June 29, 2005

On Virtual Karen People's Square

The Karenissues Forum: A Virtual Karen People’s Square?

by -- Saw Kapi

While it is not a real tangible space, Karenissues Forum indeed resembles a virtual People’s Square for Karen people.

We read and hear often about the Tiananmen Square (in the center of Beijing), Red Square (in downtown Moscow), and Independence Square (in Kiev, Ukraine), where people of respective country come to express their political opinions, display their national spirit, and proclaim their patriotism. Less noticeably, there also are those who come to these public squares to just quietly walk around and enjoy listening or reading the opinions of others.

There is one striking historical commonality that all the aforementioned places share – they all serve as places where voices of dissent are raised, authorities questioned, and, at times, political victories pronounced. So, in essence, these public squares are the symbols of freedom of expression. Precisely put, they accommodate the age-old yearning of the people for freedom of expression.

It is hoped, while we do not yet have a public square of our own in the physical sense, that this Karenissues Discussion Forum be genuinely utilized to express our opinions (not attitude) on current events, to share our positive views (not negative perception) about the society we live in, and to present our thoughtful analysis (not deceitful propaganda) aimed at progressing the people we claim to love.

Having said that, it is perfectly understandable if we (some of us) want to remain primly silent but attentively listen, read and learn from what others have to say. But, we as a people cannot remain indifferent to injustices that we witness with our own eyes. We can no longer be fence-sitters, even if that is our nature, on issues of national importance.

After almost two years of exercise, the Karenissues Forum indeed has become a virtual public square especially for those who possess the courage to speak their minds, the craving to express their thoughts, and the poise to do so with responsibility. Read more...

June 24, 2005

A Tribute

A Father’s Day Observation
June 19, 2005, San Francisco

My dear father, a foremost teacher of mine, you are away at the moment but there, you feel much closer to home, we understand.

At this moment, a few thoughts come into my mind as I think about upcoming Father’s Day. I recall the good old days when I was still in my teen age. In a small town where there was no library, your collection of books was our only treasure. You introduced us to some of the greatest minds of 20th century -- Bertrand Russell, Leo Tolstoy, Earnest Hemingway, and the list goes on. It was through the great works of those people that we opened our eyes to this world, even before we left our small little hometown in the middle of Burma for a destination we were not certain of, but to its purpose we have hitherto kept ourselves abreast.

Not only did you encourage us to read great books but you also taught us how to respect them. That, I would say, is the greatest gift you have ever given to us: a habit of reading. Essentially, your passion in reading and your keenness in educating young minds distinguish who you really are to the world around you from what you appear to be from afar sometime to some people. You are not a university graduate, but you made “education” a household agenda, and you kept the names of most prestigious universities familiar to us. Above all, you compelled us to think highly of academia and make learning a life long endeavor.

You fascinated me with your occasional yet witty commentaries about the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War, Vietnam War, and about great political leaders such as Nehru (and the Indian independence movement), Mao Tse Tung (and his infamous Long March) and Ho Chi Minh (and the resistance he led against the French and the American). All these that you have taught me, including your support of me to take part in the 1988 political demonstration, I must admit, form the basis of my political activism today.

A rare trait of you, may I mention at least, reluctantly however, is you hardly ever say “sorry” and I found it troublesome at times. You hardly ever admit that you made any mistake, and not being able to admit that, perhaps, is the only real weakness you have ever had in your life.

Happy Father’s Day!

Your son, Saw Kapi

June 21, 2005

Beyond Cease-fire

Imagining a National Reconciliation in Burma: Beyond Cease-Fire
by -- Saw Kaw Htoo, Naw May Oo and Saw Kapi

WASHINGTON, Jan. 26, 2004 (AScribe Newswire) -- Following is an editorial by Saw Kaw Htoo and Naw May Oo. The opinions expressed herein are entirely the authors'. This article does not represent the official position of any organization.


The Karen National Union delegation led by General Saw Bo Mya traveled to Rangoon last week for talks with top leaders of the Burmese military regime. The trip marked Gen. Bo Mya's first trip to Burma's capital since the inception of the Karen revolution in 1949, and it could be seen as an obvious gesture toward national reconciliation and finding a political solution with the regime. Of all the ethnic resistance forces that have engaged in cease-fire talks with the military regime, only the KNU flew into Rangoon directly from a foreign capital. Although there was no official media report about the arrival of KNU team, Prime Minister Khin Nyunt reportedly told the KNU delegation that the result of the meetings between the two sides would be announced to the country. The people of Burma, most of whom have endured tremendous sufferings under successive Burmese military regimes for the last half-century, are hoping that the ongoing peace efforts by the KNU and its legendary leader General Bo Mya bear fruit this time.

