The Monk in Command
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Friday, October 07, 2022


The Monk in Command


Burmese migrants work on a construction project in Sangkhalaburi, western Thailand. (PHOTO: Lawi Weng)
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A significant part of the Karen-on-Karen conflict is that the Pwo Karen, mainly Buddhist and often the poorest segment of society, feel that the better educated and wealthier Karen have suppressed them since colonial times. The last straw was the denial of a long-time request for a pagoda to be built in Manerplaw.

In December 1994 and 1995, entire KNLA regiments broke away to form the DKBA, which now numbers about 6,000 soldiers. Ill feelings grew against the mostly Christian leadership of the KNU, and DKBA troops attacked Christian settlements, even in Thailand, and eventually joined forces with the Burmese army to overrun Manerplaw in 1995.

When the fighting started, U Thuzana withdrew, saying he would conduct a 49-month retreat, a move that was seen as a way to distance himself from directly generating violence, illustrating the dilemma of a politically engaged Buddhist monk.

Since then, the DKBA has been used as an instrument of the Burmese army in its repression of the KNU. Both sides have been accused of committing atrocities and crimes against Karen civilians.

However, during this time U Thuzana and his followers have gradually managed to improve civil society, constructing roads, schools and health clinics, as well as new villages. They provide vegetarian food for the   workers. The recruitment by DKBA soldiers may not be altogether voluntary, but supporters say the workers are not punished or killed, a charge frequently leveled at the Burmese army.

U Thuzana’s supporters say that he has created an area of relative peace and nonviolence, a “Buddhaland,” which the Burmese army is reluctant to enter. He has also rejected honorary Buddhist titles offered by the junta-controlled sangha [monkhood] establishment. His Karen followers call him Phu Ga Cha, “Lord Grandfather,” signifying his leadership role and his power.

One of the esoteric elements of his charisma lies in his claim to have discovered a lost Karen alphabet called Lei Tjaung Hwei (Pwo Karen: “Letters of Chicken Scratch”). It is also called Lei Gwae Gau’ after the 19th century Karen cultural hero and rebel Mìn Laùng, who fought the British. An old prophecy said, “If letters are discovered, the Pwo and the Sgaw Karen will reunite; the chicken will roost on Gwae Ga Baung mountain (Zwe Kabin near Pa-an, the center of Karen culture) and the gong will sound.” In other words, U Thuzana will look after his people, create peace and call upon all Karen to unite.

In the imagination of many Karen, the alphabet is a sign of U Thuzana’s powers, stemming from the Karen myth of the lost book of knowledge in which the lord of the universe (Yuah Ga Cha) gave knowledge to the Burmese, Thai, Mon, Karen, and foreigners, all of whom managed to preserve it, except for the Karen.

Recently, U Thuzana has been treated in hospital in Bangkok , suffering from a lung condition. He keeps in close contact with his followers, and he reportedly held a meeting with KNU officials late last year and proposed a cease-fire between the KNU and the DKBA.

In these troubled and volatile times in Karen State, observers wonder if a charismatic Buddhist monk who played an integral part in the Karen divorce could now be a pathway  to Karen reconciliation, in a time when the military regime is demanding that the DKBA bows to its wishes and becomes a border guard force.

Mikael Gravers is an anthropologist at Aarhus University in Denmark. Since 1970, he has conducted fieldwork among the Karen.

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