind patriotism produces propagandas and drags people backward, while reasoned patriots strive to change the order of things and carry the people they love forward. So, we have to decide where we stand today. Our destiny may well be a product of the historical process in which we all have to, or are forced to, make decisions.

With these thoughts in mind, I wish you all a very happy New Year, embracing all, the Karen, Christian and Buddhist era.

Note: Originally written as a note of reminder to the Karenissues, an Online Discussion Forum of Karens the world over, on 11th December 2004. Read more...

Burma's "Road to Jericho"

BURMA'S "ROAD TO JERICHO": Would You Engage or Turn Away?
By – Saw Kapi

Robert Seiple, former president of World Vision, once challenged us, particularly as Christians, to make responsible choices and be engaged responsibly in the world's affairs. He alluded to the importance of the Good Samaritan spirit and analogized our world as another Road to Jericho. I can vividly recall the famous parable as my mother read it to me almost three decades ago. The simple but courageous act of the Samaritan has stuck in my mind ever since, especially as I struggle with the crisis going on in Burma.

Jesus Christ tells us this story of the Good Samaritan in the Bible (Luke 10:25-37) as he answered the question of whom we should consider our neighbors. I was profoundly moved by the story since I first heard it more than twenty years ago. But it has been only recently that I discovered, or rather, could characterize the diametrically different perspectives, of the Samaritan, on the one hand, and of the Levite and the Priest, on the other. Encountering the same incident, the Samaritan ponders: what will happen to the mugged man if I do not stop and help him, whereas, the Priest and the Levite question: what would happen to me if I stop and help the man? All three of them acted according to their own instinctive and intrinsic values in life. The Samaritan helped the mugged man, but the Priest and the Levite turned away from the man.

“Must we be blind to the suffering of our neighbors? Or, must we allow ourselves to be interrupted by the ‘mugged man’ and make a difference in the lives of others?”

Today, as we walk on our road to "Jericho", many of us often find ourselves, just like the Priest and the Levite, in the situation of asking the second question and getting the answer of excuse to avoid the many responsibilities. The crisis in Burma is the allegoric road, involving the sight of pain and suffering, resulting from human rights violations. In the face of grotesque injustices committed by a powerful military regime that has triggered thousands of innocent people to flee their homes, which of the two questions would we ask ourselves? Whenever I pause for a while and think about it seriously, I invariably end up in silent weeping, but I know that the suffering people need more than sympathy and tears. To relate this to Seiple’s earlier message: "Success is illusive. It is wrong to keep score. It is right to embrace the interruption, faithfully and obediently, that God puts in our path." Living in the world that resembles so much the circumstances of the road to Jericho, we sometime would like to reach our destination within the quickest possible time, and ignore those who need our help on the way.

For "such a time as this" in Burma, the Book of Esther can teach us the most vital and pragmatic ways to respond to the hardship, injustices and challenges facing us. Esther speaks boldly and truthfully in defense of her people. She uses her stature and speaks out in favor of justice. Perhaps Daw Aung San Suu Kyi may have been inspired by the spirit of Esther when she said, "use your freedom and speak out to the world to promote ours." It seems appropriate here to recall what may be the most famous lines of Martin Luther King Jr., from a letter he wrote while incarcerated in the Birmingham jail: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." If this statement is true, it calls our attention to be seriously concerned about any and every injustice carried out by any group or government in every corner of the world. In the same line of logic, we are constantly threatened and morally challenged by what is going on in the deep jungles of Burma, regardless of where we live.

Jesus told us the story of the Good Samaritan to draw a sharp and revealing contrast between the way things are and the way things should be, and I am convinced that, as a believer in Christ, we must be sensitive and responsive to the injustices that we witness. The question, then, is: What should we do when we are faced with injustice? Must we be blind to the suffering of our neighbors? Or, must we allow ourselves to be interrupted by the mugged man and make a difference in the lives of others? It is a very difficult question to answer, especially when the evil is so strong. Under the circumstances, we may just have to remember to pray and recite the oft-quoted prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr, the noted German-American theologian: "God, grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. . . . Amen."