Since there were no preconditions set for the talks, it was supposed that both sides would discuss quite openly all matters of concern. Although the KNU team's main focus in this round of talks was to formalize a cease-fire deal with the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), it pursued this negotiation process with a long-term goal of gaining the right to self-determination for the Karen people in a future democratic Burma.

In fact, the KNU decided to go ahead with the planned talks amidst continuing human right violations by the SPDC troops in several Karen areas. Several Karen communities have already raised concerns over the regime's continued atrocities in Karen villages, the plight of Karen refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs), and, lately, about Karen political prisoners now in jails throughout Burma. It is easy to realize that peace and national reconciliation, in practice, are more than agreements between leaders from the two sides. The regime must cease its violent practices in Karen areas to prove its readiness to negotiate in good faith. From the KNU point of view, face-to-face meetings with the SPDC give them an opportunity to formally present their concerns, and at the same time to seek other overarching political ends. While both sides agreed that talks are fruitful and progressing, much needs to be done on both sides for negotiating a formal cease-fire agreement; setting up a process of monitoring infringements of the truce; and deciding how to deal with the more than 250,000 internally displaced people in the Karen state.

The delegation came back with an understanding that both sides must start working on their respective concerns before they can come up with a formal signed agreement.

After more than half a century of civil war, the situation is now ripe for resolution. Although the Burmese military regime has managed to weaken the KNU forces considerably in the last decade, the prospect for a complete victory by either side is dim. Currently, a cease-fire agreement is a necessary and important step but not a panacea for solving the deeper political problems. A formal cease-fire agreement should lay the groundwork for a mutually agreeable political settlement. This would include the drawing of military demarcation for the SPDC and KNU troops; the initiation of a national political dialogue that would incorporate all the political stakeholders, including the popular leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and National League for Democracy party, popularly elected in 1990; the drafting of a national constitution; and a nationwide referendum.

The SPDC must convince the people of Burma that it is sincerely following the path to democracy and national reconciliation, which should take place within a reasonable time frame. The regime must also foster a situation that would encourage the NLD to join its proposed resumption of the National Convention. While negotiating with the SPDC, the KNU may want to keep its options open by not discarding completely the proposed resumption of National Convention. What may be more imperative - and feasible - for the KNU and all the opposition groups to do, however, is to convince the SPDC to change the unfair National Convention guidelines and principles that compelled the NLD to walk out in 1996.

As the very first step, a viable ceasefire agreement must be achieved on mutually acceptable terms. Amid many concerns and uncertainties, some relevant examples of recent cease-fire agreements between governments and armed opposition groups and their consequences may offer useful lessons for our own. Recently, the Indian government and a Tamil resistance group agreed to hold talks. And there is also the cease-fire agreement recently signed between the two warring factions in Sudan.

In December 2001, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) expressed their willingness to engage in talks with the then newly-formed Sri Lankan government, the United National Front (UNF), by announcing a unilateral cease-fire. In response to the ceasefire, the UNF government cautiously announced the cessation of hostilities. Naturally, concerns were raised over the Tigers' sincerity about and commitment to a cease-fire agreement. The LTTE responded by extending the unilateral cease-fire until February 2002 to seek a more positive response from the UNF government towards entering into political negotiations. Eventually, both sides agreed to have foreign monitors to oversee the process. After periods of intense clashes and uncomfortable situations, the ceasefire between the LTTE and the UNF Government came into effect. Both parties nevertheless recognized that a final settlement to the ethnic conflict has yet to be implemented.

According to the principles enunciated in the Thimpu talks, Tamils were to be recognized as a nation with a homeland and the right to self-determination. Although the two parties could not agree on the condition upon which LTTE would become a separate state, they were prepared to settle for a viable alternative to a separate Tamil state. With the help of the international community, the parties came up with a solution - a united Sri Lanka in which the Tamil aspirations for regional autonomy would be respected.

The cease-fire in Sri Lanka demonstrates that third party intervention is necessary, whether it be local or international -- and that it should be absolutely up to the two parties in question to decide whether and whom they invite as the third party. In the case of Sri Lanka, both the government and LTTE specifically invited the Norwegian government to mediate, and so it did. Most importantly, Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga's honesty and political courage were vital to resolving the ethnic conflict and war between the government and the LTTE. She has acknowledged that, "international mediation is very often useful in helping the two opposing sides to find new and creative ways in which they can settle their problems in a manner that both sides can gain."

It is instructive to look at the current negotiation between the KNU and SPDC in the light of these examples. While the KNU agreed to relinquish its original demand to hold the talks in Bangkok and go to Rangoon instead, it has proposed that international observers be present at the talks. Unlike the UNF government in Sri Lanka, the SPDC has refused to allow the presence of international observers, let alone international intervention, in the negotiation process. Although both sides agreed to hold talks inside Burma to maintain the country's sovereignty in addressing its own problems, the presence of a third party or international observers could, in fact, enhance the integrity of negotiation process. As a matter of fact, international humanitarian involvement - at least from "like-minded" countries such as Thailand, Japan and Australia - would be necessary, if not essential, to the safe return home of refugees and IDPs. It is in the best interest of the Burmese regime as well as the KNU to invite the international community, both governments and non-governmental organizations, to observe and help, though not necessarily to intervene, in the process.

