The Implications of Banning Karen Martyrs’ Day

By The Irrawaddy 18 August 2018

Kyaw Kha: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss the ban on Karen Martyrs’ Day. I’m The Irrawaddy chief reporter Kyaw Kha. Saw Tun Tun, member of the committee to organize Karen Martyrs’ Day in Yangon Region, and joint general secretary (1) of the Women’s League of Burma and central executive committee member of Karen Women’s Organization Naw Se Se join me for the discussion.

I heard that an arrest warrant has been issued for six individuals including Mahn Nyein Maung for organizing Karen Martyrs’ Day without permission in Irrawaddy Region. I also heard that a Karen Martyrs’ Day event was also banned in Yangon. Ko Saw Tun Tun, why was it banned?

Saw Tun Tun: An official letter was sent [by authorities] to the organizing committee to cancel the event in Be Ga Yet Village in Kangyidaunt Township [in Irrawaddy Region].  Authorities also banned it in Pantanaw Township. In Hinthada Township, authorities came and ordered a stop to an ongoing event and hinted that force would be used to disperse the attendees if the event continued.  Six individuals including Pado Mahn Nyein Maung were sued.

In Yangon Region, authorities did not directly obstruct the organizing committee but instead, discouraged the trustees of the St. Peter’s Church where the event was planned to be held. The order was issued through the concerned ward administrator. At first, the ward administrator had given permission for the event. But nearly one week later, he submitted a letter to the township administrator and said that he could not take responsibility for the planned Karen Martyrs’ Day event in his ward. When authorities met the organizing committee, they said it was up to us whether or not to hold the event. The ban was made according to Article 3 of the The 1954 State Symbols and National Titles (Restriction of Celebration) Law. Article 1 defines the state symbol and the ban was made according to the fact that the event may create confusion over the term national leader or martyr.

KK: I heard that the family members of the Karen martyrs who came to attend the event were shadowed. Can you tell us about it?

STT: About eight families of Karen National leaders and those who took a lead role in the Karen national movement came to attend the event in Yangon. Family members of Bo Lin Htin, Mhan Ba San and so on including their grandchildren came and met. I heard that officials of the Office of Military Security Affairs had gone to their hometowns and villages and inquired about them. We don’t know how many they have inquired about, but it is confirmed that the family members are being followed.

KK: As Ko Saw Tun Tun has said, the event was banned on legal grounds due to the fact that it could cause confusion as to the national-level Martyrs’ Day event [regarding the death of Gen Aung San and his colleagues]. What do you want to say about this?

Naw Se Se: We’ve organized the event annually to pass down the history to younger Karen generations. They have banned this on legal grounds, saying that it could cause confusion. But it amounts to refusing to recognize Karen leaders. Other ethnic people have their own martyrs, not other Karen people. Every ethnic group wants to recognize and pay tribute to their concerned ethnic leaders. The ban indicates that our leaders are denied recognition and similar events are also discouraged in the future.

KK: Karen Martyrs’ Day events were held in several places. It was banned in some places but also permitted in other places. The statue of [late] Karen martyr Saw Ba U Gyi was erected in Karen State’s Kawkada village for the Karen Martyrs’ Day event. There, the event was allowed to be held freely. But it was banned in Irrawaddy and Yangon regions. So, I’m not clear if it was the policy of the Union government to ban the event. What is your view on this?

STT: I think it is related to the 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference. Before the conference, there were restrictions on holding [national-level] political dialogues. [The Karen Martyrs’ Day event] was restricted by concerned security and border affairs ministers. They asked organizers to hold the event only in concerned areas. But on the other hand, we need to tell the Karen people about the peace process. Karen people live not only in Karen State, but also in Yangon, Irrawaddy, and Bago regions and Mon State. We have to inform the Karen people and make sure all of them can participate. So we tried, but we were faced with restrictions.

