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. Read more...

March 23, 2007

The Need for a Paradigm Shift - A repost

The Pitfalls of Burma's Opposition Movement and the Need for a Paradigm Shift

By Saw Kapi

Burma's opposition movement, a coalition of otherwise disparate groups – some have been fighting for a broader national autonomy for more than half a century but some started with a revolt in 1988 against bloody military coup – was known from the very beginning for not having strategic, collective vision for the future of the country. Over the past decade, the movement has become more and more misdirected in its strategy and approach to the issues facing the very people it claims to liberate. It found itself between two constituencies – on the one hand, the people of Burma and secondly the so-called international community composed of a handful of non-governmental organizations and governments in the west. As a result, it became a "captured" movement – responding more to the demands and desires of the international community and less to the daily concerns of the local people. If the opposition movement is to produce any positive result for the people of Burma, it has become clear now that it is desperately in need of shifting its current paradigm – from the negativities of condemnation and isolation of the country to the more constructive and inclusive approach that honestly addresses the problems facing the ordinary people of Burma.

The opposition voice over the years has been united by one aim: the removal of current military regime and the introduction of a new dispensation led by a new government, whatever it is. It is change for change’s sake. Evidently however, the opposition movement has not been very visible beyond the border areas, that is, the people inside the country do not feel its existence, let alone influence. When the military regime recently rearrested five student leaders, those in the opposition stood in awe, like a rabbit glaring at the headlights, hoping that the solution would come from outside. In the scheme of things, the movement has become desperate and has no significant role to play beyond promoting a signature campaign being launched inside by some courageous student leaders.

The biggest problem perhaps is that the movement seems to have lost its focus on the primary reasons for its emergence in 1988 and the key points of challenge against the military regime that really matter to the people. This is connected to the above point in relation to being "captured" by the international community. Instead of focusing on the wider primary reasons for people’s disgruntlement against the military regime, the movement became so obsessed with the matter of "human rights." This is by no means to discount that there have been human rights abuses in the country. However, what causes concern is the "reductionist" approach to the Burmese problem whereby everything is reduced to the human rights argument and must fit the human rights paradigm. Therefore every problem, every other issue which many of the groups that make up the movement against the government became quite simply a "human rights" issue. The key challenges against the government, such as political and economic mismanagement – which by the way was the primary problem long before the current human rights problems – have become marginalized topics that are discussed on a "by the way" basis. Emphasis is placed more on the removal of the regime than the reconstruction of the country.

It seems obvious why the movement has become so obsessed with human rights that it began to base its campaign against the regime on the basis of violation of human rights. It could not ably articulate the many issues represented by the many voices in the movement choir. Perhaps, some in the leadership listen to the tune and realize that there is too much discord, and therefore it is better to stick to one issue as the rallying point against the military regime: Human Rights – for that is universal and affects everyone. It universalizes the problem and covers all issues under a single umbrella.

This over-emphasis on human rights results in the loss of opportunities to challenge the military regime on key areas that directly affect people on the ground – education, health, infrastructure development, employment, economic progress, etc. Even the military regime knows this – while the regime is boasting about its infrastructure project in the rural parts of the country, what do we as a movement do to address the weaknesses of the current military regime regarding the education policies and practices? For instance, the restoration of human rights will not necessarily change the way public exams and healthcare system are run in Burma – the opposition movement needs to articulate these issues that find resonance among the ordinary people of Burma. Instead, all we hear is the military regimes attacks villages, arrest student leaders and violates human rights and nothing more.

There is no doubt that human rights matter to everyone, the knowledgeable and the ignorant alike. An opposition movement predicated upon human rights indeed sounds very right and sweet to the international community, and the introduction of democracy and promotion of human rights and removal of tyrannies is well in line with the current US foreign policy. But as a political strategy, it is necessary to put at the forefront, issues that are uppermost in the psyche of the people. It is good for the international community to understand our sufferings but it is also necessary to base the movement on issues that resonate in the national and local context – education, economic development and steady political progress.

