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Ethnic Issues; A Karen Perspective

Ethnic Issues in the Politics of Burma: A Karen Perspective
Saw Kapi and Naw May Oo

Burma is a country where indigenous nationalities / ethnic nationalities have
been living in adjacent for centuries. All major ethnic nationalities in
Burma have their own languages, cultures and traditions that can distinguish
them from one another.  However, instead of recognizing the country?s diverse
ethnic reality and political sensitivity of various ethnic issues, successive
Burmese governments have tried to eliminate ethnic movements mainly by means
of military offensives.

	Since Independence, not only have the concerns of ethnic nationalities never
been addressed, but political, cultural and educational rights of ethnic
people have been systematically denied.  It is true that some ethnic
individuals had achieved high positions of government a few years since
independence.  But ever since Gen. Ne Win took power in 1962 through a
military coup, Burma had been ruled by a centralized political system
instituted by Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP).  Top leadership
positions in civil services, armed forces and the state administration held
by minorities were disproportionately replaced by majority Burman nationals.
 After the 1947 constitution was dissolved, in 1974, the BSPP adopted a new
constitution in which no specification was stated regarding ethnic
representation in the government.  Instead of leaders duly elected by their
people, only a few ethnic leaders were hand-picked by the Burman leadership
to symbolize ethnic representation in the BSPP government.  Hence, those
handful of selected ethnic leaders acted only at the desire of the central
government rather than as representatives of their own ethnic nationalities.

I would call such method as "select and rule,"  which is still being used by
current ruling military regime, the State Law and Order Restoration Council
(SLORC).  Except for annual folk dance and costume parades on traditional
holidays recognized by the government, most ethnic cultures are being
eliminated.  In the so-called "Union" of Burma, only Burmese language is
recognized as the medium of education; none of the ethnic languages is
allowed to be taught at schools or allowed to be used at any level of
administration. Consequently, ethnic nationality schoolchildren and the young
generation are growing up without knowing their own cultures or speaking
their own languages.  In this way, social and cultural domination has been
effectively taking place in Burma today.  After all, the "Union" that the
SLORC claims, means nothing or makes no sense to the ethnic nationalities.
 This is one of the most sensitive political issues facing Burma and all her
inhabitants, and not only must we discuss openly about it, but all of us must
enthusiastically strive to resolve it.

According to the SLORC, at least fifteen ethnic armed organizations have
entered cease-fire agreements with them.  SLORC thinks that those cease-fire
agreements will legitimize its holding onto power.  However, beneath the
surface of cease-fire agreements between SLORC and fifteen different ethnic
nationalities lie a deeper reality of human rights violations and of ethnic
annihilation campaign in Burma today.  I would like to urge the international
community to think about this: who among us will be willing to fight against
an army with 500, 000 troops, if the so-called "peace" that is being offered
to us could be considered a genuine one?  When the SLORC launched massive
offensives "against the KNU" this year, villages were burned, many young
women were raped and many Karen villagers including children, women and
elders were arbitrarily tortured and killed by the SLORC soldiers.  As a
result, hundreds and thousands of Karen villagers have fled their villages to
the Thai-Burmese border where they hope to find a temporary safe place.
 While they are afraid of SLORC brutality, those refugees choose to stay in
the border refugee camps with a possibility of being forced to return by the
Thai authorities.  The question is who would know the SLORC?s mentality and
brutish character more than these refugees do?  More than a hundred thousand
Karen refugees remained suspicious of SLORC and are fear to return to Burma.
 Politically naive as they may be, their painful experience have taught them
severe lessons.  How can someone whose village was burned, whose father was
brutally murdered and whose sister was repeatedly raped by the SLORC soldiers
easily learn to "trust?"  How can the Karen leadership ignore the plight of
these refugees when they talk with the SLORC?  If these people cannot have
peace, who will?  In one case, a young Karen soldier asked: who could solve
the painful dilemma of a young Karen girl who was allowed by SLORC soldiers
to choose whether she be raped passively and live or be killed instantly at
gun point?  The SLORC must bear the responsibility to answer all these
questions.  Actually, in Burma, peace is not merely the absence of battles;
it is something that must be achieved by all the people of Burma regardless
of their ethnic backgrounds and creeds.  For the time being, SLORC seems to
be winning the battles, but not the peace.  One thing we have to keep in
mind, so long as the ethnic annihilation campaign continues, the spirit of
revolution will remain strong in the minds of millions of Karen people.

