RANGOON—Ethnic Karen communities in Rangoon’s Ahlone Township welcomed the Karen New Year on Saturday and hundreds of revelers, many of them in Karen dress, celebrated the event with traditional ceremonies. Many people joined the celebrations to get a glimpse of the Karen National Union (KNU) leaders, who attended the event in Rangoon for the first time.
“I feel more people joined the celebration this year because we spread news on the Internet that the leaders of KNU would attend,” said Mahn Joel Yin, one of the event’s organizers.
Following the progress in peace talks between the KNU and the government in the past year, the Karen leaders have been able to travel freely to Rangoon, something that was unthinkable only a few years ago when some leaders were imprisoned and the KNU was deeply distrustful of the government.
Ethnic Karen rebels have fought a decades-long armed struggle with the government until they signed a cease-fire agreement in January 2012.
The presence of the KNU leadership created an atmosphere of exuberance at the event and Rangoon’s Karen felt that positive change might come now that peace talks are on the way. Many revelers also took the opportunity to shake hands with KNU officials or pose for a photo with the leaders.
“I am very happy … to see my people and our leaders here united as one force. Hopefully, our new generation of Karen will be more interested [in Karen issues] after they heard the speech from their leaders,” said Mahn Joel Yin.
Naw Babara Thin O, an 84-year-old Karen who used to work as a teacher and civil servant in Rangoon, said she hoped the peace process would lead to government support for Karen communities so that they could rebuild some community facilities, such as Christian Karen schools.
“We had good private schools in the past. I want this new government to allow them to be reopened,” she said in an interview amid the celebrations, which included traditional Karen dances. “Without good education you cannot serve your people in a good manner. Our young generation needs to fight to get access to competitive education and technology,” she added.
One of the KNU leaders attending the celebration was Mahn Nyein Maung, an executive member of the group’s central committee. He said the KNU leaders trusted President Thein Sein and believed that they could achieve a peace agreement with his government.
At their meeting with Thein Sein last week, the KNU said they are committed to achieving peace but they also raised issues, such as their concern over the escalating Kachin conflict, their demands for greater autonomy and the need to amend the 2008 Constitution.
Mahn Nyein Maung said that ultimately the KNU wanted a Burma union in which ethnic groups would have their own federal states. “We want to have equal rights for all our people in Burma,” he said. “We will not secede from the federal union and we will all stay together in this union when we can get equal rights.”
Although hope was in the air at the Karen New Year’s celebrations, some community members worried that the new KNU leadership might fracture if peace talks with the government floundered.
“If [Chairman] Mutu cannot make a successful peace and there are no benefits for the people from this ceasefire, there will be cracks among them,” a Karen man said. “Because there are [KNU] brigades who do not trust the government.”