Could Cross-Border Unity Invigorate the Karen Struggle?

By Saw Yan Naing 18 February 2016

HPA-AN, Karen State — Unity among the Karen people was the theme in nearly all of the ethnic leaders’ speeches on the recent occasion of Karen Revolution Day. It was estimated that over 10,000 Karen people from Burma, Thailand and the rest of the world gathered to celebrate the event.

An interesting possibility is that this unity could extend beyond borders: the Karen political struggle is receiving growing support from a new and major force: Karen communities from Thailand, also known as the Thai-Karen.

There are an estimated one million Karen living throughout Thailand, mostly concentrated in the country’s north. Some who live on the Thai-Burma border fled Burma due to persecution and violence perpetrated by the Burma Army.

The Karen National Union (KNU) formed to advocate for Karen communities. It is among Southeast Asia’s oldest ethnic armed groups, fighting for autonomy and self-determination for Karen State for over six decades, since 1949—one year after Burma gained independence from the British.

On Karen Revolution Day, commemorated on January 31, Karen from northern Thailand—including Chiang Mai, Mae Hong Son and Tak provinces—attended the event en masse, urging all Karen people to support the KNU by whatever means possible.

At a concert, a Thai-Karen singer from Chiang Mai asked, “Do you want a Karen nation?”

The crowded responded: yes.

The singer called for unity among the Karen people of the region in order to better support the Karen cause. He asked the crowd to offer financial, technical and educational support to the KNU.

Addressing the crowd, Pastor Lwe Paw, a Thai-Karen from Chiang Mai District, also made an emotional plea.

“I need to say sorry to my Karen people who have been fighting for the Karen national cause for 67 years. I didn’t know what was happening with the Karen struggle until I followed the news and posts on Line and Facebook,” he said.

After realizing the extent of the ongoing human rights abuses in Karen State, Lwe Paw said he could not stand to be removed from the struggle any longer, and began providing assistance to the KNU.

“Even dogs help each other if they are attacked. So how can we ignore when our fellow Karen are being attacked? It is a matter based on blood,” he explained.

“Our enemy can’t kill all of us. If Karen people in Kawthoolei [the Karen-language name for their homeland] get killed, Karen people in Thailand will begin to resist. If Karen people in Thailand get killed, Karen people in Burma will start to fight. If Karen in Burma get killed, the rest of the Karen people from 47 nations will return to fight,” Lwe Paw said, referring to a global diaspora.

Internal Divisions

The KNU’s long struggle has not always been smooth. Division among Karen leaders predates Burma’s independence, when members of the Karen Youth Organization, the Karen National Association and the Karen Central Organization had different opinions about whether to contest in general elections in 1947.

Another more recent division—that of an internal religious divide—was worsened when a Buddhist faction, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), broke away from the largely Christian KNU and launched an offensive against its mother organization with the help of Burma Army. This led to the fall of KNU’s headquarters at Manerplaw in 1995.

Later, in 2007, a smaller Karen armed group who called themselves KNU/KNLA (Karen National Liberation Army) Peace Council split from the KNU.

This was followed by yet another loss: the assassination of the KNU’s late general secretary Mahn Sha Lah Phan in 2008 at his home in Thailand.

Despite the fact that its organizational predecessors were once active in urban areas in Irrawaddy and Rangoon divisions, the KNU lost most of its influence in those areas and now maintains strongholds on Karen State’s border with Thailand.

The recent support from Karen communities in Thailand may therefore become a lifeline to the KNU due to geographical proximity, allowing various forms of assistance to be easily supplied.

However, doubts linger about unity as a realistic political strategy, perhaps a result of the many tragedies and losses endured by the Karen people throughout their struggle.