Feature - Burma - Karen

The Longest Fight
After 57 years of fighting for independence from the Burmese, the Karen National Union is beset by internal divisions, a lack of resources and an aging leadership

When Gen Bo Mya arrived at a ceremony marking 57 years of the Karen people’s fight against Burmese rule, a crowd soon formed. Having joined the revolution as a humble corporal at its birth in 1949 and risen through the ranks right to the very top, Bo Mya—now 79 and in failing health— is very much the face of the Karen movement.

Lauded by some as the father of the Karen movement, dismissed by others as a bloodthirsty butcher, Bo Mya’s impact on what is generally recognized as the world’s longest active civil war is beyond question.

With his son, Col Ner Dah Mya, holding a microphone to his lips, Bo Mya addressed the hundreds who had traveled to the remote jungle camp of Pu Bo Mya Plaw (also known as Mu Aye Pu) near the Thai border. His voice wavered and he lost his train of thought on several occasions, but the message was the same as ever: “We must never surrender our homeland.”

The struggle for autonomy is getting harder, though. While the troops who marched across the parade ground wore immaculate battledress uniforms, their weapons were old and their numbers few. It appeared not so much a display of military might as a show of defiance.

“We don’t need men, we need equipment,” says Ner Dah Mya, speaking after the ceremony. “If we had 50,000 weapons, tomorrow we would have 50,000 soldiers.”

Despite his almost robotic insistence that politics and military—the Karen National Union and its military wing, the Karen National Liberation Army—have to work together to achieve Karen dreams of independence, when Ner Dah Mya lets his guard down, he is very much his father’s son: a military man.

“If we had bullets and weapons we could get rid of this regime,” he says. “We can never solve this problem at the [negotiating] table, everybody knows that. They [Burma’s military government] only listen to you when you have guns. If you are only strong in politics and nobody is fighting in the front line, then it is like a bird singing in a tree—nothing happens.”

KNU general-secretary Mahn Sha, the diplomatic face of the KNU, recognizes the need for a strong military but has a more conciliatory, long-term approach. “We need to try for political dialogue,” he says. “To get [that] we need pressure—both internal and international—and we need unity and strength. With no unity, there is no strength.”

The division between the movement’s political and military wings often blurs. In January 2004, Bo Mya, then commanding officer of the KNLA and vice-chairman of the KNU, led a 21-man delegation to Rangoon for talks with the Burmese junta. He returned with a ceasefire of sorts, a “gentlemen’s agreement,” whereby government troops would desist from military operations in Karen-controlled territory. The reality is that government troops are still active in Karen territory and while both sides avoid conflict in certain areas, skirmishes are common elsewhere.

More recently, in December 2005, a group of KNLA representatives from Brigade 7 and former KNU executive committee member Mahn Nyein Maung went to Bangkok to hold ceasefire talks with the Burmese government’s military attach? to Thailand, Col Tin Soe. The central KNU committee had not sanctioned the meeting, and rumors were rife that Brigade 7 was going to break away and seal an independent truce with the junta.

No such agreement was made, and Brigade 7 returned to the fold. But while prominent KNLA officers dismiss the meeting as a mere charade, or “delaying tactics, to avoid fighting,” for others, the Bangkok visit reopened some painful wounds.

The meeting was orchestrated by Pastor Timothy, a humanitarian worker who is reviled by many in the KNU’s top echelon for his criticism of their leadership and his continued work with the breakaway Karen group the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army. The DKBA broke away from the KNU in 1995 following a dispute over bias towards Christians, and was promptly assimilated by government forces.

The DKBA’s inside knowledge allowed the Tatmadaw (armed forces) to breach the KNU base camp at Manerplaw, thus forcing the Karen to retreat into the jungle. The withdrawal from Manerplaw radically altered the way the KNU could operate, and it turned to guerilla tactics as opposed to the positional warfare previously employed.

“The big fights do not happen any more,” says Ner Dah Mya. “Now we only fight for five minutes then withdraw.”

On his return from Rangoon in 2004, Bo Mya was rushed to Bangkok and hospitalized with a foot injury, which was exacerbated by his chronic diabetes. Now unable to walk, and requiring constant medical attention, the general’s position is tenuous, with many leaders wanting him to step back from official duties and take a sinecure. The old campaigner, however, has refused to retire and is clinging to his position as defense minister. Such is the regard in which Bo Mya is held, his reluctance to be pushed upstairs is politely tolerated by his peers.

Indeed, time is catching up with most of the Karen leadership. Bo Mya’s successor as KNLA commanding officer, Gen Mu Tu, is understood to have stayed away from the Revolution Day ceremony because he could not bear the indignity of seeing Bo Mya being pushed around in a wheelchair. KNU president Ba Thin Sein, 79, was too ill to attend the ceremony, sending only a speech to be read on his behalf. Vice President Tamla Baw is already 85. Only Mahn Sha, now 62, could reasonably be expected to have a significant role to play in the KNU’s future.

With a distinct lack of new blood, both the political and military wings of this resilient movement know tough times tie ahead.

Irrawaddy, March 2006

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