The Karens’ Struggle for Right to Self-determination and Hope for the Future
By - Saw Kapi
The Karen’s aspiration for a coherent national identity and their endeavor for national advancement can be traced back to the establishment of the Karen National Association (KNA) in 1881, two years prior to the founding of the India’s Congress Party. The creation of the KNA was politically significant, because one of the association's main objectives was to ensure Karens’ representation in the then colonial government of Burma. Nevertheless, the KNA, whose leaders where mostly educated Christians, have failed to work with and garner enough support from the majority Karen Buddhists, who perhaps felt like second-class folks at the time. Especially under a situation where the American missionaries appeared to encourage and favor the Karen Christians, the majority Karen Buddhists were reluctant to go along with the KNA leadership. The KNA, even though unsuccessful in collectively represent the political aspiration of the majority of the Karen people, was able to sow the seeds of modern Karen nationalism.
Dr. San C. Poe, a pioneer of the ideology for “Karen Nation” based his discussion on the point that “[s]elf-respect in a nation begets respect from other nations and races.” He argued that only when the Karens achieve their ambition (to establish a country of their own as a nation), “the Karens will then be in a position to show sincere respect to other races, especially to the Burmese, with whom they have been at variance, and in turn the Burmese will find them worthy of respect and esteem.” Whether Dr. Poe’s ideology was representative of that of Karens’ is secondary to the Karen people nowadays. But, it is undeniable that the Karens’ struggle for their right to self-determination has always, since then, been heavily influenced by Dr. Poe’s ideology. To this date, the underlining essence in this ideology has been the fact that the Karens do not feel respected by their Burmese counterparts. This feeling commonly shared among the Karens was enforced by their own experience at the hands of the Burmese since pre-independence.
That said, most students of Karen politics, Karen and non-Karen alike, would agree that the contemporary chapter of Karen movement for national identity and right to self-determination began with the historic formation of the Karen National Union (KNU) on February 5, 1947 by the joining of four existing Karen organizations of that time, namely the Karen National Association (KNA), the Buddhist Karen National Association (BKNA), the Karen Central Organization (KCO) and the Karen Youth Organization (KYO). Forging unity to assert a coherent national identity and the right to self-determination has never been easy for the Karens. Since its inception, The KNU has faced the problem of forging unity within itself. Saw San Po Thin, the first chairman of KNU, left the organization for ideological disagreement and later took up a ministerial post for the Karen State in Prime Minister U Nu's cabinet, a post vacated by Saw Ba U Gyi. On April 10, 1947, the central executive committee was reorganized with Saw Ba U Gyi as A president, Mahn Saw Bu as a vice president, and Thra Thar Hto as a general secretary.
Despite General Aung San's efforts to build the Union of Burma within which non-Burman ethnic nationalities' right to autonomy is recognized, the leaders of Anti Fascist People's Freedom League (AFPFL) did not continue the same pursuit after the General’s assassination in July 1947. Organized by the KNU, on February 11, 1948, tens of thousands of Karen people took to the streets throughout the whole country and demonstrated peacefully to demand for an autonomous Karen state. It took place one day before the 1st anniversary of a historic Panglong Agreement, which addressed most concerns of ethnic peoples but stopped short of giving them the right to secession. The agreement was signed between Aung San and non-Burman ethnic leaders such as Shan, Kachin and Chin. The Karens did not officially attend the Panglong Conference and were not part of the signatories to the agreement signed subsequently. The KNU went ahead with its move to declare that it would not support nor participate in the new constituent assembly. The peaceful demand made by the KNU to set up a Karen State, however, failed when the AFPFL government, led by U Nu, refused to consider the Karen proposal. Instead, they mounted military attacks on the Karens in their three enclaves in Insein, on January 31, 1949. The Karen National Defense Organization (KNDO), the armed branch of the KNU, defended the attacks. This marked the beginning of the Karen revolution, which has been ongoing until this moment.
The KNU, which had led the Karen struggle for more than five decades, was severely weakened by the loss of its Manerplaw headquarters in 1995, and subsequently its stronghold Kawmoorah, in early 1997. Since then, the KNU has kept its headquarters mobile and engaged in hit-and-run guerrilla warfare. Organizational changes and shifts in political strategy were thought to be imminent. Yet, apart from the reevaluation of military strategy, the 11th Congress of the KNU that was held in July 1995 did not come up with any significant political plans. Military activities, on the other hand, were kept only at defensive level in an effort to make way for peace talks with the ruling regime.
