July 01, 2005

From Political Aspiration to National Consensus

From Political Aspiration to National Consensus: The Need for a Karen National Consultative Conference

By Saw Kwe Htoo, Naw May Oo, Saw Htoo Htoo Lay and Saw Mutu Say Poe
Mizzima News (www.mizzima.com)
April 9, 2004

The people of Burma, particularly the Karen people, are now living in one of the most treacherous times in the history of our country. We stand today at the crossroads of our resistance movement that has been unwaveringly led by the Karen National Union (KNU) for more than half a century. The Karen people’s support for KNU isn’t confined to the rural areas of the Kawthoolei, or Karen State, where armed resistance has been concentrated. The vast majority of Karen people throughout Burma look up to the KNU as their national political organization, not simply a Thai-Burmese border-based organization. And they, not just the KNU leadership, prefer a political solution to the conflict that has plagued the country since independence in 1948.

The modern chapter of the Karen movement for national identity and self-determination began with the historic formation of the Karen National Union (KNU) on February 5, 1947 by the coming together of four existing Karen organizations, namely the Karen National Association (KNA), the Buddhist Karen National Association (BKNA), the Karen Central Organization (KCO) and the Karen Youth Organization (KYO). Under the leadership of the Karen National Union (KNU), the Karens began, or rather were compelled to begin, their armed revolution – or insurrection, as it has usually been depicted – on the commonly recognized date of January 31, 1949.

Obviously, not all the Karen people belong to the KNU, but the KNU, by virtue of its historical legitimacy, belongs to the entire Karen people. This has been and still is evident by the Karen people inside or elsewhere, unlike other ethnic nationalities, not forming any credible Karen political party, except a small Karen National Congress for Democracy Party, during the 1990 elections. The main reason was they felt the KNU was there representing and fighting for their ethnic and civil rights. And they looked up to the KNU's political leadership. By the same token, they believe that the KNU must constantly seek strategic coordination and support from Karens everywhere, inside, border and the world over.

At this point, it is important to note that the KNU is not a political party. Quite the contrary, it is a national union that has long historical roots and solid legitimacy. There are fundamental differences between a political party and a national union. A political party can speak only for and along its party line, the party’s ideology and party platform. But a national union must speak for and pursue the collective political desire of the entire people, in our case, the Karen’s the right to self-determination and ethnic equality of the Karen people throughout Burma. A national union should be nationally inclusive in its character, composition and coordination. The political ideology and strategy that it adopts must be a product of national deliberation, whereas a political party can operate as an exclusive entity and the policy and ideology that it pursues can be - and often is - a product of the party’s executive committee meetings, especially in a country like Burma.
The ultimate goal of the Karen resistance movement is to achieve the right to self-determination of the Karen people with the guarantee of ethnic equality within a genuine union of Burma. That is our principle goal; we must stand firm on that. On the other hand, continuing military operations, declaring a cease-fire, attending or not attending the National Convention, seeking a tri-partite dialogue and/or multi-partite dialogue are all manifestations of different strategies. They are only means through which we strive to realize our goal. If and when necessary, we can and should be flexible with the means we adopt.

Since the inception of Karen resistance movement in 1949, Burma's internal political dimensions, as well as regional and international situations, have changed significantly. At the advent of economic globalization and the digital world, the Karen's struggle for self-determination and ethnic equality cannot be fought purely in the realm of politics. The powerful forces of economic globalization, in the name of free trade and development, have brought both challenges and opportunities for our movement. It is inevitable that we as a movement must confront cold realities and, while contending the powerful currents of socially rapacious and uncaring cooperation between governments, make the best use of emerging opportunities that the geo-political circumstances, geo-economic trends, and technological advancement of the day bring.

Having fought relentlessly for more than half-a-century, we as a movement need, as any healthy movement does, to critically review our strategies and approaches. While the KNU is the only organization that has been leading the armed resistance, it is recognized that several Karen groups and individuals have emerged lately and played their role throughout these years for the survival and development of our people. The emergence of numerous interest groups and development organizations that aim to strive for the social, economic and political advancement of Karen people must be seen as a great product of a given historical period.

Due to the changing political circumstances, many Karens have left their cherished homeland and migrated to Thailand and elsewhere. Under the highly oppressive political situation, those who remained inside Burma have also lost direct contact with the resistance movement. But, despite this physical distance, differences in socio-political and intellectual orientation, the majority of Karen people share a common vision: to have ethnic equality and a right to self-determination for Karen people within a genuine Union of Burma. Varying experiences and the difficulties related to the conditions under which our people have to live and operate have created possibilities for divisions. These must be resolved through open debates and deliberation with the view toward resolving natural differences that may, and do, exist within any social or political community. The KNU is not only a revolutionary organization but it also strives to operate, though admittedly not always successfully, on democratic principles.

Rapidly changing circumstances at national and international levels necessitate a review of our strategies and approaches. The most challenging task ahead for the Karens is to generate a new generation of leadership that is capable of looking beyond the same voices that recycle the old mantras or prescribe the same solutions, which can grasp the complex dynamics of ethnicity, and stay attuned to the regional political situation of this increasingly interconnected world. The Karens need a leadership that is not only committed to the Karen’s collective vision of self-determination within a genuine union of Burma, but that is also skillful and inventive in policy making, intellectually and strategically flexible, and capable of adapting to and taking advantage of, new developments in Burma, the region and the world.

It is now time for the Karens from all walks of life throughout Burma to congregate in a national meeting that will enable them to explore peaceful and lasting solutions to the problems that have plagued them as the largest ethnic nationalities group, the union and Burma generally. As the half-a-century long national resistance movement is at its crossroads, there is a strong need for a National Consultative Conference to serve as a forum for Karen people everywhere to discuss all the matters that urgently concern them at the national level. Through a National Consultative Conference the Karen people we will be able to find a national consensus, in accord with their political culture, to carry on the struggle and realize their just dream. The dream of building a union of Burma where ethnic equality and right to self-determination are not words grudgingly written on the pages of a beautifully worded constitution, but lived realities of the Karen in particular and all ethnic nationalities in general. Such a consultative conference will also contribute to our preparation for the larger national dialogue or convention that is being proposed by the ruling military junta and contested by the democratic opposition for its lack of fairness and openness.


(Saw Kwe Htoo, Governor of KNU's Mergui/Tavoy District, is also a member of the KNU Central Standing Committee. Naw May Oo, based in Washington DC, is with the KNU Foreign Affairs Department. Saw Htoo Htoo Lay is Joint General Secretary of KNU. Saw Mutu Say Poe is a member of the KNU Central Executive Committee.)

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