Against all odds, the KNU has made relentless efforts for peace in sending the high-level delegation led by its Vice Chairman General Bo Mya to Rangoon in the hope that a cease-fire agreement would significantly reduce forced relocation and human rights violations in Karen villages and enable internally displaced people to return to their homes and villages. As a first step in proving its sincerity, the SPDC should demilitarize several Karen areas and create conditions conducive to the Karen refugees' return home and resettlement in their villages.

After all, not only a deep reserve of political will but also a vast amount of political acumen is highly essential from all sides to resolve Burma's decades-long conflicts. Undoubtedly the path towards national reconciliation is complex. It requires all parties to take steps beyond cessation of fighting. Since 1948, a rigidly centralized state followed by military dominance in the government has exacerbated ethnic tensions. For the Karens and other ethnic nationalities of Burma, military-dominated unitary government is an anathema; a genuine national dialogue inclusive of the forces of ethnic nationalities and the NLD led by Aung San Suu Kyi is essential to finding a feasible, acceptable and lasting alternative.


Confronting the Realities

Confronting the Realities: KNU Weighs Strategic Options for Burma's Political Deadlock

By Saw Kapi

MIZZIMA - March 19, 2004— Speculations abound within Burma's democratic forces and the international community in response to the proposal of the State Peace and Development Council, one of the longest-lasting military regimes in the world. The SPDC offers its seven-step road map that calls for the resumption of National Convention as its first step. Last week, the junta quietly sent its representative, Col. San Bwint, to the Thai-Burmese border to persuade the Karens to come back to the "legal fold" and to take part in the proposed process. Along with Col. San Bwint came U Khun Mya (a well-known Kachin ceasefire broker) and Rev. Saw Margay Gyi. Margay Gyi is the general secretary of the Bible Society - Burma, who is known for his cordial relationship with Prime Minister Khin Nyunt. Meanwhile, some Karen academics and> businessmen in Rangoon are eager to persuade the KNU to give serious consideration to PM Khin Nyunt's "road map" and to seize whatever opportunities there might be contained in the offer. Although the SPDC's intention toward the KNU remains unclear, it is obvious to the opposition forces that PM is strategetically approaching both cease-fire and non-cease-fire armed resistance groups to push for his seven-step initiative. Khin Nyunt is beefed up by supports from China and neighboring countries such as Thailand.

The KNU leadership needs to adopt a multi-prong approach that goes beyond usual closed-circle meetings among themselves. The rank and file of Karen National Liberation Army, the armed wing of KNU and other key democratic allies need to be informed strategically on time on the development of the situation. Keeping the international community and media organizations in the loop and seeking assistance from the Karen Diaspora in particular could be considered as part of a broader strategy.

The KNU has for the most part strived to find a more enduring solution to Burma's political problem by working with other nationalities and Burmese pro-democracy opposition groups. At the moment, the KNU seems to take a step further and explore the PM Khin Nyunt's seven-step political roadmap. A team of delegates including Maj. Ner Dah Mya, the commander of the KNLA's battalion 201 and son of KNU Vice Chairman Gen. Saw Bo Mya, and Lt. Col. Paw Doh of KNLA's Special Battalion 101, reportedly met with Col. San Bwint, the SPDC representative. Soon, a five-member KNU team also flew into Yangon on Wednesday evening. The five-member team that flew to Yangon apparently did not include Maj. Ner Dah Mya. The delegation is meeting with high-ranking SPDC officials including PM Khin Nyunt. Sources from the KNU stated, however, that the team has not been given any authority by the KNU Central Committee to cut any deal. According to these sources, the team was authorized only to find out various proposed options of solving Burma's political problem. The fact that Gen. Bo Mya himself has orchestrated this move makes it more interesting. The KNU team, which consists mainly of junior KNLA commanders, raises some questions on the seriousness of the meeting. Nevertheless, the move indicates KNU's noteworthy but unusual approach. This type of engagement cannot, however, be considered a policy change, because the KNU's official position has always emphasized its willingness to discuss political issues with SPDC. Whether the KNU will be invited to attend the National Convention or not remains a matter of speculation. The KNU may accept the invitation as an opportunity to resolve political deadlock with the SPDC, but the KNU will surely take into consideration the NLD's official position regarding the convention.