December 2002, San Francisco, California

To the Karens in Exile

TO THE KARENS IN EXILE: Practical Approaches to Help the Oppressed
By – Saw Kapi

In the face of continued military oppression by successive Burmese military regimes, the right of Karen people to defend themselves is and must always be there. We have defended and we will always defend ourselves. Militarily, we fight to survive, and we have to. But it does not end there. Achieving the goal of national self-determination is completely different from defending oneself, and it requires of us to do far above and beyond pulling triggers. The hard reality of the past fifty years is that military clashes between the Karen National Union and the Burmese army created news headlines at times, but the armed resistance had ultimately done little to remove the Burmese soldiers from our land, leave alone furthering the cause in pursuit of our right to self-determination. Here, intellectual cum political might should come into play. An ability (or skill) to compete, cooperate and compromise is badly needed to move this struggle forward.

It sounds a little amusing to me when some of us who have not done anything substantial for our Karen people but claim to know best about their suffering simply based on the fact that we came through the Thai-Burma border. As expatriates in exile, we should not fail to see the limits of militaristic and diplomatic efforts that are based solely on showcasing the already downtrodden internally displaced Karen villagers and refugees - those in diaspora. We as Karen people need to regain our national confidence. Confidence comes from an ability to accomplish things – political, economic or otherwise. Confidence minus (or without) any particular ability, academic or otherwise, is simply arrogance. Having said that, there are a few things that young Karens in exile can do to help their people and raise the profile of their struggle.

First of all, one can work hard, save money, and send a portion of what he or she earned to the needy Karen IDPs, Karen soldiers, or refugees. Almost every one of us can do this, and I am sure many of us are doing our best. While each individual effort cannot be underestimated, Karens in exile can be more effective by making a collective effort to organize fundraising campaigns and develop a systematic distribution mechanism with accountability.

“As expatriates in exile, we should not fail to see the limits of militaristic and diplomatic efforts that are based solely on showcasing the already downtrodden internally displaced Karen villagers and refugees - those in diaspora. We as Karen people need to regain our national confidence. Confidence comes from an ability to accomplish things – political, economic or otherwise.”

Secondly, one can explore (international relations, political science, issues of federalism of all kinds), read, write and present the case of Karen people to the world. To do this in the outside world, one is required to have a good command of the language, which in this case happens to be the more universally accepted English language, and be able to professionally communicate with the international community. We do not necessarily have to have formal education or degrees to do this. But, if we cannot even produce a grammatically correct press statement or write a logically constructed letter of campaign to a congressman, for example, we cannot do much out there in terms of advocacy work.

Thirdly, one can seek formal education, professional skills (such as computer science, law, business administration, economics, accounting, and etc.) and help our own people in the areas we are skilled and knowledgeable. For example, an efficient Karen computer network engineer can build and maintain a good website for the KNU. Or, a good Karen lawyer can present a case of genocide before an international court on behalf of the Karen people. We must note, however, that this will happen only when help is seen as help and accepted with gratitude. It is always difficult to dictate a professional person, especially when the one who dictates/oversees is not equipped with any such professional knowledge. A good example of this would be a Burma Socialist Program Party Unit Chairman telling a group of teachers and college professors what to teach during the old days of BSPP in Burma. Talking about national and strategic development without any professional skills or knowledge will sound blatantly naïve and actually quite ridiculous.

At some point, we must come to grip with realities on the ground. That may well require us to adjust our strategy and therefore mission too. The truth must be seen in its most naked form and it is often hard to face. As of now, there seems to be a chasm of expectations between some of us who dwell on the dream of having a ‘Karen Nation’ while living in countries such as Australia, Canada New, Zealand, and USA, and our people who are suffering under the feet of Burmese soldiers every day and night. Our compatriots in the jungle of Burma do not have the luxury to think about national self-determination, nor do they even have the slightest idea about how a federal union works. All they desire for is to live in peace, and enjoy their own lives as you and I do here. No doubt, our desire to help our own people is noble, and yet what we can actually do to help depends very much on our ability, and above all, our analysis, not rhetoric.

Note: Originally written as a personal letter to a colleague, who invited me to work with him on developing a national development plan. (December 2004) Read more...

