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.)
June 21, 2005
MIZZIMA: Interview with Saw Kapi