Burma's current ethnic problems should be examined in larger regional context, given the recent surging interest and involvement of the Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai in Burmese internal politics. Some senior Thai officials are reportedly persuading the KNU for a ceasefire agreement with the SPDC. The Bangkok Post reports that Thailand will host an international meeting to discuss Burma’s proposed "road map" toward democratic transition in Bangkok this month. According to the report, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra confirmed Thailand was expecting representatives from up to 10 countries to attend the forum which is due to be held on December 15. As Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yeu has effectively retired and Prime Minister Mahathia Mohammad of Malaysia is soon to leave his office, it seems that Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is keen on asserting Thai political influence over the Southeast Asian regional matters. Both Shinawatra and Sathirathai see the attempts to resolve Burma's political deadlock as a stepping stone for addressing larger regional issues. Both see the need to tame the rogue Burmese regime and both understand that solving the Burma's problem and/or keeping it at a manageable level would benefit their country politically and economically. Foreign policies, in the end, are a product of both national interests and personal ambitions.

On the one hand, the KNU must strategically consider its options to get out of the current political deadlock and find the best possible solution for the Karen people and Burma. But it would be foolhardy, on the other hand, to deal with the SPDC as if it was a completely unified entity with all the good intentions for the country. Some raised concerns that if the pro-democracy opposition groups, including the National League for Democracy and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, choose to reject PM Khin Nyunt's seven-step road map, it will strengthen the position of hardliners within the SPDC. Ethnic national armed resistance groups have limited options, as it is evident from the fifty plus years of resistance against successive military regimes. Of particular concern is the Karens, whose destiny should not be solely at the mercy of the SPDC. For a regime that has relied on the policy of suppression for decades, sincerity has not been a significant concern and, presumably, is not of high importance. It is up to the KNU and other democratic forces to continue struggling with a knowledge that politics is dynamic, and that any political outcomes will depend on their ability to strike a strategic deal at the right time with their opponents.

Edward W. Said, the late world-renowned Palestinian intellectual who passed away recently in New York in exile, once observed that "Look at situation as contingent, not as inevitable, look at them as the result of a series of historical choices made by men and women, as facts of society made by human beings . . . “ It is imperative that the KNU leadership makes the right choices amidst the crossroads of its resistance history, for their decisions will have long-term consequences on both the Karens as a people and Burma as a nation. Read more...

Interview with Mizzima

MIZZIMA: Interview with Saw Kapi
March 14, 2004

"Without lasting resolution to questions of ethnic self-determination and national power sharing, armed struggles that have flamed Burma's periphery for more than fifty years will not be resolved.” Saw Kapi

Mizzima: How did you get involved in the movement and what did you do on the border?

Saw Kapi: I am a product of the 1988 political wave. I joined the student movement in Toungoo (Pegu Division of Burma), my hometown, and later came to the Thai-Burma border to join the armed resistance movement of Karen people led by the Karen National Union (KNU). I taught for a year in Kawmoorah High School run by KNU in 1989. I subsequently moved to KNU's Mergui/Tavoy District and taught at a local high school there for two years before I came to sojourn in the United States in 1993.

Mizzima: Was there any specific personal experience, which pushed you to join the movement?

Saw Kapi: It was my father, who encouraged me to join the anti-government demonstration in 1988. I was then studying at Toungoo Government Technical Institute (TGTI). Along with the habit of reading my parents installed a sense of national spirit in me. My mother especially was very strict on us when it comes to maintaining Karen identity. If we didn't speak Karen at home, we didn't get to eat. But, they also introduced us, my three sisters and I, to Burmese literature, modern as well as classic. At home, we were taught to be concerned about the welfare of the people and the country. When I saw with my own eyes soldiers shooting the students who were peacefully demonstrating on September 19, 1988, I was shocked and enraged. After that I made a decision to leave the city for the Thai-Burma border, where I joined the armed revolution.

Mizzima: What were your personal experiences while you were on the border, for example the conditions for Karen refugees? Was it hurtful for you to see the situation there?

Saw Kapi: I was a teacher when I was in the refugee camp. It was particularly painful to see thousands of kids growing up without proper education. Many of them have lost their parents and siblings in war. Many of them grew up thinking that Burman people and Burmese soldiers are the same thing, and all they know about Burmese soldiers is that they came to burn villages, loot their possessions and rape their sisters. That is not good for the future of the country. How do we explain the concept of national reconciliation to them?

Mizzima: What did you do while in the United States?

Saw Kapi: I have continued my political activism here in the US. In the late 1990's I joined the Free Burma Coalition's Burma Speakers Bureau and engaged in a number of public speaking events at university campuses throughout the US. Now I am a member of FBC's Burma Strategy Group (FBC/BSG). I have also been active in organizing Karen youth and students internationally. We, a group of Karen activists and scholars, have recently established a semi-policy think-tank, the Institute of Education and Development Studies (IEDS). In the meantime, I am a country representative for the Karen National Union (KNU) here in the US.I studied International Relations for my undergraduate degree at San Francisco State University and later continued my graduate studies at the Center for Development Economics at Williams College in Massachusetts, where I received an M.A. in Development Economics. I amcurrently working for the University of San Francisco.

