March 30, 2007

Remember and Rethink

Remembering the Heroes, Rethinking the Revolution

By – Saw Kapi
http://www.ieds. blogspot. com

More than 50 years have passed since the glorious Karen armed resistance was commenced in 1949 and our dead heroes – San C. Poe, Saw Pay Thar, Synedy Loo Ni, Saw Ba U Gyi, Saw San Kay, Mahn Ba Zan, Skaw Ler Taw, Gen. Bo Mya and countless others – have indeed persisted in our collective memory. The persistence of our memory of them, however, may not have been exactly the way they would have anticipated.

Most of those who claim to admire Saw Ba U Gyi and are vehemently against reviewing his principles have only the sketchiest knowledge of his life and goals. Somewhat surprisingly, the apotheosis of Saw Ba U Gyi’s four principles is accompanied by a parallel disappearance of the real understanding of his intellectual insights and the unmatched sacrifice he made. Gone is the educated, the intellectual, the selfless Saw Ba U Gyi, who sold thousands of acres of his inherited land to compensate the government money stolen from a government bank by his unruly followers. Gone is the confident warrior who trusted his people thus refused to accept a platoon of personal bodyguards offered to him and as a result was ambushed and killed by the enemy troops. To date, the principles he laid down and the future he wanted for his people have not been realized. Confined mainly in the Thai-Burma border area, the movement has been gradually losing its strength and consequently its relevancy.

In fact, it is troubling to note that there is a huge gap between the magnitude of our challenges and the smallness of our politics - our chronic avoidance of answering tough questions, our remarkable inability to build a viable consensus to tackle the critical problems confronting our people, and our lack of confidence and skills in engaging the international community in the increasingly interconnected world.

The first step toward solving our people’s predicament and advancing our cause is to confront the naked realities before us as they really are, not as we fancy them to be. Imperative is the need for us to recognize the gap between our professed ideals as a people – the imagined Karen community – and the reality we witness everyday. The Karen as we would like to imagine ourselves is a homogeneous assembly, concentrating in one geographic area, speaking the same language, and subscribing to one religion. But such is not the case. The reality, whether we like it or not, is that there are three major Karen sub-groups; each has its own distinctive spoken and written language. While almost 35% of Sqaw Karen subscribes to Christianity, a large percentage of Pwo Karen remains faithful to Buddhism. A small percentage of both Pwo and Sqaw still practice animism.

Having settled over a wide range of geographic areas with notable concentrations in Mergui/Tavoy region, Irrawaddy delta area, Toungoo hill tracks, and Pa-pun district, Karen people within and beyond Burma intermingle with other ethnic nationalities. Although there are some exclusively Karen enclaves in different parts of Burma, it is hard to point to a single geographic region in which only Karen inhibits. This demographic reality leads us to seriously think through the issue of how we define Karen state. How can the recognition of Karen state be completed, until and unless we establish a consensus on what Karen state should constitute?

Equally important, nonetheless more complex and sensitive, is the question of what should be the official Karen language. Of course we must have the right to speak, read, write and be educated in our own language. But in actuality, we have three distinctive Karen languages, belonging to three different Karen sub-groups; which one do we want to use it for official communication? These are fundamental questions that need to be addressed in the broader national context with utmost rationality and sensitivity.

Establishing a collective consent of Karen people in response to these questions will be a crucial step toward deciding our own political destiny. Only this critical process of questioning and reviewing our movement will allow us to see that there is an urgent need to restructure the increasingly more fragmented Karen national identity, the need for a realistic and articulate Karen voice in the national and international politics.

Undoubtedly, the Karens need a new generation of political leadership that can articulate a national strategy that goes 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 progressively interdependent global order. 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.

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. Many trained Karen intellectuals – such as Dr. San C. Poe, Saw Ba U Gyi, Saw Pay Thar, Saw Sydney Loo Ni, Mahn Ba Zan, Skaw Ler Taw – 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 and raising the profile of Karens in general, and 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.

As much as the Karens' quest for their collective right to self-determination is justified in principle, the practicality of implementing such a right can be 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 the Karens, if and when opportunity presents itself, 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 and the country they called home, Burma.

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