December 28, 2006

A Symbol of Karen Resistance

OBITUARY - SAW BO MYA: A Symbol of Resistance

By – Saw Kapi

The quiet recognition among the Karen people is that General Saw Bo Mya is the one and only symbol of contemporary Karen resistance movement. Born and raised in Hteemukee Village of Mudraw District, Saw Bo Mya belongs to the Sqaw Karen tribe and was an animist until he met his wife, Naw Lar Poe, who later ‘saved’ him to accept the Baptist Christian faith, which, in this case, happens to be that of the Seventh Day Adventist denomination. Saw Bo Mya founded the Karen National Liberation Army and was its Commander-in-Chief until 2000. In the 1980’s he was the paramount leader of KNU or the Karen National Union, the organization that has spearheaded the Karens’ struggle for self-determination since 1949.

Without any formal education, Saw Bo Mya proved himself to be capable of earning the respects and fear from Karen people of all backgrounds, both Pwo and Sqaw, from urban as well as rural. He actually spent his whole life in defense of his people, militarily, although he fell short of successfully articulating the Karen cause. More than that, his instrumental role in building alliances, both ethnic and broader national opposition, reflects not only his sphere of political influence but also his vision for a solution to Burma’s decade long problem. In the early 1980s he helped forge a broad armed ethnic alliance known as the National Democratic Front. In the 1990s, he was elected the first Chairman of Democratic Alliance of Burma, which, albeit largely defunct by now, is the broadest opposition alliance Burma’s politics ever saw. When the Kachin Independence Organization secretly sealed off a cease-fire agreement with the Burmese military regime in 1993 without acknowledging either NDF or DAB, he came to realize, in a very hard way, how weak those alliances were.

Along with the Karen armed resistance, Saw Bo Mya and his revolutionary comrades brought Marnerplaw, the long time headquarters of the Karen National Liberation Army, onto the regional political map. But the Karen headquarters, which also housed more than a dozen of other Burmese opposition offices, was overrun by the Burmese troops in 1995. It was widely alleged that the capture of Marnerplaw was made possible, or at least easier, by the Karen splinter group known as Democratic Karen Buddhist Army. Most Karens credited Saw Bo Mya for the rise and some also blame him for the fall of Marnerplaw. To the latter, he disagreed and rebutted that, “should my orders were obeyed early enough, the split [of DKBA from KNU] could have been prevented.”

Karen people never cease admiring Saw Bo Mya for his devotion to their cause; there is no doubt, nonetheless, that they at times wished they had a politically shrewder leader. During his glory days in the 1980’s as the President of KNU, he was surrounded by some loyal but inept advisors, who never uttered a word to disagree with him, but handsomely benefited from the huge sale of timber and other mineral resources within KNU-controlled territory at that time.

Saw Bo Mya, a legendary Karen military commander, who learned to master guerrilla warfare in his fight for his people against the regime in Rangoon, was not adequately equipped to manage the economy he controlled. It was one thing to fight the war of resistance, another to be engaged in national and regional politics, build schools and deliver healthcare.

His final legacy will, arguably, be shaped by the trip he made to Rangoon to meet quite amicably with the now ousted Burmese military intelligence chief and Prime Minister, General Khin Nyunt. With his decision to meet with the Burmese regime for talks, Bo Mya became the first and only ethnic resistance leader in Burm’s history to fly into Rangoon from a foreign capital, Bangkok. As the vice chairman of KNU, he transformed his image from a recalcitrant revolutionary to a hopeful revisionist, who holds both the guts to fight and the courage to change the course of his action. During his meeting with Prime Minister Khin Nyunt, he negotiated a “gentleman’s agreement” and demanded the rights of Karen people. His detractors, however, charged that he was simply duped by Khin Nyunt, and thereby the regime, to be assuaged in return by the opportunity to celebrate his 77th birthday at Kandawgyi Palace Hotel in Rangoon. He seemed simply caught between the expectations of his supporters, who cannot conceivably envisage any credible political deal with the historically crooked regimes in Rangoon, and the reality of Burmese military superiority, which almost precluded any serious military challenge by the KNLA, or for that matter, any other ethnic resistance forces.

At the 13th KNU Congress held in December 2004, Gen. Saw Bo Mya was honorably permitted to retire from the vice chairmanship. The position was immediately taken over by Gen. Tarmalarbaw, who also headed the KNU peace delegation twice in Maulmein, the capital of Mon State, in 1996. Although less active in day-to-day political activities, Gen. Saw Bo Mya remained chief of KNU’s Defense Department.Often characterized by his blunt talks and bold acts, Gen. Saw Bo Mya never wavers to speak against what he believes to be wrong. He succinctly defines what the Karen revolution must mean: “opposing the wrong and constructing the right things.” Saw Bo Mya has served Karen people well in terms of the former, but the latter is left for the new generation participants in the Karen resistance movement. It is entirely up to the younger generation Karens to choose whether they want to be a generation of the future or mere followers of the past. There is little doubt that Saw Bo Mya will prefer the former.

General Saw Bo Mya, 79, passed away at his home in the Thai-Burma border on December 24, 2006 at 2:00am local time. He is survived by his wife, Naw Lar Poe, and seven children. Read more...