Unfortunately, some of us have been relentlessly busy collecting names of "enemies," not friends, of the movement. The very movement that has aimed to establish a democratic Burma, in the end, has become so undemocratic that anyone speaking constructively of the military regime is considered enemy of the movement. Shifting from this paradigm, we will probably be better off collecting names of those who understand and support what we as a movement strive to achieve. After all must we not reason that if this military regime has been a big part of Burma's political problems, it could be a big part of solution as well?

Let us be real and pragmatic – a military regime with a firm grip onto power will not easily yield to the demands from a militarily and politically weak opposition. Constant condemnation of the military regime without credible counter proposal from us on issues directly related to the wellbeing of the people will not produce anything good either. Unless we refocus our energy and strategy on the practical need of the people, with whom the real power dwells, but continue to look to the international community – which frankly has more interests elsewhere and will continue to shout against the regime, but ultimately do nothing, the struggle that began almost half a century ago will continue, rather ineptly. Read more...

March 19, 2007

Introduction: P'doh Kweh Htoo

SAW KWEH HTOO: A Profile of a Political Life

By – Paw Taw Oo

Known to be one of the most pragmatic leaders within the leadership, Kweh Htoo, a leading members of Karen National Union peace negotiation team in 2004, became the Governor of KNU’s Mergui/Tavoy District in 1990 and has been serving as a member of KNU’s CentralStanding Committee ever since. He accompanied Gen. Bo Mya to Rangoon on the historic trip made by the KNU leaders in January 2004 and remains active in the efforts ever since. [Click here to read Kweh Htoo's most recent analysis - in Karen - on KNU-led Karen resistance movement.]

Prior to joining the Karen resistance movement in 1974, Kweh Htoo studied economics at the Rangoon University but did not realize his educational dream due to the government’s closure of the university in response to a student movement known in Burma’s history as the “U Thant Crisis”.

At one point, Kweh Htoo found himself at odd with Gen. Bo Mya during the chaotic period immediately after the fall of Manerplaw, the long time KNU Headquarters. But, his constructive and yet critical review on Karen resistance movement earned him respects from many of his colleagues, including Saw David Taw, Chief of KNU’s foreign affairs, and Htoo Htoo Lay, one of the Group’s two Joint General Secretaries. “We as the organization need to evolve around the ever-changing circumstances,” once said Kweh Htoo. Among younger, emerging Karen political activists, he is regarded as one of the most progressive, who is well attuned to the changing regional political dynamics. “Our revolution needs new blood, new ideas, and new thinking.”

Despite his popularity in the southern district, Kweh Htoo is not without his critics in Karen politics. Some in the top KNU leadership feel that he has pushed for change within the organization much harder than the leadership can take.

At the advance of the overwhelmingly stronger Burmese troops to his area in 1997, he was able to display a skillful leadership in handling the orderly relocation of hundreds of thousands of Karen villagers from the previously KNU-controlled territory to the refugee camps along the Thai-Burmese border. Kweh Htoo won the heart of his people by maintaining close touch with the grassroots community though out the most difficult time. He basically managed to have kept the chaotic situation under control.

He traveled several times to Geneva and London during 1997 and 2002 to inform the United Nations’ Human Rights Commission, key British Parliamentary members as well as the Foreign Office, and the London based non-governmental organizations of the deteriorating human right situation and the urgently needed humanitarian assistance for internally displaced Karen people in Burma. While he understands the importance of international pressure, Kweh Htoo places a high priority on being close to his suffering people. Despite his busy schedule, he makes efforts to spend time in the Karen territory, travels from village to village in his district, urging his people to preserve high political alertness. He likes meeting and listening to what the ordinary people have to say. “He feels our pains,” once commented a villager.

He may be lesser known in Burma’s broader national politics, but Kweh Htoo, for many Karens, is a trusted leader with a progressive-mind, who does not compromise his people’s need with a place for his own in the national politics. Such, indeed, is a rare trait of leadership. Among grassroots Karen communities, he is considered one of the best hopes for the new wave of Karen resistance movement.

