Dare or Be Damned: Rethinking the Four Principles
By Naw May Oo
To many people within and outside of the Karen National Union (KNU), a call to review the famous Four Principles, also known as Saw Ba U Gyi’s Four Principles, is an act could qualify the person who commit it to troublemaker, less than patriotic, almost a traitor. That said, it does not mean that such call has never been made before, as implied by Aung Naing Oo in his recent article published in Irrawaddy. The article seemed well-meant and suggestive, but also seemed a bit too reserved. Perhaps, it could be that Aung Naing Oo was being more courteous than critical as he used to be. Nevertheless, in order to rethink on the Four Principles, there is nothing to disagree with Aung Naing Oo in suggesting that the Karen people collectively should come together as a people who have carried out the half a century plus long revolution against the tyrannical rule of successive ethnocentric military regimes.
First, a need to review the Four Principles does not mean a need to change the Principles, per se. The Four Principles were laid down by a Cambridge educated barrister, an intellectual, who had to be extraordinarily cautious by training of every word he uttered. The words seem to have been carefully chosen so that they can stand the test of time. It was unfortunate that Saw Ba U Gyi did not have much time to elaborate on his principles and too unfortunate for the Karen people of today that he did not leave us a commentary that would serve as a manual to interpreting his words. Yes, I am being sort of tongue-in-cheek here. The words contained in the Four Principles are simple. It does not require a degree from Cambridge in order to understand them. Perhaps, it is our way of reading the principles that can be problematic than the principles really are. A call to review the principles only intends to open up discussions and debates that might generate new visions and understandings, the values that true revolutionaries always seek.
Second, reviewing the Four Principles requires us to have a thorough look again into the particular words and terms chosen by Saw Ba U Gyi.
The first principle is: “Surrender is out of the question.” The great legal mind was cautious enough not to use the terms such as “negotiation” or “compromise.” He used “surrender,” and it was apparently quite deliberate. But, let’s look at the problems – some of which have been pointed out by Aung Naing Oo in his article – faced by the Karen Revolution over the past forty years. It has been a trend among the KNU leadership and the revolutionary Karens to simply, and rather cheaply, interpret “negotiate” or “compromise” as equal to “surrender.” Every time there was a move – initiated by whomever – aiming to negotiate or compromise, the individuals or groups would be labeled as betrayers of the Four Principles as the move would be considered “surrender.” For those of us who are familiar with the method and propaganda used by the successive Burmese governments, we could almost understand why some KNU officials and some Karen people would understand the terms such as “negotiate” or “compromise” is equivalent to “surrender.” However, that is besides the point. Political expediency is the name of the game and it seems to have been understood by Saw Ba U Gyi. Had he meant that surrender includes compromising and negotiating, he would have also condemned the KNU’s choice to go for the establishment of a “genuine federal union.” But, I doubt our leader was of that limited wisdom when he laid down the Four Principles that successfully persuaded the entire Karen population to uphold them and to continue the Revolution in accordance with the principles.
The second principle reads: “We shall retain our arms.” Saw Ba U Gyi was said to be reluctant to start the armed struggle although he was all for other KNU’s initiatives otherwise. In response to the pressure from colleagues and comrades, Saw Ba U Gyi left his position in the cabinet during the colonial era, and he joined the armed struggle whole heartedly as he also provided decisive and undisputed leadership. Being educated in Cambridge, one of the world’s first-class universities, having read law and making it through to become a barrister, Saw Ba U Gyi was more than aware of the phrase he uttered: “We shall retain our arms.” He was less instructive and more determinative. I find him less instructive, because he would have said in what form and how we shall retain our arms had he been more definitive. I can imagine that Saw Ba U Gyi would still be smiling with content when he sees the Karen people have their own national guard to safeguard our Karen State and when there is Kawthoolei Police Department to provide safety and security to the Karen people within the Federal Union of Burma. We do not know exactly what he envisioned when he uttered the second principle in particular, but it is not difficult to understand that he envisioned the end goal of the Karen Revolution beyond being armed fighters. (Here, the second principle is more of a determinative means and not an end goal.)