Karen New Year

The Karens' New Year Day: Its Meaning and Implication

By – Saw Kapi

Most Karens realize that the official recognition of Karens' New Year day did not come about easily. Far-sighted Karen leaders started out their relentless efforts with an attempt to gain recognition for a Karen national day. In the early 1920’s a group of visionary leaders deliberated upon the issue on several occasions and finally came the agreement that Saw Myat Thein (Karen Parliamentarian from Hinthada) and Dr. Johnson Durmay Poe Min (Karen Parliamentarian from Toungoo) should, together, take the lead in working with their other colleagues to introduce a Karen New Year Recognition Bill to the then British Burma's Legislative Council.

First, the efforts to get Karen New Year Day officially recognized by the Legislative Council at that time reflects both high political awareness of and commendable cooperation among our leaders.

Second, the recognition of Karen New Year Day implies, at least indirectly, that the Karen people of Burma are one of the earliest settlers to the land. In their deliberation on determining Karen Era, they decided to start counting the chronology from the time Karen people competed their second phase of migration to the land now known as Burma, BC 739.

Third, the Karen New Year Day calls for unity among different tribes of Karen people, because it is recognized and celebrated by all Karens (Sqaw, East Pwo and West Pwo) regardless of their creeds and linguistic affiliation. Of the many holidays that the Karen people celebrate annually, only the New Year celebration brings together Karens of all different backgrounds.

May the New Year bring our people the kind of unity that our forefathers had sought for in their fight for the recognition of Karen New Year Day.

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December 21, 2006

The Karen People of Burma

The Karen people of Burma: An "imagined community"?

By – Saw Kapi

Contrary to what most students of Burmese politics think, the Karen people of Burma do not share the same faith – a significant percent of Karen people have become Christians (35%, according to the latest estimate by the Karen Baptist Convention), while more than 50% of them have adopted the Buddhist religion, and some remain animists still. It appears that the Karens are almost equally split in terms of creeds. The advent of Christian religion in Burma, however, is a recent phenomenon. It can be reasonably assumed that the Karens have been sharing a common tradition of faith, that is, their belief in nature and animism, which, in certain aspects, may be closely related to some practices of Buddhism, until the later part of 19th century.

Secondly, the Karens do not use the same written or verbal language. As far as can be ascertained, there are at least three major Karen languages: East Pwo, West Pwo and Sqaw. Even though legends and oral history tell us that we have our own original common language known as Li-hsaw-wehh, there is no scientific research finding that establishes proofs of its actual existance. Assuming, nonetheless, that the Karen people have had a common written language before, there is no indication still of how and when it was lost. It is historically commendable, however, that the Karens had been surviving without communicating with each other in writing for several centuries. Fortunately in the late 1830, using Burmese alphabets, Dr. Jonathan Wade, an American Baptist missionary, helped invent modern written Sqaw Karen language. Subsequently, Dr. Mason launched the first ever Karen language newspaper, Hsar-Du-Ghaw, in 1841. Based in Tavoy town of present day Tanassarim Division, the publication lasted almost 100 years until the Fascist Japanese invaded Burma. The West Pwo Karen language was also created by Dr. Wade but revised in 1840 again by Dr. Brighton, another American Baptist missionary. So, today’s written Karen languages, except Eastern Pwo Karen, are the creations of non-Karen Christian missionaries.

Thirdly, to what extent the Karens do share the same culture heritage is a question to be answered still. For example, East Pwo Karen and West Pwo Karen develop and cherish Done Dance, the most recognized symbol of Karen cultural expression, but the great majority of Sqaw Karen people do not have a good idea about this particular aspect of Karen culture. Many Sqaw Karen know that Done Dance is a cultural heritage of Karen people, and it ends there. For instance, in 1997 a group of Karen students (approximately 70, most of them being Sqaw Karen) were asked to write an essay about either Done Dance or Klo, Karen Drum. Only two of them chose to write on the former, and both of them showed that they know little about the subject except the fact that they enjoy watching it so much.

Hence, there seem to be some inherent obstacles to building much needed collectivism among Karens of all tribes based on a sense of shared identities. Sensitivity to and conscientious tolerance of cultural, language and religious differences amongst these "imagined communities"[i] of Karen people are quintessential if, at the very least, a functional unity is to be achieved.

That said, there is one historical commonality among the Karens of all religious and cultural backgrounds, that is, their common history of oppression. Throughout history, Karens - East Pwo, West Pwo and Sqaw alike - have consistently endured oppression of all forms, by successive Chinese kings prior to their migration to Burma, and presently by Burmese rulers and military governments interrupted only briefly by the British colonization of Burma in the early 20th century. Consequently, there seems to be a tendency among the Karen people that they draw their strength for the resistance to stronger and arrogant rulers from their shared historical experience. The danger, though, in doing so is that many of us ended up adopting victim’s mentality and searching for sympathy and support from outside, loosing track of the need to develop our own capacities – intellectual, technical or otherwise.

Ardeth Maung, a Karen political scientist currently teaching at the University of Massachusetts, observes that, “Karens may not share similar cultures, but our shared commonalities may be based on awareness about blood ties (that we may all have descended from the same language group, as identified by American missionaries or British colonizers), powerful myths about the origins of our ‘homeland,’ and shared experiences about the oppression of the Burmese military regimes. These, I believe, are the main common features that unite the Karen people. Identities are multiple, and they can change from time to time depending on the contexts.” It is evident enough that, languages, cultures and identities cannot be viewed as either exclusive or static elements of a society. They intermingle with others and are subject to change over time. Those striving to liberate the Karen people should not fail to note that a national pride beyond social and historical realities is merely an arrogance that appeals to jingoism. The only viable hope for the Karen people of Burma, hence, is to attain unity amidst diversity!

[i] Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Revised Edition ed. London and New York: Verso, 1991.

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