Kweh Htoo, the devote father of six, is married to Naw Sar Rah. Aside from politics, he retains keen interest in Karen language, literature, history and traditional music. Read more...

March 18, 2007

Question of the Day

Question of the Day and a Question of Interpretation

By – Saw Kapi

The issue of reviewing a national principle or strategy is not as arcane as it sounds: resistance groups and governments alike, both in the past and at present, have reviewed and revised their policies and principles to suit their changing circumstances. The PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization), the Sinn Fein, and the ANC (African National Congress) have all done it and have done so successfully without compromising their national aspiration.

But it is often the small-minded nationalist rhetoric that clouds the substance of the issue and drags the people backward. Under the guise of nationalism, some self-proclaimed Karen firebrands like to insist that any talk or negotiation with the adversary is equivalent to surrender and therefore condemnable. In doing so they toy with the emotion of those who have suffered and sacrificed their lives under the Burmese military regime. Such type of "nationalists" often engages in slogan politics but consistently avoids answering the more important questions.

There are some politically sensitive and yet nationally important questions that the Karens as a people collectively need to answer. What should a Karen state constitute, for instance, territorially and administratively? We will not really know how and when the third principle of Saw Ba U Gyi could be completed if we cannot come up with a national consensus on this question. There must be a process where Karen political aspiration is transformed into a viable political consensus that can claim to be the collective voice of Karen people. This process of consensus building must be done well beyond the scope of Karen National Union (KNU), which has been in the periphery of Burmese politics for the past several decades.

The fact that fifty million people of Burma being under the oppressive military regime does not give any automatic right for any opposition group to claim political legitimacy over the people. Those with the fiercest rhetoric need to come to term with realities on the ground and objectively answer some of the most fundamental questions that challenge us. In doing so, questioning, interpreting and deciphering the cornerstone principles of our resistance movement – as a whole or in part – is seemingly inevitable. Read more...

March 15, 2007

A Civil Discussion: Views on Current Debates in the Karenissues Forum

By Naw Show Ei Ei Tun
School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS)
Johns Hopkins University

It's been a privilege to read what's on the mind of my fellow Karen people. I have no single doubt that you all love the Karen people and want to do something for a positive change in whatever way you can. Otherwise, you won't even be reading or participating in this forum.

On the Four Principles, I strongly do think it is a very good thing that we all put the Four Principles on the table and openly discuss about it. I appreciate all those who have boldly shared your thoughts and opinions. Otherwise, we all turn next to our graveyard and find out our revolution is far from reaching its goal before we realized it. Some of us have even got very emotional and anxious as if we were betraying the Karen revolution by critically reviewing the Four Principles. And I acknowledge it is very hard to swallow as many lives have been lost, valuable lands and farms have been taken away, and families have been torn apart. Thankfully, this forum is not a contest of racing who is more faithful or loyal to the Karen people, but to openly discuss with an "open-mind" to explore feasible options and alternatives. I don't want to make any comment on the soundness of the Four Principles and what not, because I just simply do not know enough about it. And I have never read the actual writing of Saw Ba Oo Gyi either. But I just wanted to share some perspectives.

A struggle of such is not only unique to the Karen people. And it is not only among the Karen leaders or only Saw Ba Oo Gyi who came up with a set of principles to initiate and guide a certain revolution. Look around us.

Even "Marxism," the idea of one of the greatest philosophers, political economists and revolutionaries, Karl Marx from Germany, had been so powerful and influential across the globe that it even divided the world apart and turned it into a major Cold War. But finally people do have to all acknowledge that Marxism, no matter how ideal it is as an ideology, does not work as it glorious slogan sounds. Even still, Marx did not leave only four sentences but carefully articulated in an entire book (I cannot remember how many pages). At the same time, now a days "democracy" itself is now facing numerous challenges and uncertainties. If you want to know more, please read the article written by Fareed Zacharia, called "the Rise of Illliberal Democracy."

