When the use of the term “federal” was suppressed under the military regime, members of the pro-democracy movement, including the National League for Democracy, resisted. The term is now widely used, from peace negotiations to daily conversation. This change didn’t start very long ago—only eight years or so.
In Myanmar politics, especially in peace negotiations, which lay the path to political dialogue, conflicts over terms such as “revolutionary,” “civil war,” “autonomy” and “federal” have caused real pain. Disputes over wording stalled the negotiations in 2014-15 when the government, ethnic armed organizations and the military were discussing the draft text of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA).
Since 2018, a dispute between the NLD-led government and the country’s ethnic people, especially the Karen, has simmered over the use of the term “Martyr”, specifically in the context of the annual memorial celebrations for the late Karen revolutionary leaders who fought for autonomy. The Karen of Myanmar see those leaders as “Martyrs”, but the government is not happy with their choice of terminology. So it barred the holding of ceremonies labeled as Karen Martyrs’ Day, much to the ire of the ethnic community.
The police in Yangon’s Kyauktada Township have taken action against activists Naw Ohn Hla, Saw Albert Cho and Sa Thein Zaw Min for not complying with an order to delete the word “Martyrs” from this year’s Karen Martyrs’ Day commemoration. The event marks the day Karen nationalists and Karen National Union (KNU) founders Saw Ba U Gyi and Major-General Sai Kay were killed in an ambush by the Myanmar army near Toh Kaw Koe Village in Kawkareik Township, Karen State on Aug. 12, 1950.
Naw Ohn Hla, a Karen political rights activist and former political prisoner, has stood firm in her argument that they acted in accordance with the law, because they informed the authorities about their gathering. She vowed to fight the charge of violating the Peaceful Assembly and Procession Law while in detention, and the three have refused to seek bail.
Calls to drop the case against them have mounted. Civil society groups and an alliance of ethnic political parties are also demanding their release and the withdrawal of the charges.
“This legal action taken against a lead organizer for the facilitation of the Karen Martyrs’ Day event is reminiscent of the past history of the Karen people, and has resulted in the agitation of the whole Karen public,” the KNU Concerned Group said in a statement on Sept. 16. The KNU Concerned Group, led by Naw Zipporah Sein, former vice chairperson of the KNU, has been outspoken in its condemnation of the authorities on this issue. It insists that if the government fails to meet its demands, “the whole Karen community will respond in a national mass movement” and the government will have to bear the consequences.
The Karen Martyrs’ Day commemoration has been observed in Yangon since the KNU signed a bilateral ceasefire agreement with the government in 2012. As ethnic Karen live scattered across Myanmar, the event has been observed not only in Karen State, but also in other areas where many Karen reside, including Yangon, Bago and Irrawaddy regions. Karen people pay respect to Saw Ba U Gyi and their other revolutionary heroes as “Martyrs” and insist they had no problems doing so under former President U Thein Sein’s administration.
Ga Moe Myat Myat Thu, Karen ethnic affairs minister in the NLD-led Irrawaddy regional government, told The Irrawaddy before the 69th Karen Martyrs’ Day last month that the government’s only reason for banning the use of the term is that it doesn’t want the public to confuse other figures with the national martyrs—Myanmar independence hero General Aung San, Mahn Ba Khaing and seven others. But she said the organizers can hold memorial services for their fallen heroes. President’s Office spokesman U Zaw Htay also said last Friday that the legal action was being taken because the protesters violated the Peaceful Assembly Law, not because they were commemorating Karen Martyrs’ Day.
The KNU on Monday also urged the government to drop the case against them and to release them. KNU general secretary Padoh Saw Tadoh Moo also objected to the banning of the term “Karen Martyrs” during an interview with The Irrawaddy last month. He stressed the importance of recognizing the diverse ethnic groups’ backgrounds, histories, cultures and literatures in order for Myanmar to achieve unity based on diversity. He said the government and the majority Bamar need to take an “interest in” the ethnics’ concerns before they say they understand or acknowledge their identities, cultures and literatures.
When it comes to freedom of expression, Myanmar people expect more under civilian rule than they did under previous military and quasi-civilian governments. But the arrests and persecution of activists expressing their desires by organizing peaceful gatherings have increased. It is not just Karen activists—it happens to anti-war activists in Yangon, to those in Kachin State who raise IDP issues, and in Kayah State to those who oppose the General Aung San statue, to name a few.
It seems now that the NLD government is even more irked by Saw Ba U Gyi than the military, which actually fought against his Karen National Liberation Army forces.
Myanmar has experienced civil war for more than seven decades, and both the ethnic leaders and the government have said building trust is needed to overcome the conflicts. If so, the government’s efforts at trust-building among Karen people, and not just with KNU leaders, are also a key to building further trust with other ethnic minorities who are currently involved in peace negotiations.
Even if one does not want to admit it, the way the Karen people—a majority of whom are KNU supporters—are treated is being observed closely by other ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) who have not yet signed the NCA. The government is trying to convince these other groups to sign, but when the followers of NCA signatories are not treated equally or forced to banish their memories, why should others consider following the NCA path?
The actions of the country’s current administration actually represent a step backward. We are at a late stage for them to be re-evaluating their moves, but if it has the will, the NLD could soon start to win back the support of all the ethnic communities.
There is nothing wrong with people regarding their leaders as “Martyrs”, as this is a question of individual and national memory. Saw Ba U Gyi fought for the autonomy and rights of the Karen people, and the Karen people should be free to remember him however they choose.
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