Towards A Genuine Union of Burma

Among all the ethnic nationalities, the Karen is known as the largest group
with an estimated 7 millions population.  The Karen have learned their lesson
from their experiences throughout the history and especially from the World
War II that as a nation,  unless we have a state of our own, we will never be
able to experience a life of peace and decency, and never be free from
persecution and oppression.  After Burma gained her independence from the
British, it has been extremely difficult for the ethnic nationalities and the
Burman, with some diametrically opposite views, outlooks, attitudes and
mentalities, to yoke together peacefully.  However, differences in nature and
mentality are not the main reasons for the Karen?s refusal to throw in their
lot with the Burman.  There is more important reason, that is, to have the
state of our own within a genuine Federal Union.
The Karen resistance movement is more than just a struggle for survival
against national oppression, subjugation, exploitation and domination of the
Karen people by the Burmese rulers.  It has the aim of a genuine Federal
Union comprised of all the states of the nationalities on the basis of
equality and self-determination.  Burma is a multi-national country,
inhabited also by the Kachin, Karenni, Chin, Lahu, Mon, Pa-O, Palaugng, Shan,
and Wa, etc.  All these ethnic nationalities in Burma have taken up arms to
fight against the Burmese Government for their own self-determination. The
consolidated National Democratic Front (NDF) has resolved to form a genuine
Federal Union,[again,] comprised of all the states of the nationalities in
Burma, including a Burman state, on the basis of liberty, equality and social
progress.  The ethnic nationalities, more than ever, are determined to fight
until victory is achieved, and request the people of all classes and all
walks of life to join hands and fight against the military dictatorship.  As
we all know, in late 1988, the Karen National Union took the initiative in
proposing that the NDF form a broader political front along with the newly
formed Burman organizations to meet the developing political situation.  The
other members agreed, and the Democratic Alliance of Burma (DAB) was formed,
including all the members of the NDF as well as organizations such as the All
Burma Students? Democratic Front (ABSDF) and the All Burma Young Monks? Union
(ABYMU).  This really marks the first time that the people of all races, even
the Burmans, are united in trying to throw off the yoke of an oppressive
Burmese military regime.

In Relation to the National League for Democracy (NLD) and Burma

	Ethnic nationalities of Burma ardently support the people?s movement led by
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi of the NLD for democracy and the dismantling of the
military dictatorship.  Just as Daw Suu revealed her belief with regard to
the Karen?s struggle: "the plight of our Karen refugees should appeal to the
compassion of all right-thinking people all over the world?," she also called
for the nations and all ethnic nationalities to join hands in solving the
problems.  I have no doubt that the ethnic conflicts in Burma can be
peacefully and smoothly solved by having face-to-face dialogues, as clearly
stated by the NLD:

1)  Frankness, sincerity and mutual respect;
2)  National reconciliation;
3)  Practice of peaceful means; and
4)  General harmony without hard feelings are essential policies which must
be observed.

As genuine peace is the most essential to all the people of Burma, we do look
 forward to the courageous and candid cooperation of our fellow Burmans along
the way of our struggle.  The conflicts we have between us, the Burmans and
the ethnic nationalities, has never been personal hatred, and we are
responsible never to let it become one.  The end of the military regime must
be the end of all wars against the ethnic nationalities and their struggle
for freedom.  We cannot afford to have war after war as governments change.
 We must make sure that when we say peace in the future Burma, it means peace
for all her inhabitants.    
Thank you.

This paper was presented by Naw May Oo at the Free Burma Conference ?97 held
at the University of California, Los Angeles on October 4-6, 1997.