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I can’t remember how many times the Karen National Union and other ethnic political organisations have been dismissed as losing, or being on the verge of defeat. In February 1950 General Ne Win boasted to international media that victory over the Karen ‘insurgents’ would be completed by May that year. The New York Times duly reported: “Defeat of rebels withdrawing to hills would leave minor guerrillas to cope with.”
Fast-forward 61 years and still the Karen National Union (KNU) is on the verge of defeat, this time according to long-time KNU critic Ashley South, writing in a March 2011 report for the Transnational Institute and Burma Centre Netherlands. He said that “the organisation’s future looks increasingly precarious.”
When journalists and self-appointed experts have made these statements on the state of our struggle, there has often been reason to be pessimistic. There are occasions when the situation has looked bad. In 2008, my father, Padoh Mahn Sha, General Secretary of the Karen National Union, was assassinated, and other KNU leaders have found their names on a hit list with assassins searching for them in Thailand. The dictatorship has passed a new constitution in a rigged referendum, one that not only ignored all ethnic demands for rights and protection, but also required all armed ethnic groups under ceasefire to effectively surrender, and hand over their arms. More troops were stationed in Shan state and Karenni state, and in 2009 an important KNU base near the Thailand-Burma border was overrun by Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and Burmese army soldiers.
However, the situation recently has started to look more positive. The DKBA has split, with the old Brigade 5 refusing to become a Border Guard Force under the control of the Burmese army. The main DKBA, now a Border Guard Force, has also been severely weakened, with the Burmese army reducing its size. DKBA soldiers unhappy with Burmese commanders giving them orders are now defecting back to the KNU everyday.
Even more significantly, a new United Nationalities Federal Council has been created, a new political and military alliance of armed ethnic political parties, which for the first time in nearly 20 years unites armed ethnic political parties across the country.
And recently, Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) soldiers were in Manerplaw, the old headquarters of the KNU which fell in 1995.
Many people have asked me what my father would have thought of these two significant developments. I cannot claim to know for sure. He had experience and wisdom that was unique, but I knew the kind of man he was, and how all his decisions and opinions were based on firm principles.
Much of the work my father did for the KNU was promoting unity – unity among the Karen, unity between ethnic nationalities, and unity with all the people of Burma. He knew it was vital we all work together to win our freedom, and that we must not let the dictatorship divide us. He travelled all over Burma, often risking his life, to promote unity between ethnic nationalities. He was also the strongest voice arguing that the KNU should offer shelter and support to students who fled the cities after the uprising in 1988. What he wanted to see is unity; that despite differences, people would work together, be different but equal, living and working for our freedom side by side.
My father always said that there is no problem between the KNU and DKBA – the real problem is between the Karen and the Burmese dictatorship. He said it is the dictatorship that divided the Karen. They set up and they control the DKBA. If the DKBA wanted to come back, if they desert and stop following the Burmese regime, stop dealing drugs, stop hurting civilians, then they can come back any time.
He would undoubtedly welcome what has happened with the split of the DKBA, that many DKBA soldiers are now fighting for their people, rather than for a dictatorship that oppresses the people. The Brigade 5 soldiers and KNLA are cooperating, and he would be encouraging greater unity and cooperation.
But I think he would have some concerns as well. Some people may be pleased to see the rest of DKBA being weakened, with fewer soldiers, and even fewer arms. The DKBA is responsible for committing serious human rights abuses, and acts as a proxy for the dictatorship. However, it is the leadership which is responsible for this, not all the ordinary soldiers. One defector I met recently had so little political knowledge that he was not even aware the DKBA acted for the dictatorship. My father would not want to see people like him swallowed by the Burmese army, only to carry on the attacks against the Karen people. He wanted them to rejoin the KNU, and help protect their people.
My father worked tirelessly for a Federal Union of Burma. He did this through the National Democratic Front. When different ethnic parties broke their agreement as part of the NDF and signed ceasefires with the dictatorship, he was very sad. Many others were very angry, as soldiers released from fighting the Kachin and others descended on Karen and Karenni states, attacking our villages. This has left a legacy of mistrust which must be overcome if the United Nationalities Federal Council is to be successful. He may also have been wondering why a new organisation has been set up, instead of those that had left the NDF simply rejoining. If the UNFC does promote ethnic unity my father would undoubtedly be glad. Ethnic political parties that have not cooperated for many years are now doing so again, but of course there is still a long way to go.
There is a great need for the people of Burma to educate each other about a federal union. We need to know and understand each other’s situation, and be tolerant of each other and our differences, to have mutual respect. This is how genuine unity can be built.
How might my father summarise this current situation? I think he would be cautious, but he would also be hopeful and optimistic. He would be working hard to build on this new unity, and these new opportunities. He would be insisting on linking with Burman-led groups as well, which is, of course, essential to get agreement for a federal union.
And I am sure he would remind those cynics who keep predicting our defeat of the words of Saw Ba U Gyi, first President of the Karen National Union: “For us surrender is out of the question.”
Zoya Phan is Campaigns Manager at Burma Campaign UK, and co-founder of the Phan Foundation. Her autobiography is published as ‘Undaunted’ in the USA, and ‘Little Daughter’ in the rest of the world.