The third principle is rather an adamant claim: “Recognition of Karen State must be complete.” For those of us who have lived through and under the successive Burmese governments – the AFPFL (U Nu government), the BSPP (Ne Win regime), the SLORC (Sen. Gen. Saw Maung regime), and now the SPDC led by Sen. Gen. Than Shwe – know well that Karen State or Kawthoolei (according to the 1974 Constitution) has always been nothing but an empty name. The “Karen State” envisioned by Saw Ba U Gyi was and is rather an independent polity, which could otherwise be bound only by the Union’s Constitution, consented by the Karen people. Most certainly, Saw Ba U Gyi anticipated a “Karen State” governed by the will of the Karen people. It seems apparent that his legal education guided him to deliberately choose the term “Karen State” rather than “Karen Country” or “Karen Nation,” even if such avoidance could have been against his personal desire. Legally, a “Karen State” can simply mean a political system of a body of people who are politically organized (Black’s Law, 7th Ed.). Saw Ba U Gyi left us with a simple yet particular term so that the Karen Revolution would not find itself trapped as our struggle for freedom continues well into the twenty first century where the notion of “state” has been tested by the rapid changes in our world.
The forth principle declares: “We shall decide our own political destiny.” Every people of distinct culture, tradition, history, and language aspire to define and decide what their political destiny is. And, they demonstrate that inherent aspiration clearly in various ways and they pursue it almost at any cost. Equally, that was a simple desire Saw Ba U Gyi had for his people. There was no further elaboration as to what our political destiny was to the great leader. However, for someone who had eloquently and undisputedly laid down the previous three principles, political destiny as the forth principle could not be anything less. Of course, as for a man who led the fight for freedom and rights, his further elaboration on Karen’s “political destiny” could have been consciously meant for the Karen to decide collectively as a people. If we have not done so yet, perhaps, this is the time to do it. We may well be charged guilty – in the eyes of our younger and next generation to come – for having taken fifty eight years to come together as a people to collectively decide upon what our political destiny is. However, since there is no end to a struggle for human dignity, which the Karen struggle is about, we might as well consider coming together so that we can decide collectively what our political destiny is to be. In a way, this would also revitalize the Karen Revolution, which has been known as the oldest armed resistance in Burma.
Third, there are two concluding observations: first, a call for reviewing the Four Principles is not necessarily a challenge either to the current KNU leadership or a call to demolish the Four Principles. In fact, a call for reviewing the Four Principle is an inevitable challenge for all Karen people to face it if we are to achieve our goal – liberation from a tyrannical rule, free from forced indoctrination of an ethnocentric regime, to be able to live as a people with dignity, and to reclaim our right to govern ourselves. Second, the Four Principles were laid down by the great mind of the time with the hope to guide us through our struggle to victory and not to lead us into despair. We are to question ourselves and our situation today what the Four Principles are to us and if they serve the purpose as set out by Saw Ba U Gyi. If not, we are to answer why and how we are going to resolve our national problem, again, as guided by the lasting Four Principles.
Finally, by all means, I do not claim to have come up with a clear and precise meaning of the Four Principles. I cannot possibly know what Saw Ba U Gyi actually meant when he may have deliberately said those words in the Four Principles. However, reading and studying his works and words, at least, I know what he did not mean: he did not mean –among others – that we should never negotiate or compromise; nor he meant that we must always fight with arms; nor could he have meant that the Karens should not go for anything less than a country even if it is against the entire world community; nor he meant that the Karen people’s political destiny can be decided by an organization that may well be disregarding the will of the people. I cannot help but admire the wisdom of our late leader, a great legal mind, and a visionary whose intelligence and eloquent principles continue to form an equally persuasive and lasting guidance, even after fifty eight year. I believe that he has left us with the most elastic principles, thought out and written with a complete understanding that people and situation can and do (and should) change with time. I find no reason why we should incarcerate ourselves within a rigid interpretation or understanding of the Four Principles. It would be yet another crime for us to commit if we are to do so, and the next generation Karen will find it difficult to forgive us.
(Naw May Oo is a doctoral student at the Indiana University School of Law, Bloomington, currently working on a dissertation entitled “Constitutional Design in Multiethnic States: Fostering Coexistence through Effective Public Policies- Burma, Public Health, and Malaria.”)
March 04, 2007
Dare or Be Damned: Rethinking the Four Principles