Saturday, January 31, 2009

Forever at the Frontline

The Irrawaddy News

January 31 marks the 60th anniversary of one of Asia’s oldest rebel movements—the Karen National Union (KNU). It is a day commemorated by Karen people all around the world.

A Karen soldier at the frontline. (Photo: Steve Sandford)

Since it declared war on the central government in 1949—shortly after Burma declared independence from Great Britain—the KNU has faced a great many ups and downs during its six-decade fight for autonomy.

It is undergone rifts and splits, and breakaway Karen groups have emerged. It suffered defeat at the hands of the Burmese army and in 1995 was forced to abandon its jungle fortress at Manerplaw on the Thai- Burmese border. Its aging leadership is fading away while the number of Karen refugees continues to grow. Discontent is high among the Karen population and thousands of families are currently resettling in Western countries under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee (UNHCR).

However, unlike so many other armed insurgent groups, the KNU has steadfastly refused to sign a ceasefire agreement with the Rangoon government.

When the KNU’s founding father, Saw Ba U Gyi, established the rebel movement in 1949, he unveiled his “Four Principles” of resistance: “There shall be no surrender; The recognition of the Karen State must be completed; We shall retain our arms; and We shall decide our own political destiny.”

The KNU has locked itself to those principles through thick and thin for 60 years.

In 1995, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) split from the KNU and joined forces with the Burmese army. Manerplaw fell soon after. The KNU, led by Gen Bo Mya, scattered while its civilian population joined the exodus into Thai border refugee camps. The KNU lost their only true sources of income: logging and taxation.

After fighting the Burmese army for 30 years, KNU commander Tha Mu He and hundreds of his followers surrendered to the regime in April 1997.

He told journalists and diplomats that he split from the KNU because of the failed peace talks between the Burmese junta and his mother organization in 1994 and the realization that the conflict would continue indefinitely.

One year later, Phado Aung San, a central executive member of the KNU, and hundreds of his followers also surrendered to the Rangoon government. He gave the same reasons for laying down his weapons as Tha Mu He had.

Then in early 2007, another splinter group reached a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese regime. Known as the KNU/ KNLA Peace Council and led by Maj-Gen Htein Maung, it included around 300 defecting KNU soldiers.

Brig-Gen Johnny, head of KNLA Brigade 7, said that Karen breakaway leaders who had reached ceasefire agreements with the Burmese regime had betrayed their people and their comrades who had died for the Karen revolution.

“We have to carry on the unfinished duty for our people. If we give up, it is as if we were betraying our comrades and our leaders who have died for us,” said Brig-Gen Johnny.

“Our enemy [the Burmese military regime] is trying to divide us every day. We have to be united and always be careful,” he said.

Meanwhile, the DKBA has boasted that its forces will overrun the KNU’s military wing, the KNLA, by 2010.

The target of its operation would appear to be Kawkareik Township in southern Karen State, which is rich in gold, teak forest, antimony, zinc and tin. Sources from both the KNU and the DKBA circles have said that the DKBA seeks to control the regions that do business with the Thai authorities.

However, the KNU leadership, as always, remains resolute.

KNLA Battalion 201 Maj Bu Paw acknowledged recently that the DKBA would attack his battalion in Kawkareik and try to seize its military bases, but stated: “The DKBA can not defeat us.”

Assassinations among the KNU and the breakaways groups have increased since 2007.

On February 14 last year, KNU General-Secretary Mahn Shah was gunned down by two men at his home in Mae Sot, Thailand.

Mahn Sha had been widely respected, not only by ethnic Karen people, but by most democratic alliance groups and individuals who have participated in the pro-democracy movement for Burma.

Aung Thu Nyein, a Burmese political analyst and former senior leader of the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front, blogged: “It is necessary for the new KNU leadership to quickly stop the assassinations and divisions among Karen people.

“It is time for the KNU to reestablish unity among the Karen people,” he said.

The newly appointed joint secretary (1), Maj Hla Ngwe, admitted the divisions among KNU leaders and said that the Burmese regime had cleverly manipulated the KNU.

“We have had weaknesses and divisions in the past. That is natural. It can happen in any party or organization. But, we should learn from these events and ensure it doesn’t happen in the future,” he said.

Brig-Gen Johnny agreed, but was more cynical. “It is not because our enemy is clever, it is because we are not clever,” he said.

Breakaway groups have been quick to criticizing their former patrons, claiming that they now enjoy improved living conditions.

DKBA Chairman Tha Htoo Kyaw once said that the KNU had been poor since 1949. He said that his followers who had settled in Myaing Gyi Ngu village, on the bank of the Salween River, enjoyed peace, an improving economy, proper education and a healthcare system since splitting from the KNU.

“The path we chose has been beneficial to the Karen in the area,” he was quoted as saying.

Meanwhile, several voices from the overseas Karen community have been vocal in criticizing the KNU leadership for its inactivity in both the political and military arenas.

Some claim that the KNU’s policy of self-defense is not enough to protect the Karen civilians and the impact on Karen civilians who are internally displaced in Karen State.

As the conflict between the Karen rebels and the Burmese army goes on, observers say the problem of internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugees will continue unabated.

There are about 451,000 IDPs in Karen State, according to a 2008-released report by the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC). The report stated that since 1996 about 3,300 villages in Karen State have been destroyed by the Burmese army and its allies.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Karen refugees from the nine refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border resettle every year in third countries. About 32,000 refugees went overseas in 2008, according to TBBC.

“We want to say to the world that we only want peace,” said Myat San, an IDP from Ei Tu Hta camp on the banks of the Salween River. “We want to live in peace. We want to urge the world to push for the fall of military rule in Burma and create peace for us.”

According to Brig-Gen Johnny, the KNU and all the pro-democracy forces inside and outside Burma, including Buddhists monks and students, should speed up the movement for democracy in 2009 and boycott the junta’s multi-party election in 2010.

“If the junta wins the election, we [the opposition] will continue to be under the boots of the Burmese army,” he said.

“But if every single person knows their role in the democracy movement, the goal of the revolution will not be far away.”

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