On Ethnic Right to Self-Determination

On Ethnic Right to Self-determination in Burma: The Karen Experience

By – Saw Kapi

Amidst ongoing debates on ethnic nationalities’ right to self-determination, it is appropriate to recognize that even though the Karens of Burma, for example, have been living side by side with the majority Burman people, they have managed to keep their separate identity distinctive for centuries prior to the British conquest of Burma. By the time the British invaded the country in the early nineteenth century, however, many lowland and Delta Karens had discarded parts of their Karen characteristics, including much of their language and their belief in animism, and embraced Buddhism. This was a consequence of the increasingly encroaching and dominating Burman influence. It would have been a logical possibility, therefore, that without the arrival of the British and the concomitant American missionaries in the early 1800's, most of the lowland Karens would have vanished. However, the eastern hill Karens, unlike their lowland brethren, have been able to maintain their separate identity with most of their traditions intact and have existed almost untainted by Burman influence, partly due to their geographically mountainous environment and habitat. It is to this hill Karen population that today’s mass displacements under the current military regime have their greatest detrimental and tragic consequences.

Although "experience has shown that attempts at 'nation building' through ethnic homogenization cannot succeed; nor can domination on the part of one ethnic group provide long-term stability in a society,"[1] the current ruling military regime - State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) - appears to have been persistent in following these misconceived guidelines to bring the so-called peace and development to the country. In fact, the ruling majority Burmans have, since the country's independence from Britain in 1948, pursued these misguided principles, and the SPDC generals simply continue to apply them with some modification, manifested in the use of force. As part of this principle, 'mass relocation' was initiated based on the so-called 'Four Cuts'[2] policy started by the General Ne Win government in the mid-1960s in central Burma against communist insurgents.

One of the major 'Four Cuts' or Pyat Lay Pyat operations against Karen villages in the areas controlled by the KNU, mostly the eastern side of the Sittang and Salween rivers, was launched for the first time in January 1984. The most unsavory negativity directly linked to the 'Four Cuts' operations, and in fact, to all Burmese military operations, is the so-called porterage: a euphemism for forced labor. Woe be to all villagers whom the SPDC soldiers manage to ensnare and force to carry their supplies, including weapons and ammunition, during their regular sweeps of KNU territories. This forced labor, justified as a normal practice by former Burmese, and quite anachronistic, is the current procedure of the SPDC and the Burmese Tamadaw. It invariably involves torture and killing of these unpaid laborers, including rape in the case of female porters.

Parallel to forced mass relocation, and equally detrimental and heinous, is forced cultural assimilation, which the Karens and other ethnic nationalities alike regard as the ultimate threat to their very existence. In many ways, forced relocation of villages is the most effective way of eliminating a people’s roots, as it displaces the people from their historical and cultural places. The end result of forced relocation is the total loss of peoples’ culture and traditions, which equally amounts to 'cultural assimilation.' The lowland Karens are the ones who have, by now, yielded largely to cultural assimilation and those still able to hold out are mainly Christian communities where the Karen languages (Pwo and Sqaw) are still used with facility. The ruling SPDC junta, and perhaps some myopic Burmans, would be extremely delighted and feel vindicated, when the day arrives when all Karen activities, religious or otherwise, are conducted in the Burmese language.

To resolve the issue, a constitutional recognition of language diversity to promote equal opportunity for all ethnic nationalities is quintessential. People from Shan State, Karen State or Kachin State, for example, may consider themselves citizens of Burma, but only within their own communities in their own state that might they feel home, be willing to reside and settle. It is natural and perfectly legitimate that these ethnic peoples struggle to maintain their cultures and identities through the preservation of their own language for language preservation is a crucial means to maintain their culture, identity and in many cases their dignity as well. Thus, it is important that in the education system of an ethnically diverse country such as Burma, people of different ethnic nationalities have the right to be educated in, and to use in official dealings, their own language. This means that they must be able to study subjects such as history, geography and sociology in their own language, in addition to the ‘federal’ official language, which can be Burmese.

It would be totally mistaken to construe as success the policy of assimilation on the ground that it will lead to any permanent solution of intrinsic ethnic problems. One simply has to look at the current Balkans situation, where ethnic diversity is not even as pronounced as that of Burma. There, peace and the rather impressive development attained through the efforts of Marshall Tito, arguably stronger and much wiser than most Burmese generals, were shattered and almost totally destroyed within a generation after his demise.

In Burma, democracy, ethnic equality and national development are intertwined, and one cannot be separated from the other. It is somewhat precarious to just assume that some dominant, self-declared military elite will deliver social and cultural liberation of peoples without their true participation in the process. More importantly, ethnic participation should not imply paralysis or willful inaction in the name of endless consultation with a few hand-picked ethnic individuals. Sincere, bold and decisive action should be pursued without disregarding the need for genuine representation of all the ethnic nationalities inhabiting the country. In other words, cooperation with ethnic nationalities and their participation must be in a democratic manner, which means that ethnic representatives must be elected by their own respective people. Only the genuine representation by an electoral process within respective ethnic communities will reflect their true and thus sustained participation. The opportunity to elect their own leaders for the representation their own communities is preserving their right to self-government, and that, after all, is the very essence of self-determination.

