PAAN District, Karen State—70 years on, the spirit of the Karen national revolutionary movement remains strong among the young, adults and the elderly, even after more than seven years of peace talks between the government and the Karen National Union.
Unlike in past years, the KNU carefully planned this year’s event near their headquarters in Paan District of Karen State, close to the Thai border. It included an exhibition showcasing the history of the KNU, generations of Karen revolutionary leaders and the KNU’s ongoing peace talks with the government. It is the biggest such commemoration ever held by the KNU, a signatory to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA).
On Wednesday night, events were held to entertain those in attendance, who included Karen from the area, from across Karen State and Myanmar, and even from abroad. These included a music concert, traditional Done dancing and other festivities.
Thursday marked the 70th anniversary of the day in 1949 when the KNU began its resistance following the central government’s denunciation of the group as an unlawful organization after months of protests demanding equality for the Karen people. At the anniversary event, ethnic leaders urged all Karen to continue to support the struggle for basic rights and equality.
Addressing the Karen attendees in their native language, KNU chairman Saw Mutu Sae Poe said, “At this time, though we have not reached our political goal of freedom, equality, autonomy and peace in the country—[and] the establishment of a democratic federal union for the Karen people and for all ethnic nationalities—we still can stand up firmly in our movement.”
He said the Karen people had made an enormous sacrifice over the past seven decades, and not only on the battlefield. He reminded the audience that many civilians had been forced to become IDPs and refugees. He said that because of this hardship, “hatred, bitterness and distrust have arisen among them.”
Echoing the chairman’s speech, Padoh Mahn Nyein Maung, a KNU executive committee member who is in his 70s and has been part of the revolutionary movement for 50 years, told The Irrawaddy, “Although it has been more than 70 years since the beginning of the Karen’s struggle for equal rights, we have not reached our goal.”
He told The Irrawaddy on Thursday, “Our path and our history of Karen revolutionary effort has been hard. There has been so much sacrifice and loss.” He urged young people to keep up their resistance activities until equality can be achieved between the majority Bamar and the minority ethnic groups like the Karen.
“The young must continue to take responsibility, and must not forget about the Karen revolutionary leaders, as well as the soldiers who have sacrificed their lives,” he said.
The leaders’ messages appeared to have been taken to heart by the younger members of the community in attendance. The Irrawaddy talked to few young people who were keen to show their strong spirit and their pride in the resistance movement.
Saw Kae Doh from Hlaine Bwe Township in Karen State was attending his first KNU anniversary event. He said young people such as himself “need to keep on following the path laid out by the Karen leaders until [the community’s goal] is achieved.”
But he hoped the Karen leaders would be able to achieve genuine peace.
Padoh Saw Tadoh Moo, the current secretary general of the KNU, said the 70th anniversary commemoration was an opportunity to highlight the group’s struggles and its latest peace efforts.
“Genuine peace is needed to attain our rights, which have long been denied us, and also to restore democracy, which we lack,” he told The Irrawaddy. He added that informal talks would be held soon between the KNU and the government and Myanmar military (or Tatmadaw) leaders to resolve the latest deadlock in peace talks.
Karen State Chief Minister Daw Nang Khin Htwe Myint joined the event and delivered a speech urging everyone to support peace negotiators in order to achieve peace for future generations.
“Everyone here knows that our state has been underdeveloped for decades due to a lack of peace,” she said, urging people to work together so that Karen State could make progress.
Padoh Saw Tha Mein Tun, another KNU leader, echoed that sentiment, urging the people to keep working to achieve peace, adding that the revolutionary movement had kept the Karen people strong for 70 years.
He said, “It has been both good and bad, [and we have seen] success and failure [during this resistance journey], but we keep our flag raised high; that is the Karen spirit.”
The Karen people must continue in the same spirit because “we Karen people are determined to keep resisting,” he said.