KAREN UNITY SEMINAR

(May 17 to 22, 2010)

Presentation by Saw D. Tharckabaw, KNU

Question of Unity & Victory

Preamble

In our struggle for freedom, justice, democracy and peace, we all know that unity of each party, as well as all parties involved in the struggle, is necessary for early, final victory. For one reason or another, the struggle has dragged on and the unity we seek is still unrealized. However, the circumstances are now more favorable for the unity we have been seeking and it is time for all of us to make utmost effort to achieve solid unity and early victory.

The first and most important element for unity is unity of thought. From unity of thought, we derive unity of purpose and action, cooperation and coordination within each party and among all the parties to build up the necessary force and support for gaining victory.

Remember that victory against the enemy does not mean the end of our struggle. We will have to struggle on to build up the kind of freedom, justice, democracy and peace the people need and constantly be vigilant to protect them. Solid unity will still be necessary when we are in the process to reconstruct our country.

Brief Historical Development

“Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” says Santayana, a well known philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist. Knowledge of history is essential for us if we are to avoid past mistakes, deception by the enemy and to chart a viable course for our struggle and the nation.

The pre-British Burma had been a military and feudal empire. It covered effectively only the middle and lower parts of the Irrawaddy valley, the Sittang valley, the Taninthayi and the Rakhine costal strips. Partly, the British annexed Burma into its empire in 1885-86, because Burman feudalism was far out of touch with the time. (The Burman feudal regime launched military attacks on Assam, Manipur and Bengal, which were part of British India. At the ascension to the throne of Pagan Min and Thibaw Min, 100 and 60 members of royalty respectively were murdered, in a plan to get rid of rivalries to the throne.)

The Burman nationalists, during the movement for independence in the 30s, hated the British colonialists partly for civilizing the non-Burman nationalities, especially the Karen people whom the Burman regarded as a backward people, good only for forced labor, toiling on land and paying heavy taxes. The Karen looked upon the British as their liberators from oppressive rule of the Burman feudalism. (Actually, it was the American Baptist missionaries, who mainly Christianized the Karen, invented written languages, set up schools for them and introduced a stronger sense of community.)

Burman extremists, like Ne Win, hated the Karen for having become civilized and partly not opposing the British colonialism. He is suspected of being responsible for the slaughter of Karen people by the BIA troops in the Irrawaddy Delta, in the early days of Japanese occupation of Burma in 1942. (During that time of the Karen-Burman racial strife, Aung San, head of the BIA, was away in Myitkyina, in northern Burma with the Japanese advance guard.)

In the negotiation for independence with the British, Aung San agreed to have the Karen general, Smith Dun, to be head of the Burma armed forces. (Aung San did not get along well with power monger Ne Win. He at one point dismissed Ne Win from service for co-signing with the British C-in-C, the declaration of the liberation of Rangoon, without informing him.)

In the early days of independence, the Karen people were demanding peacefully to designate the Irrawaddy Delta as the Karen State. (Before he was assassinated, Aung San had promised to consider designation of the Delta as a Karen State and full equality to the Karen. The expression ‘Karen one Kyat, Burman one Kyat’ was said by Aung San. The Karen demonstrators in 1948 used it as one of their slogans.) Ne Win used his pocket army troops (Sit-wun-dan) to attack Karen villages in Tavoy-Mergui District at Christmas time of December 1948. In the middle of January 1949, his pocket army troops attacked and burnt down Karen quarters in Ahlone, Rangoon. When Ne Win’s troops started attack on the Karen quarters of Insein, where the KNU headquarters was located, the Karen had no choice but to take up arms and resist, and thus the Karen resistance started as a self-defense action. In a sense, the Karen resistance is still a self-defense action up to this day. However, since it has to seek a system change, it may aptly be termed as the ‘Karen revolutionary resistance’. 

