December 16, 2009

I wish you a Happy Karen New Year

KAREN NEW YEAR 2749: New Year in a New Place and a New Phase of Life

Please accept my best wishes for the New Year. This is a season when we, the Karen people, should take stock of our past, while we also plan for the future. Like many other nations in the world, we need to constantly assess our heritage while moving forward in a new environment, and often in a new country. One of the great symbols of our people's heritage is the collective celebration of our Karen New Year day.

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, Karen leaders decided to start counting the chronology from the time Karen people completed their second phase of migration to the land now known as Burma, BC 739.

The Karen New Year celebrations in some ways are expressions of collectivism among the 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.

Fifteen years ago who would have imagined that we would be celebrating Karen New Year in such place as Omaha (NE), St. Paul (MN), Utica (NY) and Philadelphia (PA)? Although there were some Karens residing in the United Sates at that time, the number of Karen living abroad was not significant enough to establish a strong sense of community. But this situation has changed almost entirely within the last decade. Thousands of Karens, young and old, have left their homeland and immigrated to several countries in Asia, Europe and continental America. Consequently, Karen community organizations – religious, social or otherwise – are mushrooming in many countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, Norway, Canada, England and the United States of America. Speaking from a historical perspective, this emigration (or forced emigration, depending on how you look at it) of Karen people to different parts of the world is the biggest and most significant since the time they left Mongolia in B.C. 2017 and made their way eastwards to Yunnan and eventually migrated to today's Burma in BC 739.

In general, resettling in a third country resolves immediate security issue we have to face at the Thai-Burma border: many of us are able to escape from fear, especially of attacks, persecution and abuses by the Burmese military. Not only are we able to escape from the confinement of small makeshift camps, but we are be able to develop a new sense of permanent residence in the new, respective host countries. And, if carefully pursued, there are greater economic and educational opportunities we can pursue in the country we are in today.

I look back 16 years and recall the day my family and I arrived at the San Francisco International Airport as refugees from Burma. I can only tell you that, in this country, you can achieve almost anything you aim to achieve if you work hard and stay focused toward your goal. And, have no doubt that education, especially higher education, will be a ticket to your success, career or otherwise.

Since the founding of the United States, refugees from every continent have settled in this country of immigrants. In the early years, immigrants came largely from the British Isles and Northern and Southern Europe. Just like most Karen refugees today, some early immigrants also came as forced immigrants—indentured servants from Europe, enslaved peoples from Africa, and contract laborers from China and Japan.

Some of the most successful people – such as Albert Einstein, Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright – were themselves refugees at one time, who immigrated to the U.S. because of political persecution in their own countries. One thing all these successful people have in common is that they all seek education and make it their number one priority despite of enormous challenges they had to face in their new country.

It is undeniable that resettling in the United States gives us an unprecedented access to economic and educational opportunities that we would not get otherwise. It may be quite struggling at the beginning for some of us with no foundational language skill or basic education. It is not unusual that many of you may not be able to start pursuing education during your first year. But if properly planned, those of us with some form of formal education background may continue to pursue your education in this country. In the United States, after one year of arrival, those of you – 18 years of age or above, who have finished high school in our homeland – may be able to start our schooling at a local community college. It may be difficult to attend college full time while supporting yourself or your family, but certainly, it will be a good idea to pursue a part time education, while working full time. We in exile should take advantage of our position and help raise the profile of our people's struggle. In order to do that, young Karens in exile should explore laws, international relations, political science, etc. Through education we can be prepared to face the challenges our people face in the 21st century. A good Karen lawyer, for example, can present the case of genocide against Karen people before the International Criminal Court. We can also seek formal education and obtain professional skills, such as computer science, law, business administration, economics, accounting, and etc. and help their own people in the areas that we are skilled and knowledgeable. At the very least, we can work hard, save money, and remit a portion of what we earn to the needy Karen IDPs, families of Karen soldiers, or refugees. Most Karens are already doing this, I believe. While each individual effort cannot be underestimated, Karens in exile can be more effective by making a collective effort to organize fundraising campaigns and developing a systematic distribution mechanism with accountability.

To date, according to the Overseas Processing Entity (OPE) in Bangkok, approximately 12, 800 Karen refugees have been resettled in the different cities in the U.S, with some notable concentrations in Utica (New York), St. Paul (Minnesota) and Chapel Hill (North Carolina). Several thousands more are also scattered in countries such as Australia, Canada, Norway and Sweden.

The changing political and demographic conditions dictate that when we talk about Karen identity and Karen national progress, it cannot be narrowly confined within the scope of one ideological assembly, one geographic area, one religion or one linguistic group. It is critical that we construct the broadest possible Karen identity that is capable of accommodating multiple ideas, diverse backgrounds and a variety of cultural characteristics.

In the end, our given history compels us to tread on the path of this unfinished struggle – a struggle for national coherence and advancement. It is critically necessary that we continue on with a sense of pragmatism and far-sighted vision. The future of Karen people will be much brighter if we can avoid dwelling in our own feeling of insecurity, but focus on achieving excellence in seeking knowledge and developing our expertise.

It is time for us to embrace the kind of national consciousness that encourages Karen people to think, to reason, to question, to learn, to compete, to cooperate and to be creative in this increasingly interconnected world. The world we live in is a competitive world. The economy we are compelled to be a part of is a knowledge-based economy. It is in these contexts that, I believe, we must seek to develop and adopt a true, meaningful and peaceful existence in this New Year and many years to come.

May this New Year bring you new ideas, new perspectives and new vision that would lead you to see peace in our homeland and the world around you! Mar-nay Aw-keh Buh-duh Buh-dah!

Saw Kapi
December 16, 2009