Mizzima: What do you think of Burma's current situation?

Saw Kapi: It now seems the KNU is pursing flexible strategies, but I can see that the goal remains the same. The KNU has been fighting for the Karen people to achieve their right to self-determination and equal rights within a true Union of Burma. Continuing military operations, declaring a cease-fire, attending or not attending the National Convention, seeking tri-partite dialogue and/or multi-partite dialogue are all different strategies. Those are only different means through which we seek to reach our goal. If and when necessary, we can be flexible with any or many of them. We do not want to get stuck with one way or one strategy. Now, with the talks ongoing, the SPDC has a chance to prove whether or not it really wants a true and lasting national reconciliation.The resumption of the National Convention proposed by Prime Minister Khin Nyunt as the first step of the road map is not a fair game plan by any standard. However, it is not the National Convention per se that we want to reject; it is the rules of the game - the so-called 104 guidelines and 6 principles - that we are questioning and refuting, because those are what make the process unfair and undemocratic.

We must remember that the NLD attended the National Convention until 1996.At this point, the SPDC must convince the people of Burma that it is sincerely following the path to democracy and national reconciliation, which should take place within a reasonable time frame. It must also foster a situation that would be conducive for the NLD to rejoin the National Convention. What may be imperative, and feasible, for the KNU and all the opposition groups to do, at this point, is to convince the SPDC to change the unfair National Convention guidelines and principles that compelled the NLD to walk out in 1996. It is time for us to re-examine ourselves as a movement. We cannot afford to continue this political deadlock, for the consequence of this it is the enormous suffering of the people.

Mizzima: Can you shed some light on the politics of ethnicity and Burma's prospect for national reconciliation?

Saw Kapi: In my view, ethnicity is an identity, something we feel close to our heart, and hence it is inevitably a part of our politics. The politics of ethnicity, therefore, is also politics of identity. When it involves nation states and governments, it is usually seen as nationalism, a sort of positive force, so to speak. But, when it involves minority or smaller ethnic groups, it is often perceived astribalism, a negative force, narrow and destructive. But, if there is any lesson for us to learn from Burma's half-a-century long ethnic conflict, it must be that ethnicity is not something that can beeliminated by force. It is a reality that must be dealt with creativity and broadmindedness by all of us.The military leadership has been carrying out its scorch-earth campaign against ethnic nationalities particularly in the rural areas of the country. I hope that current talks between the KNU and SPDC lead to the real end of such campaigns by the military regime. Forced relocation of Karen, Karenni, Shan, and Mon villages, and everyday human rights abuses in ethnic areas compounded the problems that already were perilous. The suffering of Burma's estimated 600,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) is often far worse than that of the refugees in neighboring countries, who receive at least some outside aid. In several ethnic areas, there are massive numbers of IDPs, mostly villagers who have fled their homes to escape conscription as military porters or other abuses.

The greatest challenge for us is to figure out ways to explain the concept of reconciliation to these people.Our efforts for national reconciliation must go beyond meetings between "leaders" of the ethnic nationalities and of the SPDC. Reconciliation first starts within our heart, and it must be understood and accepted by the very people who suffer the unspeakable atrocities of the military government. To get out of this current predicament, we need to look at ourselves in a new way - that we're only one of the diverse ethnic groups in the country, not its sole owner. It is sometime rather striking that even those of us, who claim to be the proponents of democratic change and national reconciliation, do not notice that the real national reconciliation must first begin within our hearts and in the way we see ourselves. For Burma, national reconciliation means rethinking and redefining ourselves, and this can be done only when we learn to recognize diversity in our practices and respect our differences from our hearts.Ethnic mistrust and enmity are common, but not inevitable, features of human society. The peoples of Burma have a troubled past and present, but are not necessarily bound to remain so. That, I believe, is the raison d'etre of this conversation.

Mizzima: In what ways have mono-ethnic and mono-religious leadership of the ethnically Burman Buddhist military officers, and to a lesser extent, civil servants undermined the concept of diversity as Burma's strength?

Saw Kapi: The absence of an institutional mechanism to accommodate diverse identities in an ethnically diverse nation like Burma has painfully generated different political struggles and even armed resistance movements by a variety of ethnic nationalities. To me, the current unflagging conflict between the multiple ethnic groups and successive Burmese governments is nothing less than a struggle against the state power in defense of their identity needs.Unlike other countries in Africa and Eastern Europe, the kind of ethnic conflict that we experience in Burma is not necessarily between ethnic groups, but it has arisen mainly between the government and different ethnic minority groups. In this context, the role of political institutions in facilitating diversity is extremely important, simply because they determine how resources are distributed among ethnic groups, enforce the rule of law and regulations, and most importantly,foster much needed social infrastructure.