There was no restriction in all the five previous events. In those cases, we could manage to hold the event after negotiating with concerned authorities and submitting the application two weeks in advance. The statue of Karen national leader Saw Ba U Gyi was allowed to be unveiled on Karen Martyrs’ Day [in Karen State]. Authorities implied that we can do what we like in our region, but not in Yangon and Irrawaddy regions, which are not ours. They implied that we can only hold the event in our controlled-area because it was designated by the Karen National Organization. As far as I’m concerned, the Union government has no particular policy about Karen Martyrs’ Day and local administrative branches restrict it. But in fact, Karen people should have the right to keep monuments and memorials in the places wherever they live.

KK: This year’s event was different from previous years. This year, the event was banned in some places where it was not banned in previous years. I think there is a reason behind this. I doubt it was the policy of the Union government. Perhaps, it was lower-level authorities that banned the event of their own accord. What is your view on this?

NSS: We’ve held Karen Martyrs’ Day for many years. We also held related events. There was no problem except for inquiry by authorities. But the situation has changed. We are restricted on legal grounds this year. Leaders of both sides in the peace process and political dialogue should consider this.

KK: The news of the ban has spread among the public. What implications could it have?

STT: There will never be riots as the authorities are involved.

KK: Why?

STT: The intention of holding Karen Martyrs’ Day is to let the people know the history correctly, and to contribute to establishing a federal Union. There were nearly 800 people attending the event in Yangon on Aug. 12. Only if authorities forcibly stopped the event, would there have been a riot. The riot will not be caused by us. Unnecessary disputes and riots will only occur because of restrictions by administrative authorities.

KK: The Karen National Union (KNU) was founded by Karen resistance leader Saw Ba U Gyi. It is an influential group that also has political influence. It is the main group among the ethnic signatories that have signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with the government. Now is the time that trust is being built between the two sides, and efforts are being made for national reconciliation. So, Naw Se Se, do you think the failure to recognize Karen Martyrs’ Day and restricting it could impact trust building and national reconciliation?

NSS: Now is the time for building trust between armed groups and the government. Karen people have their own red-letter days including Karen Martyrs’ Day. If authorities don’t want to recognize such trivial matters and only make restrictions, we doubt if our big demands—self-determination and equality—will ever be fulfilled.

As Saw Tun Tun said, Karen Martyrs’ Day is not intended to drum up calls for riots. It is just to inform younger generations and make them understand what our senior leaders did, what their goals and objectives were, and what we have been doing to achieve those goals. We just want to exchange information and tell them about the history on that occasion so that the younger generation will idolize those leaders and do their fair share in marching toward a federal Union, which is our goal.

So we need to consider this very seriously. We need to build strong trust to be able to reach our goals of self-determination and equality. In trust building, there is a need for mutual recognition of both sides. It should start from recognizing the culture, literature and significant days of ethnic people including Karen people. Otherwise, the federal Union will still be a long way off.

KK: What do you think are the preconditions for national reconciliation, peace, national unity and a genuine federal Union?

STT: For us to achieve peace, national reconciliation, and a genuine federal Union, we already accept that our country is a multi-ethnic country. So, there is a need to recognize and promote the traditions, customs and political conditions of all the ethnicities. For example, the government needs to think about how to include ethnic literature – such as Karen literature – in school curriculums, and how to design an acceptable curriculum to Karen people. It also needs to think about how to make the Constitution respectable to ethnicities.

Speaking of national reconciliation, there is a real cause for concern. It is because the highest leaders of the country don’t listen to others during the talks. There are a lot of things to be done.

But at tripartite meetings, one side doesn’t bother to listen to two other sides, which is a serious cause for concern. Those in the highest positions need to consider this. Throughout history, there are things that our leaders have to do. They might have made mistakes deliberately or accidentally. They might have made mistakes because they had power or they might have been mistreated because they didn’t have power.

The leaders of the country need to apologize. They should solemnly apologize to ethnic people. This is the most important point in national reconciliation. So far, the attitude of the current government is that the previous government and dictatorship did all of the bad things and that it has nothing to do with them]. No matter who did it, the highest authorities of the present time should solemnly apologize to the people who have suffered for some 70 years.  This is the very first thing to do. The wishes of the ethnic people must also be fulfilled. There are a lot of things that need to be done, but the most important thing is to apologize to the people who were mentally traumatized for years.

KK: Thank you for your contributions!