Let me give you one example of someone who strongly subscribed "his version" of "Marxism": the founding father of today's People's Republic of China (PRC), Mao Zedong. Firmly believing in "Marxist" ideology, Mao tried to implement it in many ways, the two most well-known or perhaps, tragic of which were the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Both of them turned out to be a deadly blunder and put millions of Chinese starved to dead. Mao cut off diplomatic or trade relations with other countries. At Mao's death, his very close colleague and subordinate, Deng Xiaoping, realizing the critical needs of his countrymen on the ground and sensing changes in the global world order, decided to not be immensely ideological as his leader, Mao but to be boldly "pragmatic." As such, he took a sea change policy with the famous slogan "whether a cat is black or white as long as it catches mouse" and adopted an Open Door economic policy and began normalizing diplomatic relations with other countries. Was Deng a betrayal of PRC's founding father? Till today, as much as the Chinese leaders and people continue to revere Mao as the great leader of modern China, they also acknowledged and admitted that Mao's policy did not work. These are not my arguments but widely accepted facts of life in the history of China.

Next, please allow me to give another example: a very simplified version of Indonesia's story although it is not precisely analogous to China's story. By discussing very briefly about such as complicated issue, I know I'm risking the danger of being miss-interpreted. Even if it has to be that way, let it be so. Take a look at the founding father of modern Indonesia, Sukarno. On the verge of getting Independence from the Dutch colonial power, President Sukarno came up with the idea of "Five Principles" or "Pancasila" as a recipe for Indonesian nationalism:
1. Belief in the one and only God
2. Just and civilized humanity
3. The unity of Indonesia
4. Democracy guided by the inner wisdom in the unanimity arising out of deliberations amongst representatives
5. Social justice for the whole of the people of Indonesia

Each of the principles and all as a whole sound very good, inclusive and forward-looking. However, when Sukarno become highly ideological about nationalism but paid no attention whatsoever to the economic deprivation of his country at the time, he has no choice but to step down. In fact, he was even put under house arrest. People cared less about the principles on the ivory tower as they were not meeting the brutal needs of the people on the ground. Despite of all, the people of Indonesia till today respect and acknowledge Sukarno as the founding father of modern Indonesia, but not with a blind eye to his weaknesses. His daughter, Megawati, was even elected as the President of the country over thirty years later.

The point of all is that it is nothing wrong with reviewing the Four Principles. Please continue to do so. But please don't loose focus on aiming a better future or a positive change for the war-torn land and war-weary Karen people. But we should try our best not to hold personal grudges upon each other. If not, it will be counter-productive and fruitless. And I am not saying the Four Principles will end up like Marx's ideology or Sukarno's Five Principles as I said I personal don't know enough about it at the moment.

In fact, those who think that critically reviewing the Four Principles isn't a good idea, I would encourage you to come up with a set of arguments and shed some lights on how the Karen can achieve their goals by subscribing and practicing the Four Principles or share an evaluation of how the Karen have achieved their goals so far by doing so. I personally cannot wait to hear what you all have to say and I believe everyone will be benefited from such an analysis. Read more...

March 10, 2007

On Culture, Identity and National Survival: Discussion Continued

By Neineh Plo
Indiana University, Bloomington

Our concern here is real and very close to our hearts. The concern is not of our own as individuals. Rather, it is a concern for the whole of our people, or “nation.” And, to have concern for our “nation” is to have concern for the positive flourishment of our “nationalism.”

Let me elaborate on what I mean by nationalism. While there are many different meanings of nationalism, and many of them carry negative connotations; I take the meaning as a collectively shared concern for the very existence of our people – that concern to me is our nationalism.

This is the closest meaning of the word “nationalism” I could come up with. Further explanations that carry positive connotations of our nationalism can be expanded at your own liberty.

With this definition of nationalism, what I meant in my first letter “To Live” is more than traditional notion of culture. Of course, I appreciate your analyses and discussions on culture. Indeed, it is very important that we preserve our culture.