Since the early 1990s, the Burmese military regime has increased its military expenditure and launched several military offensives against the KNU-controlled territories. By the time the KNU was severely weakened at the end of 1994, a proposal to begin cease-fire talks was secretly and strategically initiated by the SLORC through the Office of Strategic Studies (OSS), headed by Col. Kyaw Thein. In response to this, on March 24, 1995, General Bo Mya, as the Commander-in-Chief of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), released a statement ordering a temporary cease-fire throughout KNU-controlled territory. Following this order, the KNU sent its delegations on different occasions "to pave ways for negotiation with the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC)." In December 1995, the first KNU delegation led by P'doh Klesay was sent to Moulmein, the capital of Mon State, to meet with the Commander of Southern Command and officially set up the agenda for cease-fire talks and the composition of the negotiating teams. A number of talks were held ever since without reaching any sort of agreement. At first, the KNU seemed quite enthusiastic about settling the problem with the regime, although the leaders involved in the talks repeatedly admitted that they were not very hopeful about any positive outcome. KNU has always stressed that the Karen issue is only a portion of the whole problem plaguing Burma. Long-term solutions to the conflict could only be addressed on the basis of political transformation in Burma. It put forward a six-point proposal to the SLORC, which included a timetable to begin political negotiation six months after the cease-fire period. A request for the presence of international mediators was dropped by the KNU as a concession to further accommodate the ongoing talks with the SLORC. The SLORC, on the other hand, pressed the KNU to agree "to abandon armed resistance” and return to the 'legal fold,' as a prerequisite to participation in the currently stalled national convention. The KNU proposal for a timeline "to begin political dialogue six months after the cease-fire agreement” was vehemently rejected by the SLORC delegations.
The KNU leadership realized, though it might not admit openly, that the Burmese military regime had already gotten the upper hand and would not easily accept any demands -- political or military – made by the KNU. Although the talks seemed to produce no political development, the KNU at least wanted to maintain dialogue between the two sides. The Karen strategy was to continue talks and keep military activities minimal. Whereas the military regime may have believed that the Karens were no longer strong militarily, and therefore continuation of talks would make no sense if the Karens did not accept their terms. Both sides blamed each other and the talks broke down after the 4th round in late 1996. It is obvious that the conflict between the ruling military regime and the KNU will remain unless a mutually accepted political solution is found. Following the failed negotiation, the military government launched massive military offensives against the Karen, especially villages that are in the KNU controlled areas.
In January 2004, Gen. Bo Mya, the most notable symbol of the Karen resistance, made a surprise but calculated political move by accepting an invitation from the then Prime Minister Khin Nyunt to meet with him in Rangoon. Gen. Bo Mya was the first ethnic resistance leader ever to fly into Rangoon from a foreign capital. Many in Burma’s opposition circle were astonished by the move, and the trip was seen as a solo decision made by Gen. Bo Mya, rather than that of the KNU. However controversial the trip may have been, there is no doubt that the KNU was able to advance its political agendas by sending its high level delegation to Rangoon. First of all, it was made clear to all Burma’s observers that the KNU, despite its affiliation with exile democratic forces, can and will make political decisions on its own if and when necessary. Secondly, the resumption of talks between the SPDC and KNU shows that KNU is committed to solving the country’s political problems by political means no matter how slim the chances are. Differing in its treatments toward different ethnic groups, the SPDC proved that KNU remains the most credible political force to be reckoned. Should ethnic issues are to be kept at a manageable level, the SPDC understands that it needs to allow a level of political accommodation with the KNU, which is arguably inseparable from the Karen people.
Nevertheless many Burmese expatriates opine that the SPDC simply toyed with the KNU, frequently using their newly acquired ally, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) to show the world that the country is still insecure, branding the Karens as 'separatists', and thus necessitating the regime to maintain a large army and thereby prolong its rule. They could have easily wiped out what is left of the KNU troops. The fact remains, however, that SPDC could win the battle but would never win the war, since the distrust held by the Karens would continue, with every opportunity of using armed resistance. There would always be trouble for any Burman ruler who refuses to take into consideration the political and social desires of the people.