Mizzima: What do you see as the contributions of Karen people in general and the KNU in particular to maintaining the Union of Burma and its post-conflict reconstruction as a modern, developed nation wherein there is ethnic equality, the rule of just law and democratic government?

Saw Kapi: We should learn to promote the idea of peaceful coexistence and diversity as a positive force. Trust is not something we can gain easily. It is encouraging that some mainstream Burman political organizations have come to recognize the necessity of accommodating a degree of the right to self-determination in the future political system of Burma. The level of self-determination, however, is to be determined by all the ethnic nationalities at a national convention to be held. It will indeed require a deep reserve of political and negotiation skills to successfully participate in this political process in the national convention. As much as our quest for the right to self-determination is historically justified, the practicality of having such a right can be extremely complicated at best, but not impossible. After all, the salience of ethnicity in Burma politics is a reality imposed by history that must be confronted with the consideration of appropriate structural measures, both in cultural and political realms, that at least recognize and respond to basic human needs for identity, security and participation. We need to be prepared to engage in political dialogue not only with the SPDC but also with other ethnic nationalities in mapping out the details of the future union of Burma.While it is of paramount importance for us to be able to maintain our culture, our identity and our livelihood, it is essential that we diligently promote and carefully nurture a sense of citizenship among all the people of Burma. Only then will Burma survive as a modern nation state. It is the responsibility of all, not of a single group.

Mizzima: What would you propose as a remedy to this historical problem? How would you advocate Burma's diversity - cultural, ethnic, linguistic and religious - as the country's strength to celebrate and cherish, as opposed to a threat to a predominantly Buddhist and Burman nation?

Saw Kapi: Experience has shown that diversity can be the strength of the society if it is accommodated wisely and creatively. In the case of Burma, it will definitely require a major transformation of political institution. First of all, by accepting the social realities, a pluralistic government, which must come to power through an electoral process, can incorporate the social creativity in its reform process. Reflecting diversity, a political institution (in this case,meta-institution, namely constitution) that allows a hierarchy of governments with a delineated scope of authority, that is to say, different levels of government with specific powers, is essential. In Burma's specific context, there should be, at least, two levels of government, mainly state government that represents each major ethnic group (Shan, Kachin, Karen and etc.) and a central government in which each ethnic group is fairly represented. Here, the issue of diversitycan be addressed by allowing the state governments to have some sort of authority over the economy and education sector within their jurisdictions.

Mizzima: I want to ask you what is you vision for future Burma: how do you see Burma in the next ten years and what would you like to see Burma?

Saw Kapi: Predicting is always a risky business. It would be the last thing I want to do. But I can tell you what I would like to see for Burma in the next ten years.A peaceful and democratic Burma requires congruous accommodation among the country's diverse ethnic groups. Without lasting resolution to questions of ethnic self-determination and national power sharing, armed struggles that have flamed Burma's periphery for more than fifty years will not be resolved. Only after a political settlement is negotiated, will the process of true national reconciliation, in the most sober sense of the word, begin within and it may take several years to heal the wounds of the country, both physical and emotional.A realistic look at the current situation in the country gives us a mixed picture. There are some reasons to be encouraged, but there is a long hard road ahead. If we can come to an agreed upon set of principles for the proposed National Convention, it could become a meaningfulpolitical reform through which we can achieve lasting national reconciliation. Those in power have too much fear of reprisal should they lose power, and those out of power have not indicated any intention to desist from such reprisal should they come into power.

Mizzima: One more specific question: Do you see any gap between Burman and ethnic minority nationalities in terms of mutual understanding and trust? If yes, what are the differences? How can these differences be bridged?

Saw Kapi: Prior to 1988, most Burman people grew up knowing the Karen only through government-controlled media and propaganda. The Karens, conversely, equate the government/the military regime with the Burman people. Hence, a certain level of misunderstanding and mistrust existed. That has gradually changed over the years after 1988 when thousands of Burmese students came to the border and joined hands with the Karen in armed resistance. We still have a lot more to work on. Public education can be the key in bridging these gaps. You and I, we both have the responsibility to bridge this gap.

(Saw Kapi was a teacher for the Karen refuge children in Thai-Burma border, then later moved to United States for studies. He is now country representative of the Karen National Union and a member of Free Burma Coalition's Burma Strategy Group.) Read more...

On National Reconciliation and Negotiation

Talking with the SPDC: The Politics of Negotiation and KNU's Cautious Efforts for National Reconciliation

By Saw Kapi and Naw May Oo

MIZZIMA NEWS (April 2004) -- Deliberately led by its Vice Chairman, Gen. Saw Bo Mya, the Karen National Union (KNU) recently made a series of efforts in pursuit of peace that caught many in the Burma's opposition movement by surprise. A five-member KNU delegation, composed mainly of junior military officers, was sent to Rangoon on December 3 for initial talks with the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). Earlier, the team met with SPDC point man Col. Sann Pwint in Bangkok before proceeding to Rangoon. Upon their return from Rangoon, the five-member KNU team announced that they had reached a "gentleman's agreement" with the SPDC, calling for both sides to stop shooting as part of a confidence building measure toward further negotiations. Because the KNU has yet to start any serious political discussion with the SPDC, Gen. Saw Bo Mya suggested lately that the gentleman's agreement, in practice, might be considered an agreement between the KNLA, the armed wing of KNU, and the SPDC.

