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We have recently seen a stirring of dissension within the various Karen groups over who is pro- Burmese and who is not. In the last 60 plus years, the Burmese are renowned for using the tactic against all the ethnics with ‘Divide and Rule’. The Ethnics’ admirable characteristics of simplicity, loyalty and easily trusting others have been abused again and again for decades. This is why the ‘Divide and Rule’ tactic of the Burmese authoritarians towards the ethnics has been very effective in the past. Whatever weakens the Ethnics also weakens the chances of democratic change, as these go hand in hand. Not only has the ‘Divide and Rule’ policy been effective with the Ethnics but also with those who are striving for democracy among the Burmese people themselves, such as the NLD party and other political parties in Burma.
The Karen splits began at the end of 1994 and early 1995. While the Karen National Union (KNU) headquarters in Manerplaw was facing an enormous military onslaught from the Burmese army, some leaders at KNU headquarters mistreated and wrongly judged their own soldiers—causing not only a split, but also the fall of Manerplaw. Since then, the Karens have been split into many groups, one after the other.
This has become a pattern in our history for three reasons:
- The Burmese ‘Divide and Rule’ policy, coupled with bribes.
- Weakness within our own Karen Leadership
- The simplicity and loyalty of Karen people being abused by our own poor leadership
Many Karen today are tired of seeing division within their own ranks, and their desire is to see all Karen united. During the KNU’s 15th Congress, the KNU announced that all Karen should unite, but they also said Karens must unite under the leadership of the KNU political organisation. By asking all other Karen groups to come together under their organization, the KNU demonstrated that they think they are superior. This in itself is wrong, and their approach is no different than the Burmese authoritarians. The KNU have adopted the Burmese regime’s dictatorial spirit. In reality, this will never unite the Karens. True unity can only take place if there is a common goal and a showing of respect to all Karen groups. The KNU should learn to apologise for their poor leadership, which is what caused the splits in the first place. No one is perfect, and we can all learn to forgive one another. If we don’t treat our own Karen with equality and respect, then how can we expect equality and respect from others.
At the beginning of 2010, I reminded the KNU before meeting with the Burmese authoritarians that we should concentrate on unifying all Karens first before meeting with the Burmese. However, the KNU rejected our request for unity among the Karens first, and thinking big of themselves the KNU rushed into meeting with the Burmese authoritarians rather than prioritizing unity among our own Karen. Whether this was intentional or unintentional, without efforts to unify the Karen there can never be true peace.
Many times when we are in leadership positions we commonly mistake that we think we can make no mistakes, like God. However, being in a leadership position, we have to accept that we are more tempted to make a mistake than ordinary people due to the misuse of power and the pursuit of self-interest and self-glory. This attitude and motivation clouds our vision and hinders our goals of freedom and the realization of a great future for our nation. This kind of leadership can be found in all Karen groups. The Karen have to consider what kind of leadership they want and they have
the right to choose their leaders. Under bad leadership there will always be splits. Only under good leaders who not only care for the people but also have the vision, integrity and high morals can the Karen truly be united.
For a year now, I have studied and deliberated how we can unite under one name and a common goal. I have presented my concept to all the Karen groups and one thing that encouraged me is they all agreed to unite.
After discussions with leaders of all the Karen groups; Gen. NaKham We; Gen. Nerdah Mya; Gen. Baw Kyaw Heh; Col. Tiger; and all other military commanders from all the groups, everyone agreed to unite under the original identity of all Karen: Kawthoolei. One common thing all the Karen groups have is a desire to once again be united as a people. Kawthoolei is not a political party or an umbrella organization; it is the identity of all Karen. It is in the interest of all Karen and our common national pride.
When we announced Kawthoolei for the purpose of uniting all Karen, some Karen leaders who are pro-Burmese made a noise that they don’t agree, they don’t know, or they don’t want to sign up to join under the Kawthoolei banner. This is understandable because those who have a national interest in freedom for our Karen will totally agree, but those who do not are the ones who have betrayed their own Karen. Every Karen has the right to stand up and do the right thing for their own people, but when doing the right thing there is no need to ‘request permission’ from anyone. One of the principles of Saw Baw U Gyi is: Karens must decide our own destiny. We do not let the Burmese authoritarians decide our Karen future or rely on the Burmese authoritarians’ peace program to realize a good future for the Karen. A good future for us Karen will not arrive or be realized through the actions of others.
The majority of the citizens of Burma have oppressed under a notorious military regime and its government since 1962. Kawthoolei is not narrow-minded just for our own Karen.
Kawthoolei also has a much broader purpose and firm objectives without compromise:
- Unifying all Karen armed forces
- Working with all Ethnic armed forces
- Working with all Democratic parties in Burma
The above 3 main objectives are designed to make Burma a true Democratic Federal Union that leads to long-lasting peace for all citizens in Burma.
A simple and effective strategy to overcome ‘DIVIDE AND RULE’ is to respond with ‘UNITE AND RULE’.
The purpose of this article is not to blame anyone, but rather to recognise our mistakes of the past and learn to become the good leaders which all Karens expect to possess the ability to gain freedom for our Karen people and lead us to a great future for this generation and generations to come.
Dr. Timothy Laklem has been the head of the KNU/KNLA Peace Council’s foreign affairs department since 2007, when Brig-Gen Htay Maung and his followers from KNU’s 7th brigade formed the KNU/KNLA Peace Council due to differences with other KNU leaders.