The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
Karens at the Crossroads
By SAW KAPI Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The people of Burma are now living through what is to become one of the most defining times in the modern history of the country. Karen people in particular stand at the crossroads of a resistance movement that has been unwaveringly led by the Karen National Union (KNU) for more than half a century. But the question for us is: where do we go from here?

We begin with, the premise that the Karen people’s support for the KNU isn’t confined to the rural areas of Kawthoolei, or Karen State, where armed resistance has been concentrated. The vast majority of Karen people throughout the country look up to the KNU as a national political body, not simply a Thai-Burmese border-based organization. And they, not just the KNU leadership, prefer a political solution to the half-century old armed conflict.

In fact, in the advent of economic globalization and the digital world, the Karen's struggle for self-determination and ethnic equality cannot be viewed exclusively in terms of politics. We, as a movement, must confront cold realities and, while contending the powerful currents of socially rapacious and, at times, uncaring cooperation between governments, make the best use of emerging opportunities that the geo-political circumstances, geo-economic trends, and technological advancement of the day bring.

Given the political trend being developed inside the country and regionally, most Karens generally know that the KNU has no choice but to negotiate a ceasefire agreement with the new Burmese government. But, many in the Karen community think that the terms (referring to the 11 points) of the ceasefire agreement are utterly deficient and lacking details. The author of this short essay personally thinks the KNU should have negotiated and included in agreement the following:

  • The freedom to meet, greet and campaign among the Karen population so as to build the strength and image of the KNU as a true representative of Karen people everywhere, not just along the Thai-Burmese border.
  • The independence to meet, discuss and work with other democratic organizations and parties, including the NLD.
  • The legal authority to run and develop education and economic institutions within the negotiated area.
  • The freedom to set up its political offices (not liaison offices) in Karen State.
  • Along with a cessation in fighting, the terms of agreement should include termination of all activities that support the movement of troops and military supplies in clearly defined areas.

None of these items was included in the 11-point plan tabled by the KNU. In the absence of these points, Gen. Htain Maung and his KNU/KNLA Peace Council perhaps asked to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi who has the right to freely associate with anyone who wants to work with the NLD. So, they met. It appears as though the KNU/KNLA Peace Council is ahead of the KNU in the political game, and that it, not the KNU, is leading Karen affairs. Some questioned the NLD’s motive in meeting with the group. To me, it is our own weakness that we did not handle our own affairs well.

While the KNU is the organization that has been leading the Karen armed resistance, we should recognize that several Karen groups and individuals have emerged in the last decades and played their role throughout these years for the survival and development of our people. The emergence of numerous interest groups and development organizations that aim to strive for the social, economic and political advancement of Karen people must be seen as healthy products of a given historical period.

On the other hand, due to oppressive political environments inside the country, many Karens have left their cherished homeland and migrated to Thailand and elsewhere. But, despite this physical distance and differences in socio-political and intellectual orientation, the majority of Karen people share a common vision: to have ethnic equality and a right to self-determination within a genuine Union of Burma. Varying experiences and the difficulties related to the conditions under which our people have to live and operate have created possibilities for divisions. These must be resolved through open debates and deliberation with the view toward resolving natural differences that may, and do, exist within any social or political community.

Nevertheless, the KNU has yet to seek or ask for the opportunity to meet with other Karen civil society groups and other armed splinter groups such as the DKBA or the KNU/KNLA Peace Council. We have not yet seen any public statement that the KNU is willing to seek consultation from and therefore representation for the vast Karen population inside the country.

Change is a process, not a onetime deal or a single agreement. Each step that we take, nonetheless, should pave way for the next step so that we can move forward. So far, it appears that the KNU leadership has been un-strategic in every step it has taken.

The Karen movement is at a crossroads. Generations to come will judge us on the decisions we make today when choosing which direction to take. The current, fast-changing state of affairs in Burma is a test to the ability of the KNU and its leadership.

As far as this author is concerned, there is an urgent need for the Karens to produce a new generation of leadership that is capable of looking beyond the same voices that recycle the old mantras or prescribe the same solutions. We need a national leadership that can grasp the complex dynamics of ethnicity, and yet stay attuned to the regional political situation of this increasingly interconnected world. We need a leadership that is not only committed to the Karen’s collective vision of self-determination, but that is also skillful and inventive in policy-making, intellectually and strategically flexible, and capable of adapting to and taking advantage of new developments in Burma, the region and the world.

Saw Kapi, a former political activist and an ethnic Karen from Burma, is a university administrator currently working as the Director of Admissions and Records at California State University, Bakersfield.

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