Thursday, September 10, 2009

Let's build a new army for Saw Ba U Gyi - By Zoya Phan

'Give me liberty or give me death’ read a sign at Manerplaw, which for many years was the headquarters of the Karen National Union (KNU). We have fight for our liberty, as if we don’t our people will continue to be killed, and our culture destroyed. If the dictatorship carries on like they are now there will be no Karen left in Burma. Faced with this choice, as Saw Ba U Gyi said, surrender is out of the question.

When Manerplaw was overrun by the Burmese Army there was much speculation about what it meant about the future of the KNU. Many observers predicted the end of the KNU, and the end of our struggle for liberty.

For myself, as a 14 year old child who had been born and brought up in Manerplaw, it seemed like the end of the world. It was a personal disaster for all of us who had been forced to flee for our lives, and seemed like a major disaster for Karen people and our struggle for freedom. I feared for the future, but there was no surrender. The struggle continued.

The recent media articles and comments about the fall of the 7th Brigade headquarters are very similar to what was written 14 years ago. Once again observers are predicting the imminent end of our struggle, and the demise of the KNU. Once again, they are wrong.

Predictions of the end of our struggle are nothing new. They were also made when we were forced out of Insein in 1949.

On 27th February 1950 Ne Win told a New York Times (an American newspaper) journalist that victory over the ‘insurgents’ would be completed by May that year. Fifty-nine years later he is no longer alive, but our struggle continues, we have not been defeated.

When we lost Toungoo, our first headquarters, in 1950, and when many of our soldiers were forced out of the Delta in the same year, again we were told the days of our struggle were coming to an end. The predictions were wrong then as well.

After 60 years of struggle, why do we keep fighting? Because as the slogan in Manerplaw said, we have a choice of freedom or death.

But it cannot be denied that the loss of 7th Brigade headquarters is serious. It has humanitarian, political, military and financial impacts. It is likely that the military attacks by the Burmese Army, and their DKBA allies, will continue. We are outnumbered and outgunned. The brave men and women of the KNLA and KNDO continue to risk their lives and suffer hardships to protect our people. We don’t have the people or resources to force the Burmese Army out of Kawthoolei, and thousands of us have been forced to flee thousands of miles from home. But there are other battle grounds we can and must fight on, and those of us in exile have the opportunity, and responsibility, to do so.

In 1950 Saw Ba U Gyi, founder of the KNU, was killed in an ambush by the Burmese Army. But he was not on a military mission at the time. He was on his way to Thailand. He wanted to go to Bangkok, where many journalists and diplomats were based, and make sure the whole world knew about our struggle. He understood that we needed international pressure as well as fighting and organising to defend our people.

Fifty-nine years later we must follow in the footsteps of Saw Ba U Gyi. We must follow the strategy he did not live to implement. We must mobilise the international community to take action.

Under the leadership of Naw Zipporah Sein we have seen the KNU increase its international advocacy. Statements responding to new events have raised the profile of the KNU, and ensured our voice, and the truth about what is happening to our people, is reported in media and reaches governments and the United Nations.

The resettlement programme means that Karen people now have a new army. Perhaps as many as 40,000 Karen are now in western countries. This army must fight on the battleground of the international community. We must raise awareness and lobby governments and the United Nations to take action. Our voice can now reaches places and people that they never could from the Delta, from the mountains of Kawthoolei, and from the camps on the border.

Earlier this month Karen from across Europe came together to form the European Karen Network. Karen people are organising in the USA, Canada and Australia.

We know that advocacy can make a difference. In Britain, thanks to campaigning, the government has increased funding to refugees, and has started to fund the Mae Tao Clinic. The British government has also raised the situation in Eastern Burma at the United Nations Security Council, and recently the European Union made its first ever public statement about attacks on the Karen. Much more needs to be done, but these are important first steps.

We would all rather be back home in a free and democratic Burma, when we can freely be Karen without fear of death or persecution. But as my father, Padoh Mahn Sha Lah Phan, said, freedom won’t be given to us. We will have to work for it. We must keep working for it even if we are thousands of miles from home, and perhaps we have even more responsibility to do so than when we were in Burma or on the border. We have more freedom and opportunities now.

Let’s build a new army for Saw Ba U Gyi, thousands of Karen around the world forcing the international community to take notice, and take action. Wherever we are, we will continue the struggle. We will never surrender. The Karen will be free.

Published in (Karen Language) August 2009