The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]

"Every Karen must be involved in political destiny"
By SAW BA THIN SEIN Thursday, June 1, 2000

KNU Chairman Padoe Saw Ba Thin Sein Interview.

Saw Ba Thin Sein, 73, became chairman of the Karen National Union [KNU] in January this year replacing Gen Bo Mya who led Burma’s oldest insurgency group for almost twenty-five years. Born in 1927 in Henzada and later educated at the American Baptist Mission Karen High School, Ba Thin, unlike his predecessor, is soft-spoken, more civilian looking and at ease with the press. This is not so surprising, as Ba Thin served as head of the educational department from the 1970s to 1980s. He later became general secretary and Prime Minister of the KNU. Irrawaddy editor Aung Zaw spoke with him recently on the Thai-Burma border.

Question: What is the current political situation in Karen State?

Answer: Since the SPDC is refusing to have a political and peaceful settlement and is always demanding us to return to the legal fold, it isn’t possible for us. Returning to the legal fold means surrender. So the political questions for all the ethnic nationalities can’t be settled by returning to the legal fold from what we understand. We always demand that we should meet and have a dialogue whatever the case may be. If it is critical dialogue, we don’t mind because the civil war has been going on for fifty years already. To have reconciliation or to reach an agreement will take time. We would like the international community to be aware of this situation and put all possible pressure on the SPDC to come to the negotiating table and reach a peaceful political settlement. But we will have to try, endeavor with the support and understanding of the democratic forces as well as international community so that we may be able to settle it peacefully.

Q: Being President of the KNU, do you feel under pressure or are you busier than when you served in your previous position? What are your challenges?

A: I stated that even from the very beginning I would like to have an even lighter duty, perhaps not the general secretary (previous position), but maybe some other position because I’m old enough at my age to give assistance and offer advice, but I don’t want to shoulder these heavy duties. But as they elected me, I told them that, yes, since you elected me I will serve as chairman but only with all your support and understanding can we do that. Because from the very beginning the struggle of the Karen people is the struggle of the entire people. One man, one party, or one group cannot lead the struggle and win. Every Karen must be involved in political destiny.

Q: Recent press reports in regional papers and magazines mentioned that after you were elected, there were secret talks between you and the SPDC in Burma.

A: We haven’t had any secret meetings with the SPDC. However, we do have a contact point regarding negotiations, and whenever they want to talk with us, they send representatives.

They [peace brokers] can come and meet us. We met with Khun Myat once and Mah Gay Gyi from Rangoon. They would like us to meet with the leaders of the SPDC. We told them very frankly that the negotiations broke down on account of the ultimatum of the SPDC that we must return to the legal fold. This is the point on which we can’t agree.

Q: What about relations between the KNU and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army?

A: Some of our troops were influenced by the SPDC and persuaded. We have to try and reorganize them and make them understand. They always state that they are also struggling for equality and freedom. Since we both have objectives it is better to be united and struggle together. But the problem is that since they are under the direct control of the SPDC, I think it will take time.

Q: What are your concerns for Karen refugees along the border?

A: Well, the number of refugees along the border increases on account of the SPDC launching attacks all along the border especially in the mountain region such as Taungoo, Nyaunglebin, Thaton, and Hpa-an area districts. That is why many villagers move out of their villages and cross the border to the refugee camps.

Q: What about Internally Displaced Persons in Karen State?

A: In one district report I received recently, there are 8,000 IDPs in Nyaunglebin district area alone hiding in the jungle. They need clothes, medicine and rice. So we are telling NGOs what they can do and asking the Karen community around the world to assist.

Q: We have a report that the International Committee of the Red Cross [ICRC] recently visited Karen State including areas controlled by the KNU. Was there any agreement between the ICRC and the KNU?