In the meantime, the KNU continues to keep its military activities at defensive level. It has hosted a number of meetings and seminars within its limited territory along the Thai-Burmese border. With some financial help from international non-governmental organizations, a series of seminars to reconsolidate Karen unity were organized by the KNU in 1998, 2000 and 2002. In each seminar, more than a hundred Karen leaders from different organizations attended and openly discussed the current political situation and national unity issue. After more than fifty years of political and military engagements, the KNU finds itself again struggling for much needed national unity and the active participation of Karen people of different backgrounds in its unfinished struggle. With its new civilian chairman Saw Ba Thin Sein, who succeeded General Bo Mya in the 12th Congress, the KNU has been able to raise its political voice to some extent. But the majority of the leaders are in their seventies, with some of them are in unstable health. Only a few of them are attuned to the current international and regional political situations. In the most recent 13th Congress of KNU, General Saw Bo Mya, 76, was replaced by General Tamalarbaw, 84, while Saw Ba Thin Sein and Mahn Sha Laphan retrain their posts as the Chairman and General Secretary of the group respectively. No policy changes were made at the latest congress, nor were new political strategies announced. Half a century later, the same leadership continues to lead the Karen resistance movement with primarily the same strategy. In essence, the objectives of the struggle remain unchanged. However, the geopolitical and economic contexts, within which the Karens were waging their resistance, have changed dramatically. It is unfortunate that the new generation leadership within the KNU has been unprepared to take up the historical tasks ahead.
The most challenging task ahead for the Karens is to generate a new breed of political leadership that is capable of looking beyond the same voices that recycle the old frameworks. The new and younger political leadership must be able to grasp the complex dynamics of ethnicity, and yet attuned to the regional political situation of this increasingly interconnected world. Though the Karen struggle is ethnic-base in nature, it must essentially become national in scope. Without the understanding and support from the majority Burman populace, it will be more difficult, if not impossible, for the Karens to achieve their goal for right to self-determination within a federal union of Burma. What stood out most strikingly about the late Saw Ba U Gyi, who laid the cornerstone principles of the Karen movement, as he became the second president of KNU, is his conviction of the importance of creating a condition in which the Karens and Burmans can coexist peacefully. Very early on, he recognized the paramount importance that both the Karens and Burmans must recognize and respect each other, as he said: "If the Burmans do not want the Karens to separate themselves from the Union, behave so that the Karen will not want to separate themselves; and if the Karens want their own state, they must act so as to persuade the Burmans to want to give them their state." After more than half a century, there is no doubt about Karens’ determination to fight militarily. On this long and painful path that the Karen people were and still are compelled to tread, it takes more than a strong will to reach our goal. As part of our struggle, we will need to come up with a strategy that goes beyond regular press releases that simply expose atrocities committed by the Burmese military regime against the Karens.
If the Karen struggle is to gain national and international support, intellectuals, few though they may have been among the Karens, will have to look beyond their narrowly specialized disciplines, and play their own role within the struggle. For the past decades, many prominent Karen intellectuals, both inside and outside the country, have been silent or disassociated themselves from the Karen movement. Intellectual life during the Burmese Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) and SPDC eras has been difficult enough, but by being silent or turning a blind eyes to the political aspiration and the suffering of the majority Karen people, many Karen intellectuals have been regarded less than reverential by those in the struggle. The gap between urban Karen intellectuals and rural villagers has thus been widened over time. This has been the case partly because the Burmese military government often treats the educated urban elites and the rural Karens differently. Regardless of the causes of this gap, it cannot continue for long if the struggle is to regain its critical impetus. Many western-trained Karen intellectuals, arguably mostly Christians, participated at the forefront of the struggle when the Karens began their movement. It is now time for the Karens to gather their strength from all walks of life, including the urban intellectuals, whose voice must play a critical role in promoting awareness about and raising the profile of Karens in general. The rural populace, whose steadfast resistance to forced cultural assimilation has always been crucial to the very existence of Karen today. In order to accomplish this task, the Karens need a leadership that is not only committed but also skillfully creative in policymaking and competently attuned to the international political situation.
1881 –- The Karen National Association (KNA) was formed with the aim
to gain a fair representation and voice for the Karen people in the then British
February 5, 1947 --- The Karen National Union (KNU) was formed, combining the Karen National Association (KNA), the Buddhist Karen National Association (BKNA), the Karen Central Organization (KCO) and the Karen Youth Organization (KYO).
January 15, 2004 — A KNU delegation of 20 Karen officials, led by Gen Bo Mya, made a historic trip to Rangoon for talks with top junta leaders, including Khin Nyunt, to discuss an official ceasefire agreement.
January 20, 2004 — Khin Nyunt meets with Bo Mya and hosts a dinner party for the Karen delegation at the Kandawgyi Palace Hotel, which marks Bo Mya’s 77th birthday.