It must be noted, however, that the term 'self-determination,' at least in the context of Karen struggle, does not seem to carry an absolute meaning. The Karens historically seem to perceive it as an 'intermediate option' and what the term constitutes fluctuate from one historical period to another, depending on the political circumstances of their environment. Burma’s ethnic nationalities at least believe that they should determine their own destiny rather than someone else doing it for them. The political demands made by the Karen, the Mons, the Shan, and etc. have always been conformed to the fundamental principle of self-determination, at least in terms of the demand for the right of self-governance, if not consistently with the right of secession to set up one's own state, from which the original notion of self-determination is derived.

While Burma’s ethnic peoples seem to realize that consistent struggle for self-determination will go a long way in achieving their objectives, they cannot necessarily claim that it will be the panacea to all the country’s political problems. It appears, nonetheless, that the simple objective of the Karens is to achieve national self-determination that will guarantee their rights to preserve and develop their own social and cultural identity as they seek to eliminate the basic causes of the national grievance, wherever and in whatever form they manifest themselves. Their struggle for self-determination began more than half a century ago, and in response to their resistance the successive Burmese military governments have been most acrimonious in their treatments of the Karens in general and the KNU in particular. Nevertheless, it evidently appears that the harsh treatment by the Burmese military regime has only reinforced the conviction Burma’s ethnic nationalities that they need to have the right to self-determination in order to survive and develop as a people.

[1] See "Ethnic Diversity and Public Policy: An Overview," by Crawford Young, UNRSD (United Nations Research Institute for Social Development), November 1994, p. 1.

[2] The "Four Cuts" policy was initiated as a counterinsurgency program designed to cut the four main links ­ food, funds, communication and recruit. It was an emulation of the "new village" tactics developed by the British forces under Sir Robert Thompson in fighting, eventually defeating the Communist insurgency in Malaya in the late 1940s to early 1950s. Read more...

Time for the United States to Engage

By – Saw Kapi & Naw Show Ei Ei Tun

In June 2003, a bipartisan task force on Burma, sponsored by the Washington DC-based Council on Foreign Relations, and chaired by Mathea Falco, President of Drug Strategies, released a comprehensive and timely report titled, "Burma: Time for Change." First, it offers a thorough observation of the dire realities Burma is facing today, ranging from social and economic depravation and ongoing human rights violations to cross-borders issues, all of which result from the political stalemate in the country.Second, it provides concrete policy recommendations for the United States to act upon in key areas such as humanitarian assistance, democracy, human rights and the rule of law, narcotics control policy, refugees, migrants and internally displaced persons, or IDPs.

In a nutshell, the report affirms that the situation in Burma is one of deep desperation and that the US has yet to use the policy instruments available to it to effect change in a country that has been ruled by one of the world’s longest serving military dictatorships. The report finds that Burma has a serious health crisis, particularly its alarming HIV/AIDS epidemic that is the worst in the region after Cambodia. To address this problem, the report suggests, the US should provide humanitarian assistance to Burma, not directly to the ruling State Peace and Development Council, or SPDC, nor its Ministry of Health, but through local and international NGOs working in Burma. If the ruling junta commits itself to seriously addressing the country’s dangerous health crisis, it is possible that the US will choose to open the door to cooperate with the regime in this area.

While the report suggests that more severe economic sanctions on the junta are necessary, it implicitly recognizes that sanctions alone are not enough to push for a democratic transition. Although the intentions behind economic sanctions are undeniably good ones, the impact of sanctions does not fall exclusive upon the military regime, nor is the impact entirely positive. The bottom line is that in order to change Burma, the US needs to look beyond sanctions and broaden its strategies. In doing so, Burma’s unique geopolitical situation and recent political developments must be taken into account.