Although some may have thought otherwise, it would be a mistake to assume that Gen. Bo Mya is not acting as a leader of the KNU. In spite of all the previous failed talks, the KNU continues to tread cautiously on the path of negotiation, engaging in the policy of open talks with the SPDC and making genuine and concerted efforts toward achieving a long overdue national reconciliation. Nevertheless, how successful these efforts will be depends largely on the political will of SPDC. The SPDC has the option of halting all of its military offensives against the Karen and inviting all the stakeholders such as the KNU and the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to the table of national dialogue, which may well be in the form of National Convention. If not, the SPDC may choose to simply continue its various human rights violations against Karen civilians, such as those disclosed in the December 27 media release by the KNU, and prove that the regime is deficient in political will to pursue the path to a true national reconciliation.

Historically, the SPDC has insisted that it wants the KNU to stop fighting first, agree to enter the "legal fold" and then participate in the national development process. In 1996 representatives of the SPDC told the KNU that because the current ruling regime was not a political organization; the KNU would have to discuss its political concerns at a future political forum, referring to the National Convention. And yet the negotiations failed in the past because they required the KNU to return to "legal fold," with the unacceptable condition of first 'relinquishing the military course of action,' which, in the opinion of KNU, simply amounts to surrender.

In an attempt to demonstrate the KNU's desire for a genuine national reconciliation to the international community, Gen. Saw Bo Mya also sought an opportunity to attend the Thai-sponsored international forum on Burma in Bangkok on December 15, 2003. However, the Thai foreign ministry denied the request, reportedly on the ground that the forum was meant only for government-to-government discussion. Equally unfortunate is the most recent rejection by the SPDC of the KNU's proposal to hold further talks in Bangkok. The SPDC may be concerned about relinquishing full control over the process, and at the same time views the KNU's revolution as an internal matter. On the KNU's part, it has requested to meet again with the representatives of SPDC in Bangkok not only because it wants to meet in a neutral venue, but also to recognize the role that the Thai government plays in Burma's transition to democracy.

As widely reported in the Thai media, senior Thai military officials have in fact played a significant role in persuading the KNU leaders to negotiate a ceasefire agreement with the SPDC, while Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai have worked directly with their Burmese counterparts to organize the international forum in Bangkok, attended by ten "like-minded" countries including Australia, Japan and China. Despite initial concern for international criticism, Burmese Foreign Minister Win Aung attended the meeting and explained vaguely how the SPDC intends to implement its seven-point "road map" for democracy, pledging to resume the National Convention that should eventually lead to the drafting of a national constitution. In addition to the involvement of Thai military in the KNU's negotiation, Win Aung's presence at the Bangkok forum on December 15 could be seen as a recognition by the Thai, the KNU and the SPDC for the need to find some solution to Burma's political problems though regional efforts. In a sense, Burma's political transition at least has been regionalized, if not totally internationalized.

As stated before, the move initiated by KNU's Vice Chairman may have caught many in the opposition movement by surprise, particularly because it was Gen. Saw Bo Mya who initiated the efforts. However, the move should not have caught anyone by surprise if, in fact, it is understood that we have all along been seeking a way to resurrect the national dialogue to break the political deadlock that has caused so much pain and irreparable damage in our country. We cannot afford to just talk glibly about negotiation and reconciliation but, rather, we will have to take risks - many of which involve unforeseeable outcomes - such as misunderstandings and harsh criticisms from our own friends and allies. Alliance politics may have deterred us from taking actions or positions that we as individuals support, but Gen. Saw Bo Mya's almost solo initiative has undeniably and progressively led us to think differently and, perhaps, to look at the situation from a more pragmatic angle. Should there be any doubts about and bitterness toward the SPDC because of past deeds or ongoing incidents in some places in our country, the Karen could and would register their doubt and bitterness before anyone else. But the Karen resistance movement, of which Gen. Saw Bo Mya has been a part as one of the most outstanding leaders, has a much higher goal than to express doubts and to feel bitter toward our historic oppressors. The 55 years of armed conflict has been ruthless and costly, but we are willing to make any necessary sacrifice for our desired national reconciliation, peace and freedom.

It appears now that the KNU may be willing to give the SPDC the benefit of the doubt. At the very least, we should recognize that the SPDC, in effect acknowledges, along with its "10-like-minded governments" that: (1) it is increasingly being held to account by the regional and international community, and is consequently feeling enough pressure to come out and offer its rendition of a peace process; (2) if and when the National Convention and the KNU's participation occur, the NC needs to be monitored regionally, internationally and by the media.

