Myanmar Govt Again Bans Use of ‘Martyr’ to Mark Karen Revolutionary’s Death

By Nyein Nyein 9 August 2019

YANGON—The government has once again banned the use of the term “martyr” in reference to Karen revolutionary leader Saw Ba U Gyi, who was killed on Aug. 12, 1950. His death is commemorated annually as Karen Martyrs Day. Organizers of this year’s events to observe the occasion in Yangon and elsewhere face objections from the government, especially over the term “martyr”.

In a letter dated Aug. 8, 2019, the Irrawaddy regional government told the chair of the regional Karen Literature and Culture Committee that the use of the term “Karen Martyr” is forbidden. The letter said that as some township literature and culture committees are planning to hold “Karen Martyr Saw Ba U Kyi Day” events across the region, the government had reminded the General Administration Department (GAD) to coordinate and follow all relevant instructions.

Karen Martyrs’ Day, the day when Karen nationalist and Karen National Union (KNU) founder Saw Ba U Gyi and Maj-Gen Sai Kay were killed in an ambush by the Myanmar Army, near Toh Kaw Koe village in Kawkareik Township, Karen State.

According to Irrawaddy Region’s Karen ethnic affairs minister, Ga Moe Myat Myat Thu, organizers can hold memorial services, but must not use the term “martyr”, which the minister says could cause confusion.

“As there were some complicated incidents last year, the union government and the Ministry of Home Affairs have instructed us not to use the term ‘martyr’,” she said. Therefore she said, she signed the letter to the Literature and Culture Committee on behalf of the Irrawaddy Region chief minister at the instruction of the chief minister and the regional minister of security and border affairs.

The government also forbade the use of “martyr” last year, but many members of the public went ahead and used it. As a result, several organizers of the Karen Martyrs Day event last year, including a Karen National Union leader, were sued for holding events without permission and not following the instruction.

The regional minister said the government sought this year to avoid such complications.

She said the Karen have a national martyr, Mahn Ba Khaing, referring to one of the country’s nine heroes, including late General Aung San, who were killed together in July 1947.

She said, “Saw Ba U Gyi is a good Karen leader as he demanded that the government recognize the territory of Karen State. Therefore, the memorial services for him can be held, but just without using the term ‘martyr.’”

Questions have been raised among the Karen population over the civilian government’s instruction and its failure to acknowledge the people’s desire, as the majority of Karen people regard Saw Ba U Gyi as their martyr, who fought for autonomy and for Karen State but died at the hands of government army soldiers.

Similarly, organizers of 69th Karen Martyrs Day events on Aug. 12 are being deterred by GAD officials in Yangon Region’s Kamayut and Dagon East townships. So the organizers decided to gather at Yangon’s Maha Bandola Park on that day.

Naw Ohn Hla, a longtime political activist who is an ethnic Karen, said she asked for permission to hold the ceremony on July 10, but was denied permission by the Kamayut Township administrator this week.

“Then we arranged to hold the ceremony at the Magwe monastery in Dagon East, but we heard that the GAD officer phoned the Sayadaw [monk] on Aug. 8 asking him not to allow us to hold the event. As we do not want any harm to come to the monk, we decided to hold a peaceful assembly,” said Naw Ohn Hla.

Thus she said they came to the Kyauktada police station on Friday “to inform them that we will gather under Article 19 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law. We will gather on the morning of Aug. 12.”

Karen Martyrs Day commemorations are held each year in the Karen National Union’s controlled areas. Events have also been held in Yangon and elsewhere since the KNU signed a bilateral ceasefire with the government in 2012.