The report recommends, quite strongly, that the US should "redouble its efforts with the governments of China, Japan and the Asean [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] countries—particularly Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia—to press the State Peace and Development Council to work with the National League for Democracy and ethnic nationalities toward political transition in Burma." This recommendation comes at a timely point in political developments and should be given serious consideration by the US.Since the release of the report, there have been some notable developments inside Burma and on the Thai-Burma border. Prime Minister Gen Khin Nyunt announced his seven-step road map to "democratic transition," with the resumption of the National Convention being the first step. Recently, the Karen National Union, or KNU, one of the largest ethnic resistance forces still fighting against the regime, sent a high level delegation to Rangoon to discuss a possible ceasefire agreement with the junta. At the meeting, both sides agreed to halt the fighting, and the issues of IDPs and Karen refugees were discussed. The process is ongoing and both sides have agreed to continue the talks.

The junta’s failure to deliver on its promises in the past makes it difficult for the opposition and the international community to believe the regime is sincere in its promises this time. It must be noted, nonetheless, that Burma’s political transition has at least been regionalized, if not totally internationalized.Senior Thai military officials have played a significant role in persuading KNU leaders to negotiate a ceasefire agreement with the junta, while Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai have worked directly with their Burmese counterparts in organizing an international forum to discuss the "road map" in Bangkok. The forum, otherwise known as the "Bangkok Process," was attended by ten countries including Australia, Japan and China. Burmese Foreign Minister Win Aung attended the meeting despite concerns over international criticism, and explained, albeit vaguely and with no reference to a timeframe, how the junta intends to implement its seven-point road map for democracy. He also pledged to resume the National Convention that will eventually lead to the drafting of a new national constitution. This could be interpreted as recognition by the Thai, KNU and junta leaders of the need to find a solution to Burma’s political problems though regional efforts.

In light of recent developments, the recommendation for increased cooperation between the US and Thailand in providing cross-border humanitarian assistance is timely. Despite repeated rebuffs from the junta to allow international intervention in what it considers to be internal affairs, international monitoring and cross-border assistance will become extremely crucial should a deal be struck for the resettlement of an estimated 145,000 Karen IDPs. The influx of hundreds of thousands of Burmese refugees into Thailand, India and Bangladesh, as a result of the prolonged fighting inside the country, has become a regional concern. The HIV/AIDS epidemic in Burma is no longer an internal issue that can be contained in the country; it has become so endemic, reaching far beyond Burma’s borders that it threatens serious long term ramifications on the region’s economy.

In brief, Burma’s treacherous situation warrants an immediate and concerted response from the international community. In as much as it is time for change in Burma, it is now time for the US to take concrete steps and intensify efforts to critically engage Burma’s military regime and its neighboring countries.

Note: Saw Kapi is a Policy Fellow at the Institute of Education and Development Studies, and Naw Show Ei Ei Tun is a former economics student living in Washington, DC.

Irrawaddy, March 19, 2004

Across the River of Running Sand

Across the River of Running Sand:
The Ethnic Karens of Burma – Origin and Folktales

By – Pa Thoo Plie

The Karens of Burma are believed to have begun their first migration into Southeast Asia as early as 1128 B.C.1 But the question for most people, especially the Karens themselves, is not so much when they arrived, but from where.

The Karens, based predominantly on oral legends, trace back their lineage to Mongolia. The main basis for this is the Karen legend of Taw Mei Pah, who is seen as the father of the Karen race. According to the story, Taw Mei Pah lead the Karens people away from their homes when the place they inhibited became too overcrowded. According to the fable during their journey he led his people across a ‘River of Running San’ or ‘Hti Hset Meh Ywa’ which was interpreted by Dr. Mason, a missionary working with the Karens in the early 19th century, to mean the Gobi dessert and it was this theory that was embraced by many during the 19th century and still continues to be today. However many have speculated that a different translation which can also be used to mean ‘A river following with sand.’2 One such individual who doubted Mason’s hypothesis was Dr. D.C. Gilmore, who suggested that the story was actually referring to the Salween River,3 a claim he noted that was supported by Mason’s translation of the Taw Mei Pah legend, which gave the most famous Karen mountain ‘Thaw Thi’4 as the ancestral home of Taw Mei Pah and the Karen race.