And, I agree that culture is subject to change. A culture will have to adapt itself in response to the surrounding environments. Every year, we can celebrate our New Year, wearing our colorful traditional clothes, playing our musical instruments, and eating our traditional food. Even though our children who grow up in foreign countries cannot speak our languages, we can make them preserve this culture of ours; if this is all what we mean by culture. Of course, I assume that every one of us will mean more than this by culture.

For me, culture comes under the scope of nationalism and means the very existence of our people. What we are being threatened to lose now is not merely our culture. More importantly, it is our existence, our desire to establish our political independence by ourselves and for ourselves. It is our nationalism, the very desire that we have been fighting to preserve, protect, and defend for generations and generations. It is our nationalism that many of us once held in our hands, and for its sake we proclaimed right before we resettled: “I am leaving my country and people for a land full of opportunities.”

In a private discussion with a Karen friend of mine, she told me that nationalism can form and deform itself. In other words, people can make it up and destroy it. But, she continued, a collective and common desire for the very existence of our people and to flourish is what constitutes our nationalism.

If returning home to Kawthoolei or Karenni means facing hungry lions, then our remaining people there are already in the caves of hungry lions. So, is there any chance for our nationalism to survive?

If our concern for nationalism is confined to statelessness or being stateless in Thailand, all we will be struggling for is a status. Then, is there any chance for our nationalism in a larger context to survive?

There is no “one” solution for this great concern. I do not have solutions. But there are two things I do not try to do with this discussion: I do not try to suggest anything and I do not blame any group – who remain, who seek status in Thailand, and who resettle in third countries. But I seek for any possibilities that would help us to resolve our dilemma and concern, rather collectively.

I welcome any further comments you might have and I hope that you do not take my propositions as an offence. Read more...

On Culture, Identity and National Survival: A Discussion

By Wahlay Ray

Talking about three choices, we will face hungry lion if we go back to Burma, we will also face unfriendly bear if we are in Thailand (I’m not generalizing the fact). No doubt, third country can be the land of opportunity. Well, talking about loyalty to culture, it is very challenging especially in term of preserving our norms, values, mores and symbol. I have to admit that I have already lost some of the Karen material cultures in the third country. If I myself lost some of those, there is no question for the next generation.

I’m not defining culture as a static element; I'd rather be progressive and dynamic. I do believe that culture can be exchanged between societies, in cultural diffusion. However, the problem is we have tendency to use our culture and belittling of other’s cultures or believe in cultural relativism. Basically what I’m trying to say is, cultural adaptation to technological changes and social invention are also needed to be considered On the other hand, maintaining one’s own culture including identity is an obligation. Wishing you all the best. Read more...

On Culture, Identity and National Survival: A Response

By Hsa June
University of Wisconsin, Riverfalls

Regarding the choices you propose I prefer the first choice. I can see your concern relating to the extinction of our culture in the next coming two or three generation. But, for me, I don't have that much concern. Why? Based on our current situation I don't see the differences between living inside Burma, Thailand, Australia, United States, or European countries. If one's live in Burma or Thailand and still able to preserve the tradition and culture, I believe, living in third countries will not be super difficult to do the same. Those who grow up in Burma speak Burmese and those that are raised in Thailand speak Thai. And I am sure not all of them able to preserve their culture and tradition. Many of us already live in a land where we are homeless and why not take a chance this time and look forward for a better future? I don't mean to abandon our motherland; however, weighing between leaving and staying, the benefit that we will get out from leaving seem heavier to me.

Just for example, if I live in Thailand I know for sure that I can never be able to attend university. You may disagree with me here, but let look at the reality. Let say even if I can attend university in Thailand, I will still have to live under constant threat and fear of the thai authority. Or I may have to buy legal document under someone name to live legally. If I do this, am not supporting corruption? Then, when will the corruption end? Or am I not living under guilt? In the other hand, if one can come to third country, at least he or she is freely to work and support for the family financially. A person can also go to school and have education. I don't think having education will make a person abandon the culture. If a person does that is his or her choice. Not all the seeds will grow, some will die and some will surely survive. My point is I have no fear for the extinction of my culture; rather, I am more concern with the danger where lives have to go through daily constant fear and threat from authority.