January 22, 2004 — The Karen delegation concludes the trip by
reaching an informal ceasefire agreement with the junta but sign no
Since the early 1990s, however, a sizable number of Karen from the Thai-Burma border, along with a much larger number of Burman students, have left their homes and villages to either pursue their education or simply resettle in developed countries such as Australia, Canada, and the United States. Although most of them encountered a different kind of struggle for their survival in the new environment, some of them remain politically active and continue to look for ways to alleviate the suffering of their people. The formation of Karen community organizations in the U.S., Canada, and Australia, and their cooperation with their counterparts back home may be seen as a gesture of the growing political awareness and activism among the Karen youths studying and working abroad. The emergence of several new civic organizations such as Karen Students’ Network Group, Karen River Watch and others also demonstrate that political pluralism has gradually emerged in the Karen society along the Thai-Burma border area and overseas. This can be interpreted as a positive and powerful evolution that every healthy society needs in order to prevent split among the people.
Many young Karens now seem to become more interested in politics beyond their ethnic realm. We as Karens have learned, and perhaps are still learning, where our struggle for right to self-determination fits into the Burmese politics as a whole. The new political dynamism of fresh and well-informed young Karens may possibly give hope to the currently enervated Karen struggle, which has been led by the KNU for more than fifty years. In this treacherous time, the movement of new Karen generation hopefully proves to be a signal of change in strategy for national survival, and a new style of identity preservation. Saw Ba U Gyi, credited with being the founder of Karen resistance movement, left the famed four principles for his people and correctly predicted “the struggle will be long and hard.” But it is up to the new generation Karens to continue the unfinished struggle with not only determination but also skills and professionalism.
Finally, most mainstream Burman political organizations have now come to acknowledge the necessity of accommodating a degree of the right to self-determination for ethnic nationalities in the future political system of Burma. The level of self-determination, as they agreed, will be delineated at a future national convention to be held preferably by a democratic government. It will certainly require a deep reserve of political and negotiation skills for the Karens to successfully participate in such political process. As much as the Karens' quest for their collective right to self-determination is theoretically justified, the practicality of having such a right can be extremely complicated at best, but not impossible. The salience of ethnicity in Burma politics, after all, is a reality imposed by history that must be confronted with the consideration of appropriate political and cultural measures, that at least recognize and respond to basic human needs for identity, security and equal participation. Inasmuch as the Karens are resolved in the armed resistance, they must also learn to compete, compromise and cooperate with their adversary on the political table. It is hoped that when the time comes the Karens will be ready to engage in national political dialogues not only with the Burman but also with other ethnic nationalities in mapping out the details of future Karen state within a federal union of Burma. The “devil,” as they say, “is in the details,” and challenges arise then will undoubtedly be extraordinary.
 Silverstein, "Fifty Years of Failure in Burma," in Government Policies and Ethnic Relations in Asia and the Pacific, ed. Michael E. Brown and Sumit Ganguly, MIT Press, Cambridge, 1997.
 From the biographic book on ‘Mahn Ba Zan’ by his son, Robert Zan (published 1993, in Burmese, p. 75): on March 3, 1948, a meeting was convened by the Burmese AFPFL government, headed by U Nu, the Prime Minister, and Bo Let Ya, Bo Po Kun and U Kyaw Nyein as members, where they conferred with the KNU leaders, led by Saw B U Gyi, with members of Saw Tha Din, Saw Bellay, and Thra Tha Hto. At that meeting, U Nu pointed out that demonstrations and conflicts should not have taken place but that the KNU should come in the legal fold and ask for a state within the Law. Saw Ba U Gyi replied that it would not be possible for the Karens to get a state within the Parliament (apparently referring to the Constitutional Assembly having a lopsided Burman majority); and these conflicts arose while special arrangements were being requested. To this, PM U Nu said, “If you want a Karen state, you’ll have to fight for it, this is all we can do.”
 Statement released by the Karen National Union, March 1995.
 KNU explains its position on the whole talks process in detail in a small booklet published in 1998. The booklet was translated into English by the Research Division of the Karen National League (KNL).
 Saw Ba U Gyi expressed his view in his last speech given at the Karen Club in Insein a few months before his assassination on August 12, 1950.
 The Four Principles laid down by Saw Ba U Gyi are: 1) For us surrender is out off question; 2) The recognition of Karen State must be completed; 3) We shall retain our arms; and, 4) We shall decide our own political destiny.
 The Marnerplaw Agreement, in which the basic political process is outlined, states that "a true national convention involving all indigenous nationalities and all political parties will be convened" to "draw up a true Federal Union constitution in accordance with the desires of indigenous nationalities and all people" (NCUB, 1998).