August 16, 2005

On Karen Nationalism

Towards a True Meaning of Patriotism

By – Saw Kapi

When it comes to nationalist leaders, there seems to be no shortage of shining example to look up to among the Karen people. Dr. San C. Po, arguably the Karen equivalent of Dr. Sun Yet Hsin of China, was one of the foremost Karen intellectual nationalists, who articulated eloquently, albeit unsuccessfully, the need for Karen independence. Intellectual leader such as Saw Aung Hla, the one and only Karen historian to date, sought to establish credible Karen migration history. Dr. T. Thanbyar and Po Lay Tay, despite their close affiliation with Christian religion, were able to expound the entire Karen people on how we as a people should develop and move forward. Mahn Saw Bu, a well known community leader from the Delta Region, for instance, attempted to sacrifice his own life to save the lives of fellow innocent Karens, who were about to be executed by the Japanese troops. He was said to have prefixed his name with both “Mahn” and “Saw” to capture both sentiments of Pwo and Sqaw, crossing tribal lines in displaying his nationalism. Saw Ba Oo Gyi, a man of selfless character, notwithstanding the world class education he received, disregarded a professional career and did his utmost for the Karen people. He uncompromisingly led the Karen National Union during its early turbulent years and committed his whole life for his people.

Historically, Karen nationalism (read – patriotism) has been the one that entails utmost dedication and personal sacrifice. These leaders, whose names I mentioned above, had contributed their skills and expertise in numerous ways to uplifting their people, both under the British colonial rule and in the early period of post-independence Burma. And yet unfortunately, the struggle hitherto is unfinished. Between the resource-hungry neighbors and the ruthless military regime, the Karens are up against enormous uphill battles in their fight for self-determination. In the wake of this socio-political reality, it is truly compulsory that the Karens, especially revolutionary Karens, adopt the kind of nationalism that not only accepts ideological diversity but also encourages political pragmatism and fosters strategic creativity.

Far-sighted nationalism is the kind that encourages people to seek out learning, acquire knowledge, and explore new ideas and ways to achieve our desired goal. Besides, a pragmatic nationalist learns from the goodness of other people and contributes positively and practically to the well being of his or her people. A confident nationalist needs not declare that he or she is a “nationalist” for his or her works stand to be his proof. Included in this category are the followings:

· Nationalist (read – patriotic hereinafter) Karen fighters fight in the front line, protecting their people by sacrificing their flesh and blood because they believe in defending their own people. They yearn for peace and talk about how to achieve it. They don’t brag about fighting.

· Nationalist Karen educators encourage their fellow Karen people to study hard, and endeavor to find educational opportunities for the people so that they can compete with others intellectually. Nationalists of this category believe in the freedom of human mind, which comes from knowledge acquired through learning. They also understand that only with adequate human resources in various capacities, can we build our desired nation.

· Nationalist Karen legal experts can put forth compelling arguments on behalf of their people, create healthy debate and raises the profile of their people’s struggle. This class of nationalists with skills and ability speak, read and write to defend their people intellectually. They make intellectual contribution to the international community and educate, not propagate their own people.

· A nationalist Karen computer engineer, for instance, promotes the profile of his or her people by creating websites in honor of his people, thereby allows others to learn of his people, and provides opportunities for his or her fellow compatriots to share their ideas and opinions.

· A nationalist Karen computer/language expert, for example, invents Karen fonts and contributes positively to the promotion of Karen language by using modern technology. This kind of nationalists understands the importance of modern technology and therefore seeks to preserve their linguistic and cultural heritages using the skills he or she possesses.

· At the least, a creative Karen nationalist finds the best way to make use of modern technology for the benefit of his or her people. For example, he or she started out the idea of online discussion group, which allow his fellow compatriots to have the opportunity to vent, express and explain their feelings and ideas. While some people make good use of it, some abuse it.

Shortsighted nationalism, however, boasts only about its goodness but tenaciously hides its flaws and errors; therefore those who subscribes to it are not capable of learning anything from their shortfalls but bound to repeat them. People included in this category are often lost in negative thoughts and find faults of others easily. They are instigative but short of formulating their own opinion. Somewhat inferior within, nationalists of this brand often find it necessary to repeatedly praise his or her own people and demean others. They needed to remind themselves verbally that they are good, they are great and they are pure, etc. Nationalism combined with vision can produce prosperity and promote peace. While a broad-minded nationalism can preserve diversity and encourage creative ideas, narrow-minded one maintains "we-are-better" attitude, is very trivial in essence and utterly divisive in nature. Thus, we shall embrace the former and reject the latter.

No one --individual or organization-- has the monopoly over the destiny of Karen people. Each individual Karen must play his or her own role. To echo the words of former president Nelson Mandela, no one is irreplaceable. That includes this author, the readers and all those leaders and ordinary people that we know. One must not fail to note that if the love for our people alone could carry Karen people to their desired goal; we would have already reached there for a long time. Regrettably, that has not been the case.

In the end, we have no choice but to tread on the path of this struggle with reason and pragmatism, and look forward to the future. Our future can be much brighter if we can avoid dwelling in our own feeling of insecurity, and focus on achieving excellence in seeking knowledge and expertise. A nation, after all, cannot survive on her negativism; it must instead strive for her comprehensive progress with a sense of positive hope and practical efforts.

It is time for the Karens to embrace the kind of nationalism that encourages our people to think, to reason, to question, to be creative, to learn, to compete, and to cooperate in this world, where, unfortunately, only "the fittest survive." The world we live in is a competitive world. The economy we are compelled to be a part of is knowledge-based economy. It is in these contexts that, I believe, we must seek to develop and adopt a true meaning of our patriotism.

++++