A: We don’t have any particular agreement with the ICRC yet. But the ICRC met us once before moving into the KNU area. We told them very frankly that if they move out from the capital of Karen State, they have to move out by themselves with their own ICRC flag and they cannot come with SPDC troops and that we will try to contact them wherever they arrive if they give us information. There shouldn’t be any troops accompanying them whenever they move. They understand the situation. We recently received information that they came to the Paloo area. They stayed there only one day with one car. So next time they want to come see the situation by themselves, we cannot object because they have permission given by the SPDC. If the SPDC can give them permission why can’t the KNU because the KNU are the ones suffering the oppression from the SPDC troops. So I would like them to see for themselves, with their own eyes what is happening in the KNU area. That’s why we agree. The only thing is that if they want to move in and out, they must inform us of the number of people in the party and who the driver is.

Q: If the ICRC helps IDPs do you think more Karen will go back and settle in Burma?

A: I don’t think so, but still to a certain extent there will be some Karen people staying because the ICRC have told us that they would be responsible for feeding these refugees and they would prevent them from becoming forced porters or forced laborers and that they would not be forcibly moved out from their villages. I told them all along the border area, maybe in some villages you will be able to do this. But I told them that the root problem in Burma is a political problem and that unless and until you can solve this main problem this will be a temporary measure for the villagers only.

Q: What is the KNU policy towards drugs, especially yaa baa (methamphetamines)?

A: From the very beginning, the KNU has been against drug trafficking and producing. Anyone found in possession of drugs is given a very severe penalty, including capital punishment. So no one grows poppies in our area. There are no traffickers in our area, but still we observe with great concern that now drug trafficking along the border area is on the rise. We know that this drug is destroying our younger generation and that it is very dangerous. Moreover, we understand that the SPDC is planning this very systematically using the ethnic Wa group to spread out in all ethnic areas. So we have to be very cautious and serious about this.

Q: We have also heard that young Karen refugees are becoming addicted to yaa baa and also that the Wa, particularly the United Wa State Army [UWSA] who reached a cease-fire with the SPDC, are moving into Karen State.

A: We found that many young Karen people have become drug addicts. This is not a good sign for the younger generation. We also received information that there are some groups moving along the border area connected with this drug problem. So we are making inquiries about this.

Q: Are they civilians or troops?

A: They are not troops, the troops cannot move like this but agents can—we don’t know who is who. We continue to investigate and make inquiries.

Q: There was a report in the Far Eastern Economic Review that Thai and former members of the British Special Air Services were involved in training ethnic Karen from Burma in order to combat drug trafficking in along the border. Is this true?

A: We have no money to hire these kinds of men. No, because we have so many friends, who are courageous and give us training since the Manerplaw days. There are some Australians and some British and we don’t have to pay these volunteers money. You can’t stop them. We need friends. . . . But this time we don’t see anyone coming. Not very recently.

Q: What is Thai government policy at the moment? Are they giving you a hard time?

A: Burma is a neighboring country. As a government it is very normal to have friendly relationships with neighboring countries. But maybe time will change this. As the situation is developing and the Thais have to change their policy from time to time accordingly.

Q: The media suggests that the Thais pressured the KNU leaders to reach a deal.

A: This is the speculation, but actually no Thai officials have pressured us as they understand the situation very well.

Q: What about the flexible engagement policy initiated by Thailand? Is it good or bad?

A: I think it is favorable compared with constructive engagement.

Q: What do you think of Asean’s policy towards Burma?

A: I quite appreciate the efforts of the leaders of Asean. I think politically they try to change the situation as much as they can but I think there is no progress at all. Some Asean countries are disappointed and discouraged. I’d urge the Asean leaders to push on and try to give as much pressure as they can to force the Burmese leaders to come to the negotiating table for reconciliation and political settlement with ethnic groups as well as democratic forces.

Q: What do you think of rumors that Sr Gen Than Shwe may resign and Maung Aye may become head of SPDC?

A: I don’t know. They are the military dictators. They are in the same boat.

Q: Who do you think would be easier for ethnic leaders to deal with, Gen Maung Aye or Lt Gen Khin Nyunt?

A: Politically I think they are the same. You can’t judge them by their activities or their speeches.

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