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)