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The 61st Karen Revolutionary Day was celebrated by its protagonists at a secret encampment several hours walk from the Thai border, amidst hope that this year will see their fortunes change.
Last year was tough for the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and its political wing, the Karen National Union (KNU). The group saw the loss of the former base of its 7th Brigade in June last year. But Colonel Ner Dah Mya, the commander of the 6th Brigade and son of the late and highly revered commander, Bo Mya, talked of renewed vigour and hope that several issues can bring about a change in fortunes.
There are already suggestions that the renegade Karen splinter group, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) are not happy with the way their border guard agreement with their master, the Burmese junta, is progressing. Initially they were promised dominion of Karen state. Recently however it has transpired that they will be assimilated into the Burmese army and have been asked to remove their current badges, reneging on the initial promise by the junta. This threatens to heighten desertions in an already fractious, and ideologically diffuse, organization.
The Colonel chose unity as one of his major topics in a speech he gave to his audience under the awning trees that circuit the 6 Brigade camp, high in the hills of Karen state: “We have not reached our ultimate goal yet because we have been less united,” he said.
The pain of divide and rule was very evident for Ner Dah and his soldiers alike. “There is a black buffalo and a white buffalo and there is no conflict between each other. However, there is a rabbit that went to the black buffalo and said to the black buffalo that the white buffalo does not like you anymore. Then the black buffalo said ‘I did not do anything wrong to the white buffalo. Why he does not like me?’ Then the rabbit went to black buffalo and said the white buffalo does not like you.”
In interview Ner Dah confessed that the day the KNLA and DKBA split was “the blackest day of my life. It felt like you couldn’t trust anyone anymore”. Tactically the commanders know that with the DKBA back they could be a much more potent force, but one soldier who did not want to be named spoke frankly to DVB when he said: “I don’t want them back, I just want to fight them.”
The KNLA meanwhile, Ner Dah reveals, is forming special units, not assigned to any battalions, with free reign to “strike where it hurts”. They are formed of some of the most elite troops in the ranks of the Karen forces, although the colonel is vague on particulars for tactical reasons. Hope however appears to rest on secretive, yet powerful, young shoulders; it is hoped that innovation can drive this Karen nation towards its long-fought for goal of self-determination.
While morale seemed high in the jungle hideouts of the KNLA, with faith and fervent pride driving the revolution as it has for 61 years, there are the ever-present shortages. “We really need guns and equipment”, a captain told DVB.
One ardent belief of the KNLA remains its insistence upon what it interprets as purity, as symbolized in the white of the Karen flag. They are perhaps one of the only armed groups in Burma that does not extort money from the drugs trade, and actively fights against it. Although a significant day for all Karen people, and indeed a celebration, the usually ubiquitous alcohol is nowhere to be seen.
Ner Dah’s father Bo Mya was a convert to the Seventh Day Adventists, a Christian congregation who have a strong adherence to notions of health and purity. This combines on Revolution Day with a strong sense of liberation theology; pastor Ja Jo combining a serious historical message with charisma, the stage presence of a circus ringmaster and the doctrines of Christ. His scathing ruminations on the British betrayal of the Karen had several foreign reporters quaking in their boots, but left the gathered civilians and soldiers laughing, and lapping up their redemptive qualities.The gruff soldiering is there in bucket loads with some of the KNLA, but admirably there is also a stomach to fight on, and to keep to the tenets of the first KNU president, Saba U Gyi, even after their record-breaking lengthy struggle. Whether this hope springs from a true belief that this year will see a change of fortunes, or whether it is borne of the pain of occupation, it is not clear. But the comradeship displayed on this vital day no doubt fires these people to fight for themselves, and the winning smiles they see gathered with them in adversity.