Living in Thailand, you never know what will happen the next moment of your life. If you go outside, you have to watch out for the police. They are like a crazy dog; they can bite you at any time. If you cross the gate, you have to raise your arm to give them respect or sometime give them an envelope. And if one can still maintain the culture under this condition, is not easier to maintain culture in third country? I write too much and I will stop here from now. I have more in my mind, but I better go study to pass the test. Read more...

One Culture, Identity and National Survival

A Conversation on Culture and National Survival

This is Neineh Plo of Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, USA. I am new to this discussion group. It is my pleasure to be a part of you this way. I hope our meetings in this particular place will enrich our knowledge and experience, and bring us closer to our people and homeland.

I would like to thank the host of this Karen Issues for accepting me and signing me up to be a member. Thank you.

Regarding the stateless issues the young minorities or hill tribes of Thailand are facing now, I also want to share with you what I wrote to a good friend of mine a few days ago. It is not mainly the stateless issues of the hill tribes in Thailand. But mainly, it is about the plights of our people in refugee camps and their futures.

Neineh Plo

The letter follows:

I talked to some of my good friends in MHS the other day. We talked about our going "home" plans and then, more importantly, about the refugees and the Palat.

As you might have known, the Thai authority’s plan is that it has given the refugees three choices out of which they will have to choose one: to go to a third country, to return to Burma, or to remain in Thailand as the hill tribe people of Thailand.

I think you can pretty much imagine the consequences of each of these three choices. All the choices do not promise a future for our people and our current struggle.

Resettlement in a third country would give our people some sort of opportunities for education and business to live by. But in terms of "nationalism," I don't believe that our people in third countries will survive more than two generations. Even if they do, it will be very weak and dim, and would be able to continue no more than three generations. So, the first choice is not a good choice.

Returning to our country in this time of situation could mean a total vanishing of our people. We can be sure that we are not welcome by the regime for we would not bring any sort of interest it wants. Nowadays, our Karenni resistance movement is not as attractive to it as the KNU's or SSA's is. It is very unlikely that they would care whether we continue or cease fighting it. But this does not mean I have lost faith in my people’s struggle for freedom.

If a "democratic" government like that of Thailand could do such things to systematically eradicate the existence of our people, then the willingness of the racist, chauvinistic, and ethnocentric regime of Burma to do the same thing is out of question. Does my argument make sense? So, the second choice is not a good one either.

Remaining in Thailand with the status of hill tribe people would sound nice and practicable to uncritical ears. But carefully considering the plights of hundreds of thousands of Thai "hill tribe" people, it makes me so sad that our people could become one of them.

First of all, the so-called Thai hill tribe people who hold "green cards" as their identity cards are not considered the citizens of Thailand, and have a much lower class or status than the majority Thais who hold "white card", which indicate that they are "full citizens" of Thailand.

As a result, the green card holders are deprived of their basic human rights very systematically. For example, they cannot go to colleges within Thailand or even finish high schools because of their status. Another example: they cannot leave their townships or territories without the proper permission of their respective authorities who hold "white card." And, it takes a long time for them to acquire full citizenship.

Given these facts about these Thai hill tribe people, it would be so unfortunate for our people to become one of them. And, if we don’t have other choices but to become the hill tribe people of Thailand , then the result is that the survival of our people’s nationalism could end up the same way it would do in the third countries. So, the third choice is not good either.

Then, what is good for us? I don’t know. But I do know that I want to live, and I want my people to live - to live as a “nation,” free and full of dignity. To live as a group of human beings, enjoying all the rights given to us as human beings by nature. Thank you for your time with this long email. I appreciate it very much. My best wishes to you.


Neineh Plo

March 04, 2007

Rethinking the Four Principles

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.”) Read more...