Ne Win relieved the Karen general from the service and assumed the position of head of the Burma armed forces, before the Insein battle started. Apparently, he intended to wipe out the Karen resistance, in a few months’ time. The Insein battle, where more than 2,000 government troops were pitted against the 400 Karen defenders, lasted 111 days. Soon after the Insein battle started, Karen regular army troops, the armed police and the militia in different places rose up in arms.

After the battle of Insein, arms and ammunition were running low for the Burma army. Ne Win dressed up his pocket army troops in Karen soldier uniforms and wiped out a Burman village. He accused the Karen rebels of committing the carnage and took members of the foreign diplomatic missions and the press to the scene of atrocities. That was how Ne Win resorted to wicked means to receive assistance in arms and ammunition from India, Pakistan and the British. (In the negotiation for independence, the British had agreed to give Burma military assistance to fight communist insurgency.)

During the Cold War period which started right after the Second WW, U Nu, the idealist, wanted Burma to be strictly neutral. He was on friendly terms with the likes of Chou En Lai, Ho Chi Min, Nehru, and Sukarno, who were either communists or left-leaning statesmen. The Western Camp, especially the US was very uncomfortable about Burma’s policy. In the 50s, the US strategists came up with the ‘Domino Theory’ which presented a scenario of the South-East Asian countries falling one after another to communist domination. In this geopolitical development, power monger Ne Win became a candidate for involvement in the scheme of the Western Camp (WC) to contain China and communism.

Militarist Ne Win took advantage of the geopolitical situation of the time for financial and arms aid from the WC. He seized state power in 1962 from Prime Minister U Nu, who returned to power with a landslide victory in 1960 elections. Ne Win received massive financial and military assistance from the WC - the US, West Germany, UK, Japan etc. With the backing of the WC, his confidence rose and made a pretense of negotiation for peace in 1963. Ne Win had no plan to address the problems of the civil war, politically. The apparent peace parley was actually Ne Win’s strategy to demand surrender and divide the rebel forces. One Karen faction, the KRC, and one communist faction, the Red Flag, surrendered.

The SPDC Military Dictatorship

The undeclared agenda of the military dictatorships from the time of Ne Win up to this day is to build the ‘Fourth Burman Empire’, through military conquest and total subjugation all the multi-ethnic peoples, like in the feudal days. Hence, the dictatorship is in fact totally against democracy, federalism and the ethnic rights to autonomy. The ideology is so reactionary that the dictatorships end up oppressing its own Burman people.
With greater military might, leaders of the dictatorship have become megalomaniac. Like in the feudal days, they believe in astrology, forced labor, total control of the people, the land and natural resources, total elimination of opposition and the use of lies, trickery and deceit as a standard strategy in dealing with friends and foes alike. The motto of the Burmese Army, hung up on the walls of the officer mess halls, reads ‘All is Fair in Love and War’, or in other words, ‘Might is Right’. That is why, the present dictator, Than Shwe, is making utmost effort to produce nuclear bombs, even though it is plain to see that his objective is unachievable.
Income from sales of the natural resources, such as natural gas, timber and minerals have gone mainly into the white elephant projects such as the building of Nay Pyi Daw, nuclear bomb production, setting up high-tech communication system, buying MIG 29s and ballistic missiles etc. and into the pockets of the generals. The SPDC dictatorship’s ‘Road Map to Democracy’ is just a plan to perpetuate the military rule, in another guise. It will rig the upcoming elections to make sure that its proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) win a landslide victory.

The new government dominated by the military leaders will have the same political ideology and policies as those of the SPDC. The military elite will continue to control totally the political power, all the peoples, the lands, the natural resources, means of production, and the economy.

The armed forces of the dictatorship have been falsely reported to be 400,000-500,000 strong. The armed forces have many units, but the personnel including those of the army, navy, air force, the militia, police and fire brigade, do not exceed 120,000. Its armed forces are suffering seriously from desertion and demoralization. There is power struggle at the higher levels, as usual in a system of absolute dictatorship. The top men like Than Shwe and Maung Aye are always assailed by doubt and mistrust of their own men. Many officers at the lower levels are dissatisfied, because they are made to serve in the frontlines, without sufficient support, while the top generals and their relatives are amassing riches and living in unusual comfort.