It was not only Dr. Mason who believed that the Karen crossed the Gobi. Donald Mackenzie Smeaton of Bengal Civil Service also put forward the hypothesis, agreeing with Dr. Mason by quoting the Chinese pilgrim Fa Hian, who, whilst visiting India in the fifth century referred to the Gobi as a ‘River of Sand’, whilst Chinese maps of the time also referred to the dessert as ‘quick sands.’5 Smeaton also quotes Malte Brun, who in reference to the writings of Marco Polo, says that, “the country of the Caride is the southeast point of Tibet, and perhaps the country of the nation of the Cariaines, which is spread over Ava.”6 Unexpectedly, the Independent Karen Historical Research Association (IKHRA), whilst giving a chronology of the settlement of the Karens, sees them leaving Mongolia in B.C. 2017 and making their way to East Turkistan, where, it is believed, they stayed for 147 years.7 By 1864 B.C. they had left East Turkistan to settle in Tibet, here they stayed for 476 years before moving eastwards to Yunnan.

Although there is little information as to why the Karens were constantly moving. One tradition8 does give some thoughts into their life in Yunnan, and it is this that provides some possible glimpse as to the reasons for leaving Yunnan and which then lead to their migratory steps into Southeast Asia and finally Burma itself.

The story described a conflict between the two major branches of Karen race, the Sqaw and the Pwo. According to the legend the Pwos had killed one of their own chiefs called Pu Tha Get, although it is not clear as to why, the Sqaws requested a fine be paid for the criminal act. The Pows refused and the Sqaws decided to ostracize them banning them from all social contacts and intermarriage. Through out the period in Yunnan there were periodic wars, which eventually led to the Pwo Karens beginning what is believed to be the first Karen migration into Southeast Asia.

The period in Yunnan is also believed to have led to a somewhat unbelievable theory that the Karens are actually the lost tribe of Israel. A theory no doubt that found favour amongst the many missionaries, Dr. Mason included, who where ministering to the Karens. The theory put forward the notion that the Karen began their migration from Babylon and bizarrely, despite the fact that practically all Karens have discarded such an idea, it is still to be found in at least one widely taught Karen history book. The main reason that the hypothesis was taken seriously was due to the Karens sharing similar religious traditions as told in the Old Testament. It is often believed that the foundation for similarities found in these religious traditions are a result of the Karens encountering Jewish colonies in China;9 this however seems totally improbable.10

After the conflict in Yunnan, it is believed that the Pwos were the first to enter Burma and journeyed southward following the course of the Salween river, and split off near Toungoo.11 Their course then changed Southeastwards leading towards Thailand before their eventual arrival in Tenneserim.

After further conflict with the Sqaws, who had followed during the second migration that is believed to have begun around 740 B.C.12, the Pows were forced to scatter along the entire coastline as far north as Arakan. The Sqaws meanwhile concentrated themselves on the hills of the Pegu Yomas and along the plains of the Irrawaddy Delta.

The Karens now numbering anywhere between 3-5 million people, are to be found throughout Burma as various groups split during their migration towards Southern Burma. Added to this Karen communities are also found throughout the border areas of Thailand13 as war between the two sides resulted in a number of Karen slaves being taken to the court of Ayudhaya.

The legend of Taw Mei Pah ends with the hope that the father of the Karen race will return to lead his people in the creation of a free Karen land, which is the goal the Karens still continue to seek.

Note: This article first appeared in Karen Heritage, Issue 1, Vol. 1, November 2002, Mae Sot, Thailand.
1 New Country Historical Research Journal.
2 Marshall, the Karen People of Burma, quoting E.B. Cross.
3 In response to the uncertainty of the river being the Salween, Dr. B. Laufer, Curator of Anthropology Field Columbian Museum, Chicago, suggested that it was more likely to be the Yangtze, or Yellow river.
4 It is noted that many translations of the Taw Mei Pah story omit this reference, however, Dr. Vinton and Rev. T. Thanbya included it in their ‘Karen Folklore Stories’.
5 Smeaton, “The Loyal Karens of Burma”.
6 Ibid.
8 Smeaton, ‘The Loyal Karens of Burma”.
9 Marshall, the Karen People of Burma, states that this could be possible, yet highly unlikely that the Karens met with a Jewish settlement at K’ai-fong in Hunan.
10 In China and Religion, by E. G. Parker, it is noted that there is no mention of Western religion to ancient China until 1163 A.D. The Karens at least according to the IKHRA would have begun their first migration in SE Asia as early as 1128 B.C.
11 Smeaton.
12 Marshall quotes Dr. Mason recounting a legend of a hopes of settling there. On their arrival they had found the site had already been occupied by the Shan. Should the legend be true, it would actually suggest the Karens’ southward migration as taking place around 574 A.D. when Laboung was founded.
13 Approximately 50, 000.