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," 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' 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.
 See "Ethnic Diversity and Public Policy: An Overview," by Crawford Young, UNRSD (United Nations Research Institute for Social Development), November 1994, p. 1.
 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.
February 19, 2005
On Ethnic Right to Self-determination in Burma: The Karen Experience