Nonetheless, there is no guarantee of success in the efforts put forth by the KNU. As we have argued before, "the Karen and other democratic forces have to confront the realities and continue to struggle with the understanding that politics by nature is dynamic and fluid, and it at times requires our ability to know when and how to (nor not to) strike strategic deals with our opponents." For the record, KNU has already reportedly acknowledged its doubts that a National Convention would lead to any type of peaceful and legitimate settlement in Burma without the participation of the largest popular party, the NLD and its leadership. On the other hand, from our internal unconfirmed but reliable source, we have learned that the NLD could be also constrained to make its own strategic move inside and join the NC. We, together with the organizations we work with, can try to create a political atmosphere conducive to that move from outside. It is not the primary concern of the KNU to predict how the NLD will respond to the first step of Khin Nyunt's proposed seven-point road map. But if both the NLD and KNU are at the same table, together with other cease-fire groups and the SPDC, wouldn't that NC amount to a more credible national dialogue?

Last but not least, any criticism regarding the KNU's current tactics could more appropriately focus on questions such as 'how is the KNU prepared strategically?' and 'how can we as allies prepare to bring forth positive change by working hand in hand with the KNU?' Criticizing the KNU over alliance politics and imagining a division between the KNU and Gen. Saw Bo Mya are politically counterproductive and certainly would not support the strategy of those in the pro-democracy movement. There are no persons chosen or groups anointed to bring about change in Burma. Change must be effected through the efforts of every citizen. But certainly an organization that has been engaging in these efforts for over fifty years will strive to realize its goal by any means necessary. As principled democrats, we are prepared to work or support anyone who can set Burma on the course of democratic transition, the ultimate goal of our struggle.

NOTES: Opinions expressed herein are entirely of the authors; the authors do not intend to set forth any official policy of KNU. Read more...

June 15, 2005

Karenissues Discussion Forum

Karenissues Discussion Forum: A Mere Communal Space or a Forum of Intellectual Exchange?

by -- Saw Kapi

It has been months since the moderator team has released the guidelines for Karenissues Discussion. No sooner have we introduced the guidelines, the whole forum has then come to almost a total halt and everyone stopped discussing everything. The moderator team is compelled to wonder what went wrong with their guidelines that people must completely cease to talk about issues of their concerns. But before we jump to any conclusion, whether the moderators put a stop to discussion by providing a set of guidelines or not, it might be worthwhile sharing you a few thoughts that I have in mind.

A close colleague of mine recently made some valuable yet critical remarks on how the people of Burma who are now in exile, wittingly and unwittingly, use internet to express their concerns, vent their emotions, and exchange their historical knowledge, both first-hand experiences and learned. He said many us use "Internet as a therapy where our individually felt concerns are communally shared, pains lessened, frustrations understood, experiences and grievances validated, moral support offered and visions altered or corrected - for the better generally - all by our fellow citizens from all walks of life." In fact, some of us even found the right moments to publicly register our displeasure and anger on Karenissues and the bulletin board of Karen website (BBS on Karen.org), although the benefit or effectiveness of such action I find hard to gauge.

Naturally, those of us who have suffered so tremendously under the repressive military regime can sometimes be very emotional in expressing our opinions. For those whose villages were forcefully relocated, houses burned, relatives jailed, sisters raped, brothers killed by the soldiers of ruthless military dictators, almost any kind of emotional expression seems justified, because the pains and grievances they suffer cannot be fully understood by others, who do not have the same experience, but only by themselves. With them, I share my utmost empathy.And yet we at the Karenissues discussion forum would like to set our aim above and beyond accommodating emotional venting. Sure, we do not just want, or cannot possibly create a community of like-minded people, nonetheless we want to rise above our own emotions and prove to ourselves that we are capable of engaging in public discussions on this pretty much unregulated space called Internet.

So, it is indeed appropriate to have some guidelines in place for this forum, and the guidelines are not meant to be regulatory; they are meant simply to guide us and give us some parameters so that we can have a free yet responsible discussion with a sense of directionality. In other words, we are responsible for what we say and the discussion must lead us somewhere, preferably to a positive end. On-line discussion forum, by its very nature, is a communal space, where we all can rightfully release our emotions and frustration, and yet the guidelines are there to push us one level up where we can have a responsible intellectual exchange.

Whether we would like to continue as a mere communal space or embrace a more productive forum is a decision we all have to make for ourselves. Some of you may choose to say nothing and be completely silent. I, however, encourage you all to make use of this forum and discuss issues of your concern with deep passion and responsibility, and I hope that you do so not only to satisfy your emotional thirst but also to open your mind and learn from others with different experience and knowledge.