Born in British Burma and educated in medicine in the United States, San C. Po was a prominent Karen leader in the early 20th century. He worked hard to improve the lot of the Karen people and was appointed to Burma’s Legislative Council, but fell out with pro-independence Burman leaders, as he was skeptical that his people would be treated well in an independent Burma. He wrote a well-regarded history of the Karen people and became an articulate voice for the need for ethnic rights and a federal state. Having helped the British fight against Japan in World War II, he died shortly after that conflict, his dream of an independent Karen state unrealized. The following profile of San C. Po was first published in June 2004.
He has been knighted, honored and revered. But San C. Po’s dream of an independent Karen State remains unfulfilled.
It’s now 110 years since the great Karen leader San C Po returned to Burma after 10 years in the United States, where he studied and thus became an example to his people of the importance of education in nurturing and protecting an ethnic identity.
When San C Po arrived back in his homeland in 1894, with a degree in medicine from Albany Medical College, New York, he found a country at the center of British colonial ambitions in Asia. The Karen were then as now a marginalized minority.
San C Po entered the civil service and worked as a district medical officer. He left the civil service in 1902 and devoted himself increasingly to the task of improving the lot of the Karen. In 1915 he won appointment to Burma’s Legislative Council—a monumental milestone for the Karen, for it effectively signified that they were recognized as having a separate identity from the majority Burman people.
San C Po wrote a definitive Karen history and it is required reading for anyone interested in this fascinating people. His Burma and the Karens was first published in 1928 and reprinted by White Lotus Co Ltd in 2001, with an informative introduction by American academic Christina Fink.
Burma and the Karens is no biography, and it’s left to Fink to fill in the fascinating details of San C Po’s early life.
As a child, he walked five miles every day from his village in the Irrawaddy delta to an American-run mission school. The school head, Charles Nichols, was so impressed by the boy’s enthusiasm and abilities that he arranged for him to continue his later studies in the US.
San C Po was looked after by a relative of Dr Nichols, a Miss Crombie. The young San Po was so taken by Miss Crombie’s kindliness that he adopted her name—San Crombie Po, shortening it later to San C Po, and he took out American citizenship.
Back in Burma, he renounced his American citizenship and returned to the status of a British colonial subject in order to assume a leadership role in the Karen community.
San C Po and other Karen leaders placed their trust in the British administration, fearful of their fate in an independent Burma.
In 1917, he represented the Karen people in talks in India on plans to create separate Indian and Burman states, an idea he opposed—arousing hostility on the official Burman side by maintaining that Burma was not ready for self-rule and that it should remain under British control.
In 1937, Burma and India were formally separated and Burma received a new constitution. The British created an elected House of Representatives and an Upper House, half of whose members were elected. San C Po obtained a Senate seat, which he held until 1942.
Burma was then about to be embroiled in the Second World War, and when the Japanese entered the country many Karen fighters joined the allied cause. At the end of the war Burmese independence became inevitable and San C Po made one last appeal for a separate Karen state. He died in 1946, his dream unrealized.
Although the British overruled San C Po, they accorded him two of their highest honors, including a knighthood. He was also made a “Commander of the British Empire” for his efforts to recruit Karens to fight in the First World War.
“We cannot forget him and we should not forget him,” says Karen National Union Secretary General Padoh Mahn Sha. “He is the one who wrote our Karen history.”
His book is described by Christina Fink in her introduction as a “valuable historical document, giving a sense of how educated Christian Karens understood themselves and their position in Burma in the early twentieth century.
“It is to be hoped that one day the Karens will be able to resolve their political status in a way that is satisfactory to them.
However, a durable solution will only be possible when a culture of tolerance and compromise begins to take root among all the ethnic groups of Burma and ways are found to manage the country’s, and each state’s, diversity.
“Specifically, this means recognizing the right of each group to celebrate and teach its own language and culture and devolving more power to the state and local levels.
“Karen State can only succeed as a state, and Burma as a nation, when the interests of all inhabitants are respected and accommodated in a reasonable way.”
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