The upcoming elections will surely intensify rivalry and power struggle within the military establishment. For many leaders of the dictatorship, the upcoming elections must project a very uncertain future. An open split may occur within the higher ranks.

State of the People

Mismanagement of the economy and oppressive rule by the dictatorship have caused severe social and economic hardships to the majority of people. Most of the people can barely maintain a hand-to-mouth existence, due to lack of employment, rising commodity prices and rampant inflation. Corruption among government officials, petty crimes, human trafficking, drugs abuse among the youths and spread of the dreaded HIV/AIDS are on the rise.

There are some opposition parties with the unrealistic expectation of sharing power with the military dictatorship through appeasement and collaboration with the military dictatorship by participation in the upcoming elections. At best, these parties will get only a few parliamentary seats, allowed by the dictatorship as a token of opposition, and end up as ineffective opposition in the dictatorship’s parliament. The danger of these parties’ act is giving legitimacy to the criminal dictatorship through their policy of appeasement and collaboration.

The people want to get rid of the dictatorship by any means possible. They have reached even to the point of being ready to accept any domestic or foreign forces that will liberate them from the oppressive rule of the military dictatorship. The non- registration of the NLD as a political party and thus boycott of the elections by it is a tactical move. It will remain as a political force for change, in one form or another. It will continue to push for dialogue and national reconciliation, by non-violent means.

State of the KNU

As it has been mentioned in the preamble, the conflict between the Burman extremists and the Karen people is a longstanding one. The KNU, formed in 1947 by the merger of 4 separate Karen organizations, has been leading the Karen people’s armed struggle for freedom and rights of the ethnic nationalities for more than 61 years now. It is certain that the KNU will have to continue to lead the more than eight million Karen people and their struggle until the Burman military dictatorship is eliminated, in one way or another.

In the 61 years of struggle, the KNU has gone through many difficulties. There had been two major splits, once in 1963 and another time in 1994. The KNU had to abandon the Irrawaddy Delta, where the majority of the Karen people live, by 1975. The present KNU area consists of the Karen State, Thaton District of Mon State and Tavoy-Mergui District. The KNU remains a leading organization for the Karen people’s struggle because of support from the majority of the Karen people.

The KNU had met for talks with the ruling Burman regimes in power, on five separate occasions, in accordance with its policy of trying to resolve political problems by political means. Each time, the Burman regime in power refused to talk about the grievances of the Karen people and just made a demand for surrender, under different names such as ‘exchanging arms for democracy, for peace, for development, entering the legal fold & etc. As a result, all the talks failed.

At one time, the KNLA, the armed wing of the KNU, was more than 20,000 strong. Now, it is about 10,000 strong, including the local militia and home guard forces. The KNLA still can manage to carry on resistance quite effectively, in spite of shortages of arms, ammunition and equipment. The summary report on military activities of 2009 in KNU areas shows that there were 1016 clashes. For the death of one KNLA soldier, there were more than 63 dead on the enemy side. For one wounded on the KNLA side, there were 130 wounded on the enemy side.

As before, gross human rights violations by troops of the Burman dictatorship in the KNU areas are widespread. Human rights violations are in the form of torture and executions of innocent villagers on accusation of being rebel agents, burning down villages, destruction of harvests and rice barns, cutting down orchards, forced labor, forced relocation, looting of properties, extortion of money and domestic animals, intimidation of villagers by indiscriminate shooting, beating and killing of innocent villagers and rape of women. As a result, more than 100,000 Karen have to take refuge in Thailand, in 5 refugee camps. Not less than half a million Karen are surviving as immigrant workers, in neighboring countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. In addition, there are about 250,000 internal refugees, who are officially known as ‘internally displaced persons’ (IDP).

The International Community

The international community led by the UN has consistently condemned the dictatorship for widespread human rights violations and urged for dialogue and national reconciliation. The groups led by the US have employed trade and economic sanctions to pressure the dictatorship for the same ends.

With the hope of transforming Burma into a market for their manufactured goods and investment, some EU countries through their NGOs with huge funds, have been pressuring or encouraging formation of factions among the opposition forces, to urge for appeasement and collaboration with the military dictatorship. They preach the ideology of peace and development in cooperation with the dictatorship, for gradual change. This has caused a split among the ethnic as well as the democratic forces.

The international community generally views the upcoming elections as a farce. The way the dictatorship has conducted its Road Map, starting from organization of the National Convention, adoption of the 2008 Constitution, unfair treatment of the opposition parties and issue of unfairly framed party registration and election laws has not given the international community any reason to believe that the country is headed for peace and stability. It is most likely that the dictatorship will ignore the international community’s call for a fair, transparent and inclusive general election. As a result, the international community will have no option but to refuse to recognize the election results and continue its pressure for positive change. 

Ethnic & Democratic Forces on the Border

The ethnic and democratic forces led by the National council of the Union of Burma (NCUB) formed in 1988 after the urban democratic movement was crushed by the military dictatorship, has been under attack for its policy of pressure and confrontation by the Appeasement and Collaborationist Camp. However, it still commands respect of the majority of ethnic as well as the democratic organizations.

The National Democratic Front (NDF), an ethnic umbrella organization, is a member organization of the NCUB. It remains true to the principles of equality and self-determination for all the ethnic nationalities, genuine federal system and democracy.

True to the traditional politics of Burma, there has been the multiplication of groups on the border, as the struggle drags on. The idea of strong and broad based alliance has taken roots. The original broad based alliance, the NCUB, has to tolerate, or accommodate the development, in the hope of maintaining unity of the ethnic and democratic forces. At the present, there is talk of the ten-group alliance. More groups are likely to appear.

Whatever the number of new groups, the NCUB is bound to lead in maintaining unity of the ethnic and democratic forces and continue its strategy of mass movement, self-defense, international pressure and dialogue for national reconciliation, for the removal of the military dictatorship, establishment of genuine democracy and federalism, and peace.

Conclusion

As usual in an absolute dictatorship out of synch with the modern time and with reactionary ideology and policies, the SPDC is facing with many contradictions which are internal as well as external in nature. Boycott of the election by the NLD and rejection of its Border Guard Force (BGF) plan by major ethnic cease-fire organizations are a serious blow to its plan for perpetuating military rule.
In a blind thrust for the perpetuation of its power, the SPDC will continue to carry out, to conclusion, its so-called ‘Road Map to Disciplined Democracy’. However, the further it goes, the more will be the resistance to it, from the domestic and the international forces for freedom and peace. The Burma armed forces (or Tadmadaw), the very power base of the SPDC, is liable to breakup under the strain of corruption, mismanagement and internal power struggle sooner than later. 

The struggle of the Karen people, together with other ethnic and democratic forces, against the military dictatorship of Burma, is long and hard. It is regrettable to see that some of us have been swayed by the enemy’s lies and pro-SPDC propaganda, especially the line urging us to abandon the principles of Saw Ba U Gyi and to appease and cooperate with the dictatorship.

Remember that Saw Ba U Gyi had tried his best to resolve the problems by peaceful means. Out of sincerity, he went to see U Nu and Ne Win for peace talk, without preconditions, during the battle of Insein. However, the enemy did not honor his sincerity and tried to detain him. He had a hard time to wiggle out of the trap, with a subterfuge.

He laid down the four basic principles of Karen resistance, when he realized the hidden policies and agenda of the enemy. He assured us that the Karen resistance could never fail so long as all the Karen did not go down to Rangoon and put their necks on the chopping block. His vision of the Karen people gaining their freedom surely was to be in any one of the three ways – as a gift, by right of conquest or by force of circumstances.

In spite of changes in time, the ‘Four Principles of Saw Ba U Gyi’ are still relevant to our present situation and struggle. It is essential that all the Karen people firmly uphold the Four Principles for solid unity and struggle on resolutely for final victory, without any doubt